Sunday, May 21, 2006


I had long wanted to run my own business. Part of me thinks that if Richard Branson could get his Virgin empire started with Tubular Bells (the CD), then surely all I need to do is find that one product (or two) that is really worth selling.

When I learned about the harmful impact of conventional cotton growing on the earth, I knew had to do something. Coupled with my personal desire to cut down on non-essential paper usage, it all added up that organic cotton hankies are the one good earth-friendly product that I had been searching for. (Other earth-friendly products like string bags were added along the way.)

I am not a risk taker usually. So, silly me, you might say, but I actually went and bought goods unseen, bought website space when I knew nowt about designing websites, printed leaflets, bought advertising space, etc, to get the business going. I knew I had something 'worth' selling. Not only from the point of making a (small) profit, but in terms of making a difference to the environment.

The business has been trundling along quite happily. Despite the initial reluctance by this generation to try something not-so-disposable and the mythical 'yuck!' factor that cloth hankies seem to have acquired, the business was doing alright. I am proud to be the first and only person to bring organic cotton hankies to the UK.

Then a certain international conservation charity took interest in 'my' organic cotton hankies. My initial reaction was that this huge organization was muscling into my territory. I didn't like it. Surely they are going to undercut me.

Look at it positively, my supplier said. With their marketing clout, they could be doing us a favour. Knowing full well that there is no way they could do better than me when it comes to customer service, I went along and we talked about their stocking some goods from my range.

Then came the news that they do want to stock my goods. Why was I not jumping for joy?

I was sent a questionnaire not only on the goods concerned, with questions like content of recycled material in the packaging, is it covered by liability insurance, etc. I mean, these are hankies. Is someone likely to meet any danger using a hankie?

Of course, there's this case of a woman who went to the hospital, dropped a hankie and picked up the MRSA bug from using the same hankie. If people do not use their common sense, then what can you do? I won't ever use a hankie that I have dropped on the floor/ground. Would you?

The questionnaire also wanted to know: Have I got a corporate environmental policy? If so, please attach. Do we produce an annual environmental report? Are we certified to any environmental standards? Are we on a green energy tariff? etc, etc.

As the answer was 'no' to all but one of the questions (why did they not also ask me what kind of car I drive, or rather what kind of car I do not drive seeing that I usually walk or use public transport instead of taking the car?) I decided that this environmental charity is clearly not interested in doing business with 'small' producers and traders like me.

I source my products mainly from co-operatives who in turn source from other co-operatives. The whole ethos of our business is people and the environment.

We work on principles that allow women (especially) and other marginal people to work around the needs of their families (or disabilities) and at the same time make a positive difference to the environment. We believe in keeping alive the traditional skills like hand-weaving and keeping it a skill rather than moving the manufacture to large factories, etc. which is so easy to do for so long as you find a willing financier.

We work on the basis of trust. So if one organization says 'please do not undercut us' by selling their products on too cheaply or at a loss that would take retail business away from them, we comply, even when that means it is more difficult for us to shift our goods (ie we can't profit from a lower profit margin but gain from a higher turnover).

We think not only in terms of the monetary bottom-line here and now. We think also of the long-term impact of our decisions on people up and down the supply chain.

We do not have whole departments of university graduates vetting other companies' 'ethical policies'. What would their donors think if they knew that this organization makes it so difficult for people like me to jump through hoops they have set up and that effectively means 'little people' do not matter?

There is a place for bureaucracy of course, and yes, when dealing with other large corporations, putting would-be suppliers through this vetting process would present at least a veneer that this organization cares enough to make their suppliers comply to certain ethical standards.

But surely there is also a place in such bureaucracies for small traders? We do not sit in our offices all day long devising 'ethical sourcing policies' or 'environmental policies' just so to trade with other big corporations. We ARE the embodiment of these policies. We keep our organization structures flat and simple, awarding no one company cars, eg, to maximize efficiency and benefits.

The 'bottom line' is I felt well and truly bullied by this organization, whether or not they had intended this effect.

So, in return, I want to know what policies, if any, does this charity have in supporting and working with 'little people' like myself. Could they please attach a copy?

Looking at their website I realize that they now endorse some of the big names in businesses in return for grants from these companies to support their work.

You know how big corporations are now buying up fair trade and ethical brands. It seems to me every major food company now has some 'fair trade' brand in their stable and every bank has adopted some 'ethical' cause. Even big cosmetic companies are taking over fair trade and cruelty-free brands. Department stores and supermarkets are stocking fair trade goods to up their 'ethical credentials'.

The fact is, the size of this fair trade element or grants given to conservation projects are just a tiny insignificant fraction in the profits made by these corporations. But instantly it would take their 'ethical score' from zero to positive.

Why do big companies go 'fair trade'? Because it is worth it.

So consumers -- especially those who care for people and environment -- can decide for themselves: have these big corporations really bought and internalized the message that 'fair trade', 'organic' or 'ethical' are good for people and the environment in the long run? If so, why are these 'owners of the means of production' (to borrow a Marxian phrase) not using their economic clout to influence the style, manner and fabric of production?

Or have they simply used their resources to buy publicity and privilege?

Back to Organic-Ally.


Anonymous said...

You are so right. so many big companies have a fair trade option to make themselves look ethical but actually have no real ethics. If they were truely committed all their products would be fair trade not just enough to give consumers a choice. Cadbury have green and black and Nes have a fair trade option, this does not fool ethical shoppers, we know when a company has high standards and when they have not. unfortunatly the avarage shopper takes a product at face value - look into other womens shopping trollys - its an eye opener. So, how to fight back? Its hard, most of my friends know the truth but insist they have to make their housekeeping money stretch as far as poss - can you blame them? I try to shop as ethically as poss and be as green as I can but, part of me knows my family could have more treats if I gave in and bought as cheap as poss. The reason I give them is 'this family is not going to live off the back of another persons misery'. Its all I can do, is it enough? Lyd

LSP said...

This is a difficult one, isn't it? On the other hand, 'treats' are treats only if they are special, few and far between. It's funny. My mum used to provide us with fresh fruit all the time: local produce (papaya, pineapple, etc) and apples and oranges (somehow, standard in Singapore). For me as a young girl, a tin of fruit (usually lychees, or peaches) in syrup was a treat because it was different. We're still sparing with treats these days, but more for health reasons.