Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Are you a citizen or a consumer?

Over the past ten years the growth of charities and business have both remained static. The growth of social enterprise - the businesses with a foot in both camps - has shot through the roof. I reckon this is a telling sign of the times.

In fact, I can't help but wonder if we're all just a bit over it. Over the whole capitalist, American Dream thing that is. Perhaps we're after a life with a bit more substance? Is such a thing possible? Could it be that we're after a greater reward than simply financial remuneration? I think there is a growing trend in this direction.

For me, it raises a question that I seem to be encountering a lot these days: can we be citizens AND consumers?

As someone a few days ago quite eloquently pointed out, we live in a world where we have stronger connections with brands than we have with our neighbours. How much of your behaviour is that of a consumer vs. citizen? It's a very intersting aspect of modern life. Even more so when we consider the great sway towards greater citizenship within society today.

The combination of our shift in desire and the shift in business patterns is a fascinating cocktail.

Because if there is a social back-to-basics desire in society for us to feel less like a consumers, more like a citizens. And there's a general trend towards people doing work they believe in and find personally fulfilling and then trying to make money out of it. Then surely there is an interesting segue between these new businesses and the citizens they communicate and engage with. Yes?

This thinking really starts to get juicy when we think about what this could mean for government - especially in times of financial (ahem) uneasiness. Where government fails us or simply has its hands tied, perhaps ethical business can step in?

If this all sounds like a hippy pipe-dream then think again.

I listened to the radio for about an hour yesterday and heard two stories which fit this mould.

First there was a debate discussing the possibility of licensed premises in areas with a high rate of alcohol-related crimes being made to contribute to the policing of these areas. If a business is going to make money from selling alcohol to people in an area known for alcohol-related crimes, perhaps these businesses should use part of their profit to counteract these crimes? This could be a great example of businesses selling to consumers and caring for citizens.

Second there was discussion around the climate change bill, where one member of parliament suggested that instead of penalising people for not being green, he would rather work with business to reward people for being green. Again, the example here would be rewarding consumers for being good citizens.

Either way, business is changing and people are changing too. And it looks like the businesses of the future will be built around citizenship will be tantamount to creating business success.

Imagine, using the first example, a pub opening in your neighbourhood that chose to use a percentage of its profits to ensure its patrons were safe as they arrived and left their premises. I bet the citizen in you wants to buy a pint there next time you're out.

I'd love to hear your thoughts - especially if you disagree.

Congratulations to our winners

This month Time Out announced the winners of their shopping awards.

Of course, no list of the best shops in London would be complete without a liberal sprinking of Unchained stores.

We'd like to say a big congratuations to all the Unchained stores who were nominated for the awards. You make us very proud.

For the full list visit http://www.timeout.com/london/shopping/features/4879/Time_Out_Shopping_Awards_2008.html

Don't forget to add recommend your favourite Unchained stores to us if they're not already in the guide.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

A right pig's ear

Following on from Lea's last post, this is how bad things have got for pig farmers. I don't know if you've seen the above poster recently, or even been compelled to visit their site pigsareworthit.com, but the situation these guys are in is awful. Many of the farmers have been struggling on because the farm is their inheritance. Their great grandfather started pig farming over a century ago and if they quit they will be letting several generations down. But how can they continue when they're losing money on every pig they sell?

The farmers are in this situation because the price of grain has more than doubled in the past year. And yet the supermarkets are keeping the pressure on the farmers to keep prices down while they still make a healthy margin.

I don't see how this situation can continue. Are we going to lose our agricultural industry in the same way as we lost manufacturing? And what can we do about it? Is this our government's responsibility or do we need a different approach?

Monday, 12 May 2008

What shape is your food chain?

I remember learning about the food chain when I was a kid.

I grew up in JHB so my education may differ slightly from the British way, but I'm quite certain the principles that underpinned the food chain were the same: all creatures enjoy the abundance of the land and then become part of this land for creatures that are bigger, stronger and wiser.

In the year 2008, in the first part of what looks set to be an enduring recession, I see a food chain that's very different. And big business is perched right at the very top.

Most of us (certainly every person I know) rely on business for their most basic human right to food. In fairness, I am yet to meet a self-sufficient allotment-owner, (and if you are one do drop me a line). As for everyone I have met, we rely on the businesses around us to stock (or over-stock as the case may be) our fridges and feed our children.

For as long as I can remember this has been part of life's natural course. No big deal. But now, in this bizarre climate (both literal and economic) this little fact is making me feel more about more vulnerable.

Without these businesses, I would literally have no food. Other people I talk to are feeling the same. The lack of self-sufficience is scary enough. It's even more scary when viewed in the context of our current international economic meltdown.

Yesterday The Observer reported the huge and petrifying thrust of it:

Butter - up 60% since 2007
Beef - last year farmers lost £150 on every animal they sold
And bread - 7p in 1990 but you'll pay £1.15 for the same loaf today

If there's one lasting thing that I've remembered about the food chain it's the shape.

Not a graph with ups and downs, nor is it a big fat arrow pointing out of the local community.

The food chain was always represented as a circle. Human beings have seemed to have forgotten that they are part of a dynamic eco-system. What we put out there comes back to us - so it only stands to reason that by putting money in big business that takes our money away from us and towards shareholders in another country will reveal a shorfall sooner or later.

What do you think? Have you noticed things getting unreasonably more expensive? Where do you buy food and why? I'd love to hear from you.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Not my words

The Truman Brewery area on Brick Lane is a haven for independent shops and market traders. I noticed at the weekend that UniQlo opened a shop there. And I wasn't surprised to see that a budding street artists had something to say about it.