On Friday 20th October I attended the Ethical Consumer Conference, to learn how I can be a more engaged and active conscious consumer! The conference is organised by Ethical Consumer magazine, which helps consumers to make informed choices based on their personal ethics by rating brands according to their ethical credentials. The theme of this year's conference was “Challenging Corporate Power” which often seems impossible as an individual consumer, so I was looking forward to meeting like-minded people and hearing some positive messages.
The day started with a short presentation by Rob Harrison, the founder of Ethical Consumer Magazine, about its work challenging corporate power. We’re all aware of the global power of big corporations, but did you know that some have an annual turnover greater than the GDP of most countries? If Walmart was a country, it would be the 22nd richest in the world! Corporations tend to focus on their short-term self-interest, and trade deals like TTIP, or media monopolies, can allow corporations to take control of democracies.
Ethical Consumer Magazine seeks to challenge corporate power, in part by simply informing the consumer. Their ethical indexes point out companies that are engaged in political lobbying or the funding of political parties. Rob explained that the magazine’s current policy was that corporations should have no place in our democratic process, but the idea of “lobbying for good” was going to be a recurring topic throughout the day; could consumers and politicians work with corporations to achieve positive change?
Next, we heard from Richard Wilson, the founder of Stop Funding Hate, and Sean Dagan-Wood from Positive News, who spoke about how consumers can challenge corporate media. Richard described how his campaign had come about after seeing negative headlines about immigrants on an almost weekly basis in the Daily Express, the Sun and the Daily Mail, coupled with a spike in hate crime. Even though the readership of these papers is dwindling, and most of us are boycotting those papers by default, we are still subsidising them by buying products or services from the companies that advertise with them.
Stop Funding Hate aims to persuade companies to stop advertising in these newspapers by gently suggesting that they wouldn’t want their products to be associated with hate speech. Richard talked about the importance of debating politely, and emphasising the values that we should be promoting instead; empathy, respect, civility and neighbourliness. By running a non-political campaign based on defending basic values, Stop Funding Hate empowers consumers to make a difference as part of a wider movement, and shows companies that funding hate doesn’t make economic sense. Publicity from Lego withdrawing advertising from the Daily Mail prompted similar action in other countries, notably in the US, where the ‘sleeping giants’ campaign persuaded many companies to stop advertising on far-right websites.
Sean from Positive News spoke about the importance of having a constructive voice in the media, rather than the destructive angle taken by a lot of newspapers. The focus of Positive News is to highlight good things that are happening in the world, but in a serious and relevant way, rather than trivial or lighthearted “and finally” news stories. The Constructive Journalism project is focussed on a high standard of reporting, and solution-focussed angles to stories, framing people as resilient, rather than victims.
Sean is seeking to challenge the assumption that news should always be about the things that are going wrong; in his view, the news should hold power to account, but a constant barrage of negative news stories is causing a drop in engagement with the news. These negative stories have a damaging impact on mental health, making us feel helpless and fearful. Positive news, on the other hand, can boost our wellbeing, giving us a sense of hope and optimism. The magazine is run as a co-operative, through crowdfunding, meaning that it truthfully reflects the values of its owners. This is a difficult time for the newspaper industry, and Sean advised us all to support the media that takes an approach that mirrors our values.
Hanna Thomas from SumOfUs gave an engaging presentation entitled "10 things every corporate campaigner should know" with tips on creating a focal point for your campaign and getting media attention, how to exploit a company’s weak points (subverting their branding, appealing to the financial interests of their shareholders and pressing the advantage of bad publicity), and how to ensure the success of your campaign. She spoke about the importance of getting your facts right so your campaign is seen as legitimate, and the advantage of forming diverse coalitions with other campaign groups to amplify your voice and get through to a corporation’s target demographic. She also emphasised the value in celebrating corporations for getting it right, as it reinforces their willingness to make positive changes in the future, and finally, the need to live your values by avoiding replicating the bad behaviours you are campaigning against.
My chosen workshop session for the morning was "how consumers and campaigners can constructively engage with corporations". Paul Monaghan, the CEO of Fair Tax Mark, told us some of the lessons he had learned over years of campaigning:
- Framing matters: never make your idea sound radical or ‘lefty’
- Framing matters: your image and tone are part of your message
(I’m good at one of these and terrible at the other!)
- You can't just be against something, you have to stand for something
- Indexes and awards drive companies to change
- You’re only successful if you get past the PR department!
We discussed our experiences of campaigning in small groups; I shared what I had learned from taking part in Fashion Revolution Week; I definitely didn’t succeed in getting past the PR department when I asked H&M “who made my clothes?” but another attendee pointed out the growing reach of the social media campaign since it started, as well as the fashion industry’s new transparency index which seems to be driving change. We all agreed that persistence and a positive attitude were also key to campaigning; it just isn’t possible to change company policy with a tweet!
After a delicious veggie lunch and an opportunity to browse the stalls of some ethical businesses, we heard from Paul Ellis, the Chief Executive of Ecology Building Society, about the challenge of providing financial services that serve people and the planet rather than corporate interests. I hadn’t stopped to consider ethical financial services, but as Paul pointed out, unethical banks were responsible for an artificial housing boom and the financial crash that followed, with their complex products disguising the severity of the problem until it was too late. The Ecology Building Society is working with London Community Land Services to fund affordable homes and incentivise sustainable lending. The perception that this business model is more risky is not borne out in reality, but value-based financial institutions need the support of ethical consumers! Something else to add to my long-term sustainable lifestyle to-do list!
My chosen afternoon workshop session was Ethical Bloggers skillshare, run by Emma Oddie, and Sian Conway, the founder of the Ethical Hour Twitter chat, which has introduced me to lots of like-minded ethical consumers and has improved my experience of Twitter immeasurably! Hopefully Emma’s advice will lead to a marked improvement in my blog posts (I’m trying to write shorter sentences, I promise!), but both speakers gave great overall advice for anyone trying to raise awareness or campaign on any issue. Sian stressed the importance of being an engaged member of the community and adding value (whether that community is based online or offline), while Emma emphasised the power of a positive message; changing people’s minds by engaging readers in your passion, focusing on solutions rather than just pointing out problems. Hopefully that’s what I’m doing here; I’m always delighted when someone tells me that my blog has prompted them to take good care of their clothes or attempt an upcycling project.
The final session of the day was four short presentations and a panel discussion about corporate lobbying. First to speak was Claire McCarthy, the CEO of the Co-operative Party. She believes that mixing business and politics doesn’t have to be negative; by focusing on their values and principles rather than short-term commercial interests, and showing leadership rather than demanding action from others, corporations can make a positive difference.
Paul Monaghan pointed out the need to take a nuanced view of the role of corporations in modern life; a lot of multinationals might be a positive influence in some areas of public life (for example, environmentally friendly innovation), while being a negative influence in others (e.g. tax avoidance). He made a compelling case that ethical businesses could lobby successfully for progressive public policy.
Vicky Cann from the Corporate Europe Observatory described how big businesses have more access to government representatives than anyone else, and how they can use this influence to shape policy and evade responsibility. She wants to see more transparency and better freedom of information rules to make sure that decisions are made for the good of the citizens of a country, not for corporate interests.
Finally, Nick Dearden from Global Justice Now outlined the problems with current trade deals that enable big businesses to lower standards because they have the power when a deal is being negotiated. These deals (like TTIP) erode our democratic rights and make profit the focus, at the expense of everything else. His vision for better deals would include built-in guarantees that standards would go up rather than down, and a move towards co-ops and away from monopolies and privatisation.
The Q&A, unsurprisingly, was very Brexit-focussed, with the panellists split on the need for a second referendum, or the need to push for a positive future outside the EU that puts people before profit. The EU is vulnerable to lobbying by corporations, but it’s also where some of our most progressive consumer legislation comes from, and the lack of coherent policy on Brexit meant that there were no clear answers.
I consoled myself afterwards with a glass of wine and the company of other members of the Ethical Hour community. It was lovely to put faces to the business accounts I interact with every week, and to chat to other people who are living their values. If you’re interested in finding out more about Ethical Hour, you can join in the chat on Twitter from 8-9pm on Mondays using the hashtag #ethicalhour ; hope to see you there!