On 20th of October I headed off to the Ethical Consumer 2017 conference in London with my good friend and colleague Mark.  It is the third year I’ve attended and this years theme – Challenging Corporate Power in a Changing Political Landscape – really hit the button.  Where Does It Come From? has a key ethos of enabling customers to buy products that meet their ethical criteria, rather than feeling pushed into shopping from brands that are not transparent on human rights and environmental issues.

Check out this video with highlights from the day:

 

Challenging Corporate Power

The morning kicked off with an introduction from Ethical Consumer Magazine Founder Rob Harrison who talked about the size of large corporations – often bigger financially than nations (see photo) – and how we can either combat or harness this power.  Should we break huge businesses up?  Should we limit their powers to fund political parties and lobby against social and environmental protections that curtail their ability to make money? Or should we demand more transparency so that we know what companies stand for and put their money into, which would could then play a part in our buying decision (or not)?

Changing the News

The next two speakers, Richard Wilson from Stop Funding Hate and Sean Dagan-Wood from Positive News, were among my favourites of the day.  Publications such as The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express are well known for their emotive and sensationalist headlines that stir up division and blame, but what can we do about it?  Well it turns out that these papers could not exist without their advertising budgets – not that many people actually buy a copy (more people follow Gary Lineker on Twitter it turns out – random fact…..).   So we as consumers need to tell the businesses that advertise with them to stop!  If you are on twitter and visit @StopFundingHate  you can find out daily who is advertising in these publications and you can contact them directly.  What a great idea!  I also liked the fact that Richard and his team now work with businesses to evolve their media strategy.  They’re not just telling them what not to do but actually helping them to change too.  Sean’s talk about the creation of news publication ‘Positive News‘ (check it out if you haven’t already!) which evolved from the concept of offering an alternative to the current news ethos that ‘bad news sells’.   Positive News was set up by crowdfund, the world’s first co-operative media outlet, and so is owned by its community (of which I am one!).

Harnessing the Individual

ethical consumerThe next speaker, Hanna Thomas of SumOfUs, talked us through how the organisation harnesses public feeling to get messages across to big business and government.  Using a corporate’s own branding and levering consumer power through petitions and campaigns  is a fantastic way to get people involved and feel that they are making a difference.  And they are – SumOfUs has already had success in holding corporates to account – check out their website (www.sumofus.org) to find out more and join in.

Making Money Talk

After some workshops and a delicious buffet lunch (ethical of course!) we listened to Paul Ellis, Chief Executive of the Ecology Building Society, on the challenges of running a financial institution that is not for corporate interests but to benefit people and planet.  His view that they see themselves as a pressure group masquerading as a Building Society was very refreshing!

Using Corporate Lobbying for Good

Afternoon sessions focused on corporate lobbying and included Claire McCarthy, CEO of the The Co-operative Party  and Paul Monaghan, the CEO of the Fair Tax Mark, talking about how corporate lobbying can be used for good.  Paul is a very engaging speaker (another of my favourites) and put forward the view that progressive businesses can lobby for the legislation needed to make positive change.  With a growing number of social enterprises, over 70,000 in the UK currently across all business sectors, this pressure will grow and can start providing a balance.

Corporate Brexit and Trade Deals

With Brexit taking a lot of attention in all of our minds, that last two sessions focussed on Europe and trade deals more generally.  Vicky Cann from Corporate Europe Observatory talked about the need to expose corporate lobbying in the EU (She had some great cartoons!) and Nick Dearden from Global Justice Now gave an extremely interesting talk on trade deals including TTIP and CETA.  Never before did I think that a talk on trade deals would have my full attention but it was fascinating – the key point being that trade deals have massively changed.  No longer are they about the commodities being traded but now they are more about enabling corporate businesses to have more say in people’s lives than the governments of the countries in which they live.  For example if a business finds that a government’s law is restricting their sales capability eg. if they don’t allow certain chemicals to be included in food, then according to some of the newer trade deals the business can sue that government for impeding their business.  This is already happening – see this Guardian article from 2015.  To have your voice heard do visit the Global Justice Now website and see how you can get involved.

Talking It All Over….

ethical consumerAfter all that excitement it was time for some networking!  It was wonderful to catch up with other ethical business colleagues and continue discussions.  Actor Mark Rylance who was attending the conference was unfortunate enough to be plied for several selfies, including this one with three ethical business leaders  (well we can’t be serious all the time).  Networking continued into the local pub and into the evening with other ethical businesses, friends from Ethical Hour and members of the Ethical Consumer Magazine Team – we all put the world to rights!

If you’d like to find out more about the conference just visit the Ethical Consumer Magazine website where there are video and audio downloads from the day.