January 5, 2008
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Today I bought a load of ‘environment’ magazines for a work thing (don’t ask). It wasn’t easy – partly because I was carrying three large saucepans from John Lewis (including a proper poaching pan, ohhh come here to me, proper poached eggs) that I wasn’t bright enough to buy last – and partly because, well, environment magazines? What the hell are they? If they’d said ‘bring in lifestyle magazines’ that’d be no problem. Vogue, Vanity Fair, blahblahblah. Sport magazines. Current affairs magazines. But no, it had to be environment. And even in the Oxford Street Borders, with the self-proclaimed largest magazine selection in the country, I could only find three and one of those was the BBC’s Wildlife mag.
Anyway, one of the erstwhile publications I picked up was ethical consumer. They rate lots of products and services according to their ‘ethiscore’ ranking system. Apparently they just lopped Abel & Cole‘s ranking because they’ve sold a part of the business to a private equity company, the justification being that the private equity company in question also invests in a number of ethically uncertain businesses.
This is such bollocks. Now, I’m no fan of private equity companies and their (lack of) tax payments, and their reputation for asset stripping may or may not be entirely deserved – but that’s also only when a private equity company takes over a business completely, which is not what’s happening in Abel & Cole’s case. What private equity companies can do is provide investment for businesses to grow. Gosh! Abel & Cole might be able to increase their reach and bring organic food to more people at a time when the diet of the nation is facing increasing criticism! Shocker! This in turn means more revenue for organic farmers, at a time when many farmers are going out of business! Cripes! Abel & Cole have started to invest in UK organic farmers themselves – notably an interest free loan to an apple grower in East Sussex – so increased profits for A&C means extra growth for organic food!
ethical consumer says: "But the bottom line is that when you now buy something from Abel & Cole, some of your money could be going to support Phoenix’s [the private equity firm] other business interests". This is undoubtedly true. But let’s look at the bigger picture. Would ethical consumer prefer all ‘green’ businesses to struggle along, only using ‘organic’ *ahem* customer growth? Companies don’t get big that way, or it takes a bloody long time. Isn’t it a good thing that ‘green’ companies get big, to be in a position to bring greener products and services to a larger number of people? And also, isn’t it a good thing that these private equity firms and larger parent companies are taking an interest in buying stakes in ethical companies? It shows that ethical goods and services have got a real foothold in the market and are here to stay, not to be written off as fads. Doesn’t it also show that these larger companies have woken up to the ethical concerns of the consumer? Although their wider efforts might be largely greenwash at present, by having genuinely ethical companies within the parent portfolio genuinely ethical practices can be learned. It’ll be the way to make money in the future – more and more customers and stakeholders are questioning companies’ ethical credentials, they need to learn it somewhere. Or would ethical consumer prefer the small ethical companies to remain like cottage industries, never breaking out into the mainstream and standing on the sidelines, wearing hand-woven sweaters and eating kale, smugly finger-waving at everyone else? It’s attitudes like this that make the ordinary person on the street think they can never be ‘green enough’ so why bother?