This year, The Point People has been holding a loose enquiry into a new type of economics. Inspired by Jennifer Armbrust’s The Sisterhood, and their feminist business principles, we’ve been delving into what a regenerative, caring, generous business model might look like. Far away from the race to the top, the eyes on the prize (pound sign) and limitless growth. It was suggested at a collective gathering in January, and on the verge of Government decisions of how to support businesses to go forward after the immediate shock of COVID is subsiding, it feels more necessary than ever. So as well as weekly The Point People sense-making and support calls during COVID, we’ve been exploring how energy within businesses can be channeled into something that can nurture (rather than extract from) ourselves and the planet. In this first blog, Abby sets out why they matter to her personally, and why she felt like The Point People should hold this conversation.
Part of systemic design (another enquiry we’re holding with Design Council), is about seeking out signals of the future now, and designing ways of bringing them together into a bigger whole (or a ‘glowing constellation’ as Cassie Robinson calls it), and showing this to the world so others can be inspired and join. So in that spirit, our first task (after checking with which of the feminist business principles resonated with us personally) was to share an example of a business that displayed them — translating abstract principles into tangible examples. The following is a list of them, with some tensions we see described at the bottom. As this is still an early exploration we broadened our thinking beyond just the business world, to draw from different initiatives working in this way — what is interesting about all of them is that care seems to be at their core. Then the next blog shows how we have unpacked metaphors around the current economic system, reimagined them, and translated them back into what new artefacts, rituals and systems could be…
Red Hen Collective
In the wine world, the wine producers produce the wine and harbour most of the risk but don’t get paid for 18 months which is extremely challenging for cash-flow. So Red Hen set out to pay the vineyards first, or on exchange of goods, or even prior to exchange of good. This allows the producers to have more flexibility so they can invest in more regenerative, environmental practices. What the Red Hen Collective didn’t forsee is that this one change — paying the vineyard first — has meant they had to reconsider the whole business model because the whole wine distribution system is based on paying the vineyards last, that the vineyards must take on the risk. If the producers are to be paid first then that risk must be taken on by others, and no one is willing to take it all on. It must be distributed through the system or navigated through more direct relationships with the people who are going to drink the wine.
Small Food Bakery
Small Food Bakery sell bread built on a completely different value system of nourishing every-being involved in that bread’s life, including the soil — they have completely different definitions of success. They offer alternative forms of exchange inviting customers to ‘barter with us, food is currency’. They also work with all players in the food system to build strong relationships and networks that allow for a new level of efficiency and nimbleness, supporting farmers who are using more ecological farming practices not just by buying their wheat but also creating menus that reflect the many different crops they produce and sharing the stories with customers. You can hear Kimberly Bell of Small Food Bakery talk more about her approach to redefining business in this episode of Farmerama.
The principles on which its founded are all about circular economy, interdependence, but also care and empathy and ease. For example, there are lots of people in the local community that are entitled to free school meals, so the owner made it really easy and natural for them to get those meals from the market, meaning it is really serving people living nearby. They also have a strong apprenticeship and experimentation approach, building skills and providing a springboard for local businesses.
Code for COVID
A network of 1,000 coders who gave their time, knowledge and experise for COVID related challenges. It was generative and generous.
First Things First 2020
An updated version of the 1960 manifesto, this online commitment brought designers together and commit to a set of social design values. The power of the many gave the manifesto credibilty and reach, as they then went out into the many businesses and professions they were part of to spread these principles further. A flock initiative.
Is a fashion centred research plan which aims to shift language and practice within fashion from growth logic to earth logic. Started by two professors, one from fashion and the other from design, it aims to bring together a series of researcch and experiements to transform the fashion industry.
An ethical fashion brand which has honesty as a core value. There is no photoshop. There is transparency about their incentives and their supply chain. In an industry where this is so competitive, they’re trying to be responsible and socially driven.
London Early Years Foundation
The London Early Years Foundation could be described as the Buurtzorg of the nursery sector. They invest in low income areas and cross subsidise from high income areas. They talk about purpose and how care is intrinsic to later success. An orgainsation that makes care valued.
Founded by one of our fellow Point People (Sophia Parker), it has feminist principles. It is generous in that it is about recycling good quality children’s clothes and toys to those who are struggling to afford them, and generative in that it also builds community by bringing people together across social and economic divides in a way that builds empathy. And through its volunteering programme it creates opportunities for people, including parents Little Village has supported, to grow new skills and networks. For Little Village, success is not measured by how far or fast it can scale the model, but instead in the long term by an end to child poverty, and in the more immediate term, by a shift in attitudes and beliefs about the causes of poverty.
As we discussed these examples, a number of questions and potential tensions came to us:
Feminine economy and language. We discussed that the words on the Feminine Economy diagram above felt potentially too tame but maybe words like fierce and warrior aren’t right either. So, what are new words for this economy? We explore some of these in our next post.
Resistance to growth. Feminist economy businesses don’t need to scale. For example, Little Village sees an ambition to scale as problematic: would it reinforce and prop up a system that has failed children for many years, by providing a sticking plaster over the ever-widening chasm of inequality? By framing its work as an intervention to shift the system, it keeps the focus on its work of building community, growing empathy and shifting unhelpful stereotypes. However this approach doesn’t always reflect the mindsets of investment models that equate success predominantly with scale and growth in more traditional terms.
Some of the B-Corps don’t fit. Overall the companies are socially minded, and can be really generative (for example hosting or sparking other organisations). But from what we know, some of the leadership styles don’t fit (often because of what is being asked of them by investors — see below).
Values versus behaviour. We know the behaviours of many women that we personally know in business innovation circles speak to all these qualities, but the language of start ups are about the standard structure of competition: growth, touching millions of people and scale. This is clearly a tension.