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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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News from the front-line

I rarely watch TV news. Actually I hardly follow the news at all. Once every couple of months I might pick up a paper (usually the FT because I like their style). Sometimes at the station with time to kill, I look at the newspaper headlines.

This is all because news depresses me. The endless negativity. The partisan nature of the analysis. The time it wastes. The way even sensible people are depicted as idiots – under the pressure of lights, time and deadlines, I’m sure it’s really hard to get a coherent and sane message out, let alone start a useful or enjoyable conversation, which I much prefer.

I studied the news. In fact, I wrote a dissertation about online news at the BBC. Actually, I confess, I worked for BBC News.

And overall I like the news journalists I have met. As a bunch they are bright (sometimes terribly bright), articulate, caring and funny people. I say caring because despite the bluster or detachment which they probably need to do the job, many, many are really caring individuals. I’m sure they care far more than me about global issues, politics, big business and all the really IMPORTANT things.

Things I grew up thinking were important anyway. Like many middle-class kids I was encouraged to read a newspaper. Although I never got beyond the little snippets in the inside pages – “thieves steal 1000 left-footed shoes”.

The major headlines: war, famine, earthquake, disaster – all these fascinated me in a way, but never really engaged me to do anything. Is that a terrible thing to say?

But when I watched the TV news (Channel 4) the other day, just to do something different, I really enjoyed it.

I was struck again by the sheer entertainment value of it. The great music. The amazing graphics. The tension. The suspense. The build-up. The baring of teeth. The bloody combat amongst the protagonists – “no holds barred”. The skill of the referee – goading and urging them on. The silky warm conclusion and the seductive invite to “join them again”.

And overall the absolute art of the piece – drawing me in, and pulling me to the front of my chair, hooking me in.

Like Damien Hirst’s work it may just be a cow cut in half. But, you’ve got to admit, it’s very well done.


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New ways to consume

Another solution to over-consumption is simply that we stop consuming so fast! Slowing down makes a lot of sense to me, especially when it leads to a better experience as in the Slow Food movement. Yum.

And another is to create a rental business.

One example that has been around a really long time is video rental. Why does everyone have to buy a video, causing one to be manufactured, when a perfectly good business model exists for renting them? As we have seen the model does work well – it’s stood the test of time and evolved from shops into postal rental services like DvdsOnTap which became Lovefilm and so on. Maybe it will be replaced by electronic downloads, but so far I am surprised by how resilient the model seems. Maybe there’s more to these services than just selling the same physical item over and over again?

Another more recent example are the car clubs popping up everywhere (Streetcar, WhizzGo, CityCarClub to name just a few). It’s the same business model – buy one car and let many people use it.

I wonder what other goods could be provided in this way?

If you do go down this route, of course, differentiating yourself becomes more interesting. It has little to do with the product itself – differentiation comes from the way the service is offered. It’s good therefore to see more and more consultancies emerging specialising in this area – I came across the Engine Group just today.


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Close the loop

On Saturday I saw again the great little animated film The Story of Stuff – “a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns” according to the blurb.

One of the solutions proposed in the film is closed-loop manufacturing, an idea pioneered by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in the early 1990s. Essentially closed-loop manufacturing does what it says on the tin, and you can find out more about their version of it, “cradle-to-cradle” or C2C Design on their website.

Well worth a look.


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Big business or small?

I said earlier that I am primarily interested in small and medium-sized businesses and what they can do. Does that mean that I am against big business, by which I really mean trans-national and multi-national corporations?

Of course not. I think big business is far too wide a term to rail against indiscriminately. I think there are good big businesses and probably bad ones too (the film “the Corporation”, based on Joel Bakan’s book, is a great awakener). And plenty in between.

I do think big business is different from small business. It seems to me that small business often starts from a position of “giving”. Many small businesses are set up initially to give something to someone else.

Big businesses seem to me to be small businesses that have grown (!), and often, somewhere along the way, they have also forgotten this central purpose. There are exceptions of course, and indeed corporate venturing in spin-offs or small teams often seems to try to reinstil this purpose.

But in general, this idea of serving the customer, or society, does seem to get lost. I don’t whether it’s because the founders left and all that remains is an echo of the original vision. Or maybe the pressures of being big and having so many stakeholders are just too distracting.

But really that’s why I like small business and think it’s important. It doesn’t have the reach, of course. But its flexibility, energy, and creativity make it very important as we face the opportunitities of sustainability. We need to innovate not just around products or services, but also around business models, and indeed even around the very purpose of business.

This seems to me to be something that small and medium-sized businesses are very well positioned to do.