Interview by Anthony Murray: Being a socially-conscious design co-op, Calverts must prefer the ethical projects more, but do you find you’re widening your scope during this tough economic period?
Sion Whellens: No, we aren’t taking on previouly untouchable clients or projects. Calverts is a SEE Company — Social, Ethical and Environmental Transparency — but we don’t use much ethical shorthand in our marketing. Every firm is ethical according to its own lights. Calverts’ USP is business with a co-operative attitude.
AM: How is the co-op model responding to the current downturn in business?
SW: Our defensive strengths are solidarity and the social brand. Calverts hasn’t had any layoffs or wage cuts yet, but we think the crisis has a long way to go. The proof of the model will be if people use it to combat the new austerity and exploitation. That’s why the Movement needs to invest heavily in co-op green shoots — start-ups and development.
AM: You are the founder of the Principle Six networking group, can you tell us more about the initiative?
SW: It’s taking a long time for the penny to drop; learning referral networking skills takes time and imagination. P6 events happen fairly regularly, but we haven’t yet broken many corporate barriers between big and small co-operatives. It’s shocking how obtuse business people can be when it comes to recognising an open goal.
AM: In this spirit, does Calverts work with any other co-ops?
SW: We collaborate with firms like Co-operative Web and Wave Design; we buy from Suma and Paperback; we count co-ops among our clients. But the goal of P6 is not so much intertrading, as identifying and referring potential opportunities for other co-op businesses.
AM: You have your fingers in many co-operative pies, one of your roles is representing worker co-operatives on Co-operatives UK’s board. Is the sector as strong as it should be and how do you respond to the Coalition’s plans to hand more power to the people through worker co-operatives?
SW: Mmm, pies! The UK has some of the most radical worker co-ops in Europe, but the 20th century eclipse of ideas around common ownership, the consumer co-operatives’ pact with Fabianism and other peculiarly British historical factors have left us a far weaker force in the UK than we are internationally. We also have to contend with anti-democratic ideologies of employee ownership and participation. The Coalition’s brief expression of interest in worker co-ops was a red herring. We should focus on trying to make sure all workers in poor quality, unpaid or precarious jobs know of alternatives based on autonomous co-operation. There’s real potential for worker co-ops in the private sector, but I can’t see Stalinist-style state promulgated co-ops taking off here.
AM: London has possibly the most eclectic collection of co-operatives in the country covering industries such as media, transport, leisure, retail, housing and many more, as Vice Chair of Co-operatives London are there any other markets you’d like to see co-operatives enter?
SW: In London we’re diverse, but thin on the ground. Sometimes I wonder if the Movement at some point collectively decided to cede London to the capitalists. London markets I’d like co-operatives to enter? Green tech, retail, global finance, land, property, the sex industry, the governance of the country.
AM: Finally, Calverts and yourself have taken a shine to social media. Should co-ops be keeping up with the trends and can social media be used to reinvent the Movement?
SW: I’ve heard co-ops described as ‘the original social network’, but the real Movement is being reinvented all the time. Like every new technology, the internet is potentially revolutionary. All media are social. Some people want to use them for co-operative ends; others want to cash in or use them to extend arbitrary social power. This affects us all, it’s not something we have any choice about keeping up with.
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