Salter Lecture 2013 – Raising the Sails for When the Wind Changes

Ed Mayo

Back to the Salter Lectures page

This Annual Lecture is named after Alfred and Ada Salter, Quaker socialists a century ago who transformed residents’ lives and hopes in and around the South London quarter of Bermondsey. They imagined a future based on co-operation and social justice. It is the job of every generation, including ours, to do the same – to imagine.

Imagination is the most powerful tool that we have for social change. By re-imagining the world around us, we can put it together again in a different way – first in our minds, then in our stories and ultimately in reality. We have to invest in imagination. I describe this as raising the sails for when the wind changes. I will explain why in a minute.

But, first, let’s talk about the future. How do you feel about tomorrow? Are we moving into a world of greater risk, or a world of greater security?

To my mind, we are on the side of risk. Some of this risk reflects a world of complexity and potential opportunity – new technology, global networks, access to information and organizations that are adapting to new models of participation.

Other risks are less convincingly the flip side of opportunities. I fear that this is becoming an age of blame. Intolerance grows like knotweed through society and the economy. Outsiders, incomers, scroungers – cuts we had to make become cuts we are told we want to make. It is not just here. One Japanese cabinet minister attributed his country’s uncertain economy to the elderly suggesting that they should “just hurry up and die”.

We blame but show no signs that we are ready to take responsibility. So yes, we blame bankers too … though for a financial system that we were part and parcel of. We turn a moral blind eye to species loss and climate risk… unwilling to give a mandate for collective action. Many of us have argued that children are encouraged to become adult too young. But perhaps the reverse is also true – that public debate is infantilized, that the adult world is childish.

We have just over forty months to take action worldwide to prevent more than a two degree rise in temperature over time. The longer we delay, the faster the cuts need to become – the greenhouse gases that are forcing temperature rises stick around longer than we do. If we want to level off at no more than two degrees, then we have a choice.  We can grow the economy, or we can cut emissions and try and do so rapidly. It is increasingly clear that we can’t do both.

So, the big economic choices of our day are for an economy of prevention, a great transition to low carbon living within limits, or one of adaptation, a great disruption of coping, survival and loss. We hide behind the idea that it might not happen; that resource efficiency means that we don’t have to choose; that the pace of technology development and innovation will save the day. But with resource efficiency, when people save money, they spend it elsewhere, typically redistributing rather than reducing carbon emissions. It is called the rebound effect. And technology? The futurist Ray Kurzweil reminds us that the pace of technology is accelerating far faster than we assume. We will see, he predicts, innovation over the next ninety years that are equivalent to the last ten thousand. But for now, though, when perhaps it matters most, the thrust of technology change underpins high carbon as much as low carbon economic activity.

Whether we acknowledge it or not … or trust that it will fade away, I sense that there is a spirit of great sorrow on the edge of our every conversation about the future. The prevailing winds today are ones of intolerance, rather than of solidarity, ones of environmental hazard rather than of sustainability.

Now, imagination is about hope. But in the name of hope, we have to face down doubt and despair, no less than we have to challenge apathy. Let me now quote the words that inspired my title, which touch on this: “I certainly never feel discouraged. I can’t myself raise the winds that might blow us or this ship into a better world. But I can at least put up the sail so that when the winds comes, I can catch it.”

These are the words, thirty five years ago, of Fritz Schumacher. This was before the Schumacher family discovered Formula 1, you will understand. Fritz Schumacher was the author of Small is Beautiful. He was also the imaginative inspiration for a host of organisations that are still in existence today, including Schumacher College at Dartington in Devon, Practical Action and the New Economics Foundation.

So, where do want to sail to today? I want to be blown to a better world, to a world that is enabling for people, and conserving for resources and environment. Let me give you an example now of someone raising sails that align with this direction.

Becky John is the founder of a dynamic co-operative enterprise, called WhoMadeYourPants designed to create employment for refugee women in the UK. Born in Wales, Becky has been involved in work over many years with women’s rights. She developed the idea for an enterprise in 2008 after learning of a woman who was killed walking home from a sweatshop. ‘Who makes our clothes?’ she asked – or rather, stripping down to essentials, ‘who made your pants?’ WhoMadeYourPants is a worker co-operative, which is a democratic and highly participative form of enterprise.

Based in Southampton, those who work there are women who have recently migrated to the UK. They are the members and co-owners of the business.  The enterprise is one of the best known of a range of small-scale, high end fashion manufacturers coming back to operate in Britain. The products are manufactured out of discarded materials from the fashion industry and are sold online. You can follow Becky’s upbeat, passionate and inspiring view of the world on twitter via @beckypants

Raising sails in this way is hard work, of course. To make a business like this work, when you can buy cheap from Primark and forget the true costs, is tough. For every success story, there is a tightrope to walk, and another two or three that never made it.

Let me give you another sail raised first one hundred and forty years ago and still going strong. The Lincolnshire Co-operative Society operates only in Lincolnshire. It has 219,000 member owners and with 75 retail stores across the county, is run by a democratically elected Board. The profits are shared as dividends with members and money stays local, because co-operatives like Lincolnshire employ local people, are owned by local people and try to source from local firms that do the same.

Every pound spent in a co-operative store changes hands five times, at diminishing levels, until the final penny leaves the local economy. The co-op uses more than 600 local suppliers, who in turn are deeply embedded in the local economy, sourcing 75% of what they need from the local area. One example is Jenny’s Jams. Jenny started this as a kitchen table business – wonderfully tasty jams and chutneys from local fruit. Eighteen months ago, Lincolnshire Co-operative offered to list the produce and Jenny has moved to a workplace to build the business. A second example is Chapman’s Fishcakes, which offer the perfect combination of fish landed in Grimsby coated with Lincolnshire potatoes.

Overall, this means that Lincolnshire Co-operative, rather than generating profits for outside investors or national or even global suppliers, generates nearly £100 million annually for the local economy. More widely, according to the charity CPRE, local food sales in England now sustain 61,000 jobs. Spending in smaller, independent food stores supports three times the number of jobs than at national grocery chains. In tough economic times, buying local if you have the choice and chance is not just good for you, but good for those around you.

In America, this has developed into a ‘Principle Six’ consumer brand, which is attached to products that are: from local independent businesses; from member-owned co-operatives; or from fair trade producers further afield. Principle Six refers to the international co-operative statement of identity that makes co-operation a core way of doing business.

With fair trade, as with local sales, the money works harder. Three quarters of all fair trade is produced by farmer co-operatives, meaning that every producer has a voice and a share in the gains. I was one of the team that started the Fairtrade Mark over twenty years ago. It has now spread worldwide. At the time, our inspiration was ‘Woolmark’ as a symbol that conveyed trust in the split seconds that we have as consumers to make purchasing choices. You can draw your imagination from anywhere.

Now, I have talked quite a bit about co-operatives, so let me explain what we are. A co-operative is a business, owned by its members and there for no reason other than to serve their needs. If the language is confusing, then yes, we can say that co-operatives are a form of social enterprise, common ownership or responsible business – something that is run commercially but with people in mind. What is distinct about co-ops is that the people in mind are not passive beneficiaries. They have a say. They have responsibility.

For the last five years, since the credit crunch, the co-operative sector has outperformed the UK economy. Across the UK, co-operative turnover is now £35.6 billion. Since 2008 the number of co-operatives has grown by 23% and there are 13.5 million member owners of co-operatives in the UK.

The co-operative sector is bigger than you may think. Research that I led last year on global business ownership revealed that there are three times as many member owners of co-operatives as individual shareholders worldwide. There are 328 million people who own shares, compared to 1 billion who are member owners of co-operative enterprises. Even if you take indirect share ownership, in pension funds and life policies, there are more member owners of co-operatives worldwide. In the fast growing ‘BRIC’ countries of Brazil, Russia, China and India, the co-operative sector and its growth is even more extensive. The International Co-operative Alliance estimates that co-operatives employ 100 million people – more in fact than all the transnational corporations put together.

Uiuipi is a co-operative of craftsmen on Wimbe Bay on the northern coast of Mozambique that I first got to know six years ago. Their members were lone street sellers before, but police harassment got them both fired up and co-operating. The threat more recently has been from officials and outsiders who have tried to take their land from underneath them. I was able to visit them last year, alongside other co-ops and cultural projects. The shack has been their store for years and they are now moving to a brand new shop in a deal that they hope will grow sales and generate income for local people.

So, why do co-operatives like this matter? Let me tell you a fable that I heard in Mozambique, which is in turn an adapted version of one from elsewhere. A fisherman is lounging at the wharf and a financier comes up and asks why he isn’t out there fishing.

“I caught enough fish to share around yesterday. Today, someone else in the co-operative is fishing.”

“But if you fish more, the co-op could sell the extra fish and make yourselves more money.”

“Why would we want to do that?”

“With the money, the co-op could put down a deposit for a loan and buy more boats and hire the other people round here to man them.”

“Why would we want to do that?”

“Well, then you could make even more money and sell out to someone else – and then you can all retire.”

“Why would we want to do that?”

“Then you could spend your days lounging on the wharf and only fishing as much as you pleased.”

“But that’s what I’m doing right now.”

What we do well is to open up space for different ways of acting. Don’t stock goods from the illegal settlements in the occupied territories, for example, is the move last year by the Co-operative Group, building on its current policy. The top comments from online news-site Reddit when this went out were:

“I love the Co-op. It’s nice to see one major organization to attempt to put an ethical ethos at the heart of their business practices rather than simply living for profit margins.” bibs

“You know they do banking as well? And they refuse to invest in arms dealing. Pretty much every other bank profits from the arms trade in some way.” Jon327

“They also do funeral care, and arms dealing would create more funerals for them. That’s ethics at its finest.” WorstRedditDetective

“Also their caremalised onion chutney is really nice.” pyrexdish

In this lecture, I am interested to explore how we use this space for action. If I believe in the values of equality, of fairness, of love, how should I act? If I feel the loss of nature’s diversity and fear for the future of our human population, how should I act?

There is a tradition, long passed over, that offers an answer to this – that asks us to be both practical and imaginative, to be effective and authentic. This is the tradition of Robert Owen and William Morris, the tradition of Alfred and Ada Salter. It is the tradition of utopian action. It is a tradition, that, like the peace movement, tends to be written out of the script.

We might start with the radical writings of Quaker John Bellers in the seventeenth century. Who in turn helped to inspire Robert Owen, the father of co-operation and the man who, in 1827, is said to have coined the phrase ‘socialism’. His idea was that we are free to choose the social order that we live under, if we choose together.

In 1913, thanks to Alfred and Ada Salter, the Labour Co-operative Bakery was created. This started with a staff of 9 baking 5,000 loaves a week. By 1924, there were 100 staff baking 94,000 loaves a week – of good daily bread, unadulterated. They paid above the union rate with hours and conditions among the best of any.

There are Quaker hands throughout this tradition. Robert Owen himself was an atheist. His pioneering experiment at New Lanark, though, was taken forward by Quakers such as William Allen. Quaker enterprises grew in the early days, because good ethics was good business. But, of course, not all Quaker businesses were models of fair dealing – Bryant and May was instrumental in 1888 in the development of trade unions, for all the wrong reasons. It was the match girls that went on strike for better conditions and safety from the dreadful effects of white phosphorous. They were the ones with the imagination to change how business would work in future.

The term utopian dates back earlier, to the noble, beheaded Thomas More. But it was used by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto as a term of abuse. They contrasted ‘utopian socialism’ with what they called ‘scientific socialism’. This, in my view, was something of a dead end – like spending all your time modeling the wind, without knowing how to sail. A community activist on the left, Brian Davey, emailed me last week to say that “in all my years in radical movements I never once heard anyone say that ‘socialism’ would be ‘cultivated’, ‘facilitated’, ‘nurtured’ or ‘developed’. Socialism was always something that was going to be ‘built’. I tend to the view” he continued, “that when societies are ‘built’ what is usually happening is rather undemocratic.”

Now, don’t let’s over-focus on the term ‘socialism’. I use the word in respect as this is the Quaker Socialist Society Lecture – you are the experts.  I use it in the sense of Robert Owen, not Karl Marx. There are other traditions of social action that inform and inspire social change and other politics that have a claim to be heard. Either way, Brian’s point is about how we act. Rather than imposing a plan, we need the confidence and the patience to listen and respond in an open way to the timing and opportunities around us.

So, if we are to raise a sail for the winds to change, what are the essential elements that can help us succeed? There are four: the boat; the compass; the crew; and the skills. So, first, the boat. There are many more sails raised than along co-operative lines alone. But the co-operative sector is an interesting one as it is one of the most enduring social movements of our day. And it is important to focus on business and economic context, because the economy so clearly shapes the world around us.

The health warning of course is that we make no claim to be perfect. In business, it is hard to be a saint. As institutions, we are open to criticism and can learn from it.  But by and large we are open and I would argue that it is the value of openness that explains our capacity for renewal over time. If you are open, you can sense and respond to changes in the world around… to changing winds.

It was co-operative enterprises that first introduced an eight hour day in factories and a minimum wage. In 1929, the Co-operative Women’s Guild proposed the creation of a state-run national health service. We should hold dear our radical traditions. Guilds, restrictions on usury, just prices, democratic activism is who we are… it is today’s market fundamentalists who are not very British.

But timing is everything. After all, there is no guarantee that if you raise a sail, in the way I have described, it will coincide with the wind changing. It is wonderful to feel the wind change on your cheek at sea – the flapping of flags, the whip crack of the rigging. To have been a pioneer of women’s education, when women got the vote. To have been a demonstrator for a league of nations and see this come to life after the first World War. To have been a farmer developing de-centralised renewable energy co-operatives in Denmark in the 1970s, after the oil crisis struck.

But uncertainty on timing is part and parcel of social change. This is not a mechanical process. For co-operatives, as Jaroslav Vanek has written, this can mean being “a bit like seawater fish in a freshwater pond. The capitalist world has evolved its own instruments, political frameworks, etc. Economic democracy needs its own institutions.”

Sometimes, all that you can do is to create a lifeboat that helps to shelter and meet needs in a hostile environment. The best social innovations are ones that operate in this dual way. They meet immediate needs but also, with a following wind, offering transformative potential.

So, if it is a lifeboat, does the person who believes in the urgency of a system of monetary reform join a credit union? This is where the second key element comes in: a compass.

My suggestion is yes, because a credit union is a co-operative form of social organization that helps meet today’s needs, while illustrating how money could operate under a different set of rules. It is raising a sail for when the wind changes.

Does the person who is part of a co-housing project campaign for land reform or land rent taxation? My suggestion again is yes, because the principles that underpin a co-operative initiative like co-housing are the same principles that underpin wider reform of our deeply inequitable system of land in the UK.

I guess I am anyway not a great fan of the single issue advocate or single magic bullet. We are in complex times – we should be open to complex solutions. Open thinking and debate is not a trait that the UK is strong at. When it comes to economics, we are far from an open or liberal society. We have some astonishing and brilliant dissident thinkers that win no air-time, gain no credibility, prompt no debate because we have yet to win the argument that we can imagine the economy without neo-liberal spectacles on.

People like Robin Murray, who identifies innovation and changing patterns of economic organization as a permission slip for new models of co-operation.

People like James Robertson, a founder of the New Economics Foundation. James has explored a comprehensive programme of economic policy reform, based on the idea of the commonwealth. By commonwealth, we mean public goods, infrastructure, knowledge, nature and the commons… I would summarise James’ work as saying that our economy should operate as if such commonwealth were for the benefit of all and if you draw it down for private gain alone, you should pay for that use.  That simple, co-operative principle offers a rare theory of the state – as a guardian for the commonwealth – and opens up to policies rarely discussed in conventional circles: land rent taxation, monetary reform, energy taxation, a citizens income.

Or Juliet Schor, who has championed working time reductions as a route to a low carbon economy: more time, more quality, less work and less consumption.

Or Manfred Max-Neef, who with the New Economics Foundation, has helped to pen five principles, the Tallberg Principles, which should underpin our future economy. The five Tallberg Principles describe well the world that I would want to sail to. As I interpret them, they call for an economic system that is able to:

  • focus on human needs and our quality of life;
  • reflect equity for present and future generations;
  • offer a respect and reverence for all life;
  • be bound by eco-system limits; and to
  • allow for learning and innovation.

So, when I talk about a compass, my point and my talk here is not about policy, but about imagination.

The third key element is the crew. You sail in a crew, not alone. Your crew can sail with others. Well, that is the idea… It is true that sails don’t always join up and to see themselves as like-minded. Founders Spedan Lewis and Ernest Bader were both more outspoken on issues such as inequality than John Lewis Partnership or Scott Bader Commonwealth today – as inspiring as those enterprises are. Georges Fauquet (1873-1953) wrote that “[…] too often, we observe to which extent a social movement cease being a movement when it cuts the umbilical cord with its utopias, dreams or even illusions.”

Being in community is one way to resist those pressures, to make imagination seem normal. I think of this as the back of a tapestry – such as the Quaker Tapestries in Kendal, which are themselves a great example of co-operative action. Four thousand men, women and children across fifteen countries had a hand in creating the beautiful tapestries. But turn over the tapestry and you see the myriad of connections, of wools linking up and crossing over. These are the web of co-operation.

Community begins when two people co-operate. We therefore have to work at a deeper level of social connection too, at a personal level – between people, to nature and, perhaps, to God. This is why the fourth key element matters: the practical skills of co-operation.

Richard Sennett, the great theorist of social movements, talks about this in his recent book Together: the rituals, pleasures and politics of co-operation.…including the importance of social rituals help to make a habit of co-operation and help to frame how we behave. “When we shake hands,” Sennett says “I’d wager, none of us recall that this greeting was invented by the Greeks to show that the hands hold no weapons.”

“As social animals,” Sennett concludes, “we are capable of co-operating more deeply than the existing social order envisions.” So let’s take an example of deeper co-operation in the economy. Take work. Fritjof Capra argues that ‘we can’t be empowered by work that destroys the environment around us or creates systems of inequality. No matter how our work is organised, it cannot fully empower us unless we believe in its purpose’. This is not yet how the wider economy is organized, where people who behave destructively in social and environmental terms can be paid extraordinary sums.

The language of collaboration and of teamwork will turn up in these forms of work. But it is not genuine co-operation – which I would define as the sharing of power between equals. Gideon Kunda is someone who analyses business culture. He argues that the approach by managers in today’s firms to encouraging teamwork creates a form of ‘deep acting’. Underneath the surface of working co-operatively, team-members employees are collaborating in the context of a manager or superior, who is judging team performance.

In worker co-operatives like Yorkshire’s SUMA Wholefoods, one of the most radical experiments in workplace democracy in Europe is underway. There, good work combines both sharing and meaning. SUMA lay stress on personal development for their members. Yes, there is conflict too, but with the right pathways to handle this and often to make a resource of it. If you design your organization like a boxing ring, you get a fight. If you design it like a café, you get a conversation.

SUMA would be a good example of the kind of community that Quaker, Parker J. Palmer, wrote of in the 1970s in a Pendle Hill Pamphlet. He said that: “most of us should be deeply challenged by the idea that co-operation rather than competition is the source of genuinely creative work, for we have been programmed to exert the greatest effort in competitive situations where our instinct to win is exploited… There is some evidence, however, that the group really is more intelligent and perceptive than any single member of it.”

So this is the pathway I commend to those with the imagination for a better future, as a way out of perplexity or despair. We should raise sails for when the wind changes, with a seaworthy boat, a compass in hand, a crew to be with and the skills to make the voyage.

I am asking you to be enamoured by what Roberto Unger, the Brazilian theorist, calls the ‘spirit of possibility’. But don’t worry that you will ever be alone. Paul Hawken in his book, Blessed Unrest, follows Elinor Ostrom in her work on the commons, by suggesting that there are probably two million organisations in the world of people at the local level who are experimenting with co-operative economics, working to protect local ecological systems, supporting indigenous peoples, fighting for social justice in different ways.

Two million sails. And if the winds don’t change? If the wind against us becomes a storm or a hurricane? How then do we deal with climate risk or with economic depression? Then our role as lifeboats for people’s needs and imagination for their soul will become even more important.

The best preparation for a crisis is: to know ourselves; to value practical skills; to avoid debt; to invest time in community.  In short, the same four key elements we need for when the wind changes.

The prevailing winds mutter competition. We assert co-operation. In a time of challenge and denial, we have to re-enchant the future. We have to raise sails for when the wind changes. And feel. Feel for its new breath coming.

Previous lecture

Next lecture