Body Shop, Green & Blacks, Ben & Jerry’s and Innocent Drinks represented a Brave New World when it came to doing business – Fair Trade, sustainable, (slightly) less hierarchical, informal, friendly. But those companies didn’t have a structure to prevent them from being bought out by the corporate sector, and now they’re owned by L’Oreal, Cadbury (Mondelez), Unilever and Coca-cola respectively.
Do we really want the corporate sector to be able to pick off ethical companies as soon as they become successful? Here’s an interview with Taylor McLeod, about Fairphone in particular. If you’re not familiar with Fairphone, it’s a company with a conscience – taking great pains to ensure that its phone contains materials, and is constructed in ways that are as benevolent to environment and people as possible. It’s available through the Phone Co-op – see this article for more.
A bit about Taylor:
In 2014, Taylor graduated from the University of Victoria in British Columbia with a BA in Economics and Environmental Studies. His earlier student organizing work in climate justice led him to explore how the ownership structure of companies can impact their decision-making on issues of social and environmental justice. After years of independent social-economy research, one failed coop startup, and a year working abroad for a national telecoms co-operative in the UK, he has focused his attention on contributing to the discourse around the Platform Coop movement.
Lowimpact.org: Fairphone is an exciting development. But it isn’t a co-op. Why not?
Taylor McLeod: First, I want to say it’s great that you’re considering the ownership design underlying all other aspects of those companies. So few think of it, yet the ownership structure of companies influences everything else they do.
You should talk to Bas, the founder of Fairphone, about this. I asked him this question in passing at the Fairphone 2.0 launch in London. He said they had seriously considered it, but felt it wasn’t right to make a decision on that just yet. I’m not certain, but I think he mentioned a major stumbling block with coops was ensuring some level of continued control for the early investors and founders until such time that it was appropriate to transition the governance. I’d agree that is one of the largest glaring issues for coops in the modern era. Lots of new companies are founded by visionary individuals. Being visionary is by definition a non-democratic action. If you are trying to do things that haven’t been done before, seeing things that most others don’t see, then you will often be making “radical” decisions, decisions that groups seeking consensus wouldn’t make. The struggle between visionary leadership and democratic governance is one of the biggest issues that new wave coops/companies need to overcome.
LI: Does it mean that it will eventually be picked off by the corporate sector too, do you think?
TM: I think the ownership design of an organization is the foundation, not the house itself. You can have a well-built house on a poor foundation. Fairphone are doing amazingly good things right now. They have a well-built house. The foundation is unclear though. Right now, it is privately owned and controlled. As far as I can tell, it is entirely possible for Fairphone to become the next Ben & Jerry’s, succumbing to profit-maximizing and reinforcing economic inequality instead of continuing to find balance between purposeful action and profit. Fairphone could be bought out by Google or Samsung.
LI: How could Fairphone be persuaded / cajoled / pestered to become a co-op, and is that the best model?
TM: In my opinion, the traditional coop model is not optimal for modern times. I’ve researched and experienced enough of them to see that their ownership design actually suppresses “ecosystem level” innovation quite a bit by failing to enable sustained risk-taking by founders, early employees, and – yes – investors. There is much to say here, but the point is that the traditional coop model is not appealling to modern entrepreneurs and hence puts the entire sector at a disadvantage. I think if a kind of “Coop 2.0” can be developed and refined, it can get to the point where choosing this model of business will be an easy choice for entrepreneurs such as Bas. We don’t want to force coops into the hands of unwilling innovators. We want to draw innovators in with all the benefits of a new model. B corps and social enterprises demostrate that new socially-minded corporate models are in demand. Let’s take those a step farther. I’d say you would have to show Bas and the other owners of Fairphone a viable option for them to transition to. You’d have to convince them that it’s the best course for achieving their mission.
LI: This Coop 2.0 model – tell me more about that.
TM: This is a highly complex space. There are a lot of opinions and names out there for what many thinkers say needs to replace (or at least supplement) the current suite of corporate designs. These thinkers are looking for optimal company designs that can eventually come to replace the old corporations that have done so much damage to people and the planet over the decades. The current dominant corporations the world over cause so much damage because their negative impacts go largely to different groups of people than the positive impacts. Most people get pollution, wage-slavery, advertising-corrupted culture, among other negative impacts, while a very small number of people receive higher returns on their stock investments and pension plans. Traditional corporations may have been positive in the past to raise material standards of living, but we can do better now.
I like to look at corporate design in layers:
Daily actions / Interactions / Decisions
Product / Strategy / Mission
Each layer is affected by and depends upon the layers below. Only the top layer is actual actions in the real world. This represents everything companies do. This is choosing to pay workers more or less. This is deciding to transition off of fossil fuels or not. This is Fair Trade. Or not.
There are many companies that do lots of good for their community. But there are just as many which start out with the intentions of doing good, but end up becoming “slaves” to profit maximization when the deeper layers aren’t properly thought out. If you’ve got a company that goes on the public stock market, you will have strong pressures from the shareholders and board elected by those shareholders to maximize the profits and returns to those shareholders. All other things become secondary.
Coops by design are resistant to the damage of the profit-maximizing drive, because their shareholders are the *same people* as their workers or customers. Unfortunately, they are not as competitive in the current economy. Their marketshare has fallen over the years to become a sideshow compared to the dominant form – traditional shareholder-owner corporations.
I imagine Coop 2.0 to combine the competitiveness, capital-gathering-ability, and innovating qualities of traditional capitalist corporations with the empathy, democracy, and capacity for purpose that traditional coops have.
LI: Is there another structure that would prevent predation by the corporate sector?
TM: Coops are the best structure so far, but there are many proto-models out there.
LI: Do you know anywhere else I could get information about this?
TM: There are many things that touch on these topics, but I feel like there are surprisingly few that speak directly to anti-corruption, “good companies”, and the role of ownership design. Writings on the Platform Coop movement are the closest thing so far. The public discourse is in its infancy, so it’s still thinking about combining traditional coops with internet companies. The synthesis into a “Coop 2.0” and what that would look like hasn’t played out yet. The writings of Michael Bauwens on Open Coops and Rory Ridley-Duff on Fairshares companies also come to mind. Also The Institute for the Future’s Workable Futures Initiative.
Hope that is useful!