Posts Tagged 'business'

Sense and sensibility

joshua

Joshua Coombes, a 31-year-old hairdresser-turned-activist from Devon, defends his decision to join forces with a private business.

By Harry van Versendaal

AMSTERDAM – Joshua Coombes is as straightforward as he is charismatic. He raises his voice above the dance music blaring from the adjacent hall of De Hallen, a refurbished tram depot east of the city center. Toms is unveiling its latest campaign, and this 31-year-old hairdresser from Devon on the southwest coast of England speaks with palpable enthusiasm about his role in it: “I am an amplifier for people who have no voice.”

For years, Coombes would roam the streets of London after work, giving free haircuts and shaves to the homeless, posting before and after photos on his Instagram account hashtagged with his animating principle #dosomethingfornothing. In late 2015, at the peak of Greece’s refugee crisis, Coombes brought his scissors and street cuts to Athens’s Elliniko camp and Victoria Square. He has also couch-surfed across the world from the US to Mexico and Ecuador, to France and Germany. Until he received that phone call from Toms. Coombes is now one of the firm’s so-called changemakers – social activists selected to spearhead the California-based company’s new #standfortomorrow campaign on homelessness, female empowerment and social entrepreneurship.

“It is not just a campaign,” Coombes says. “They are living it. Sure, they spend money on an event like this, but they also work with people.”

The story behind Toms is more or less known, elevated as it may have been to the status of inspirational fable. As its founder, Blake Mycoskie, writes in his autobiography, “Start Something That Matters,” the idea hit him during a trip to Argentina back in 2006. The Texan, then aged 30, was spending his time playing polo, learning the tango and drinking Malbec. That was until he started to notice lots of kids with no shoes who were suffering from injuries to their feet. The spectacle spurred him to action.

He decided to import the alpargata, a local version of the classic espadrille, to the US and for every pair sold to donate a pair of new shoes to a child in need – a policy that came to be known as “one-for-one.”

“And so Blake started a purpose-driven company long before purpose-driven companies were a thing. And now they are quite ingrained in the business model for lots of companies,” says Toms chief giving officer Amy Smith.

We are sitting at a boutique hotel in De Hallen. Smith, with past experience at Apple and a nonprofit, handles questions cautiously, glancing every so often at her laptop screen. “I think a desire to do good turned into a movement. I don’t think he or anyone at Toms would say that the outward intention was to create a movement – the intention was to give back to a community and to people he saw in need,” she says. The brand’s mantra, she adds, is “Toms’ mission is to improve lives through business.”

‘Ethical consumer’

Almost 13 years and 86 million shoes later, the social entrepreneurship landscape has changed radically. Smith admits that the company, 50 percent of which is now controlled by equity firm Bain Capital, is too “humble” to claim it actually invented a new type of consumer, the “ethical consumer,” as it were. To be sure, hundreds of companies followed in Toms’ footsteps. Others offered a poor imitation. Greenwashing, a practice whereby companies style themselves as more environmentally friendly than they genuinely are, is still widespread as many established businesses, often slow-moving bureaucracies, are struggling to make a substantial transition or see no economic sense in doing so. Data, however, show that treating socially minded commerce as a fad is not good for business. In the past few years it has become something consumers ask for – and reward.

A Clutch survey published in the US earlier this year found that 68 percent of consumers said the social profile of a company was more important than price when choosing a brand or product. That share climbed to 71 percent when it came to environmentally friendly practices. In the same poll, 75 percent said they were likely to start shopping from a brand that promotes an issue they agree with, whereas 59 percent were likely to stop shopping at a company that supports an issue they disagree with.

“Your millennial and Gen Z customer is going to vote with their wallets, they are very savvy consumers, they expect companies to address issues in the world and to take a point of view for the big issues facing communities,” Smith says.

The business landscape has changed for everyone – Toms included. Standing on the event stage, global CEO Jim Alling is trying to fire up the audience with sugar-coated corporate soundbites. His enthusiasm, however, fails to disguise the firm’s concern that it has perhaps grown too big for its own good. “We can’t get tired, we can’t get boring,” he warns. Clouds have gathered on the horizon due to the brand’s limited diversification and the rise of cheaper competition. “People need to recognize we’re committed to creating a platform where positive social impact can take place, but they also need to understand that, without purchases, we actually have no ability to do that,” he says.

Can Toms expand without turning its back on its culture and core values? Smith has no doubt. She describes how the company evolved its give-back model, expanding into eyewear, apparel, handbags and coffee. In return, it provides vision-related medical treatment, the conditions necessary for a safe and sanitary birth, and safe drinking water in developing countries.

Smith says the company reached the point where it was time to take a step further. “It was the sort of pause moment, of ‘What else can we or should we be doing?’” she says. “Humanity thrives when you have opportunity for all people, when you have equality and justice, taking your piece of environmental responsibility and you provide ways for citizens to be in action… From basic needs [we move on] to basic human values, or basic support for issues that go beyond these basic needs,” Smith says, as she paints the outline of the new campaign. “It is a natural progression for our brand and our culture.”

In a rather bold move, Toms launched a campaign late last year to curb gun violence, supporting the drive for universal background checks. Some see a risk of the brand being identified with a specific political agenda – a progressive liberal agenda, in this case.

“It could become very political,” Smith admits. “We have chosen to say this is not a left or right issue, but a life or death issue – people are losing their lives in such huge numbers as a result of gun violence, because individuals did not get background checks,” she says.

Company sales have soared by an estimated 20 percent since the campaign launched.

Along with success come mistakes and criticism. A pair of alpargata are as simple as their production and supply is complex: fashion, profit, sustainability, transparency, ethics all come into play. The give-back model, its critics say, is little more than an ego boost; it only helps us Western consumers feel better about ourselves. At the same time, the practice undermines local economies by fostering dependency on outside aid. Who really can compete with a free product?

“We are always listening to the critics. We want to hear what they have to say and we want to learn from what we are doing, how we are executing and ensuring that we’re having the greatest possible impact,” Smith says. Toms carried out an extensive impact study on local communities. It opened a factory in India and enforced stricter regulations governing working conditions and the sustainability of materials. It was recently certified as a B Corporation for its social and environmental performance.

The fact remains that Toms is and will remain a for-profit company. As Sebastian Fries, one of Smith’s predecessors, said in 2013, Toms is “not in the business of poverty alleviation.” This, however, does not mean that the company has a smaller impact compared to a nonprofit with more benign intentions.

Moral compass

Coombes, for one, seems to think so. Some inside his old punk band were not too happy with his decision to join hands with a private company. He prefers a more pragmatic approach. “It is not grassroots, but it is another way of doing it. Can a bank do this? I do not think so,” he says.

He insists his conscience is clear. “Success is measured by the people I meet on the street, my interaction with them,” he says as he leaves the table for a group photo. “I’m always learning. I do not have complete solutions. I try to keep my moral compass in check.”

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Made in Greece

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

 

By Harry van Versendaal

In a white, minimalist bedroom, a man in boxer shorts is getting dressed. His sated partner lies in bed. The door opens, and an older, besuited man walks in. Calmly, the woman introduces her lover, and her husband promptly asks him to lunch. And then the slogan flashes on the screen: “We Greeks aren’t like this — why should our furniture be?”

As Greece tries to deal with a contracting economy and sky-high unemployment, local businesses are trying to gain an advantage over the competition by advertising their Greek credentials. This commercial for Neoset furniture, poking fun at the local company’s bigger Swedish rival, is only one of many new ads popping up on the radio, television and in the press that are pitching the Buy Greek message.

“Despite Neoset being a Greek company that has worked in the sector for over 30 years, it’s the first time it has ever come out so strongly in advertising its products’ provenance,” the company’s retail marketing coordinator, Marita Kazadelli, said in a recent interview.

“As a company, but also as consumers, we want to support Greek companies and Greek products, so in this way we show our support for Greek businesses, Greek exports, Greek workers and all the rest,” she said.

A whole variety of businesses from travel agents to the fashion industry are catching the trend.

One of these is Helmi, a Greek company that makes edgy clothes for women who until now, its officials admit, had let consumers think it was not local.

“For years our customers considered us a foreign company, an assumption which… we never tried to correct. Now, however, we are letting our consumers know that this supposedly foreign brand is actually Greek,” Helmi CEO Dimosthenis Helmis said.

A radio ad by Bic, the France-based company specializing in the manufacturing of stationery products, lighters and razors, claims that 97 percent of the company’s disposable razors are manufactured in Greece. Around 860 million razors were manufactured in Bic’s factory near Athens last year, 90 percent of which were exported to 153 countries, according to the company website.

But nowhere is the Buy Greek penchant more prominent than where Greeks already held a strong position: the dairy and food market.

Melissa pasta last year used its Greek identity as the central slogan for a big campaign celebrating the firm’s 60th anniversary.

People at the company herald the newfound patriotism.

“I think this trend is natural and that it was late coming. Turks always bought Turkish products, the Germans always bought German products, why did Greeks think Greek products were inferior?” public relations manager Tina Kikiza asked.

The company has for years had to combat the general wisdom that Italian pasta is the best. What many people do not know, says Kikiza, is that many Italian rivals depend on wheat imports from Greece for their products.

The company’s turnover has not been dented by the economic crisis, climbing from 45 million euros in 2007 to 70 million in 2010. It is expected to reach a similar level in 2011.

Marketing pitfalls

However, marketing experts are wary of the long-term implications of the Buy Greek drive.

“All products are now brands. Their image is important to their viability. So the question is not whether Greek products are better or worse, but what their being defined as Greek has to add to their brand image,” said Daphne Patrikiou, associate creative director at the BBDO advertising agency.

Strategies vary. Some companies — not always Greek-owned — have adopted a consistent corporate approach, emphasizing their contribution to the local economy. The more opportunistic have pitched their Greek credentials with one-dimensional advertising campaigns or with simply putting “Made in Greece” stickers on their products to encourage impulse buying.

To be sure, not all firms have an interest in advertising their Greekness. Those who have for years invested in strategic planning, like eco-friendly detergent manufacturer Planet or natural skincare company Korres, are rather laconic about their origins, reaping instead the benefits of their longstanding niche strategies.

“Being associated with a Greek identity may benefit a product in the short term, but it could backfire in the long run,” Patrikiou said.

Particularly for companies specializing in hi-tech products and devices, experts warn, a Buy Greek strategy could be damaging. Computer and technology retailer Plaisio has made a profitable business in branding its own PC series, but success is attributed to its value-for-money image, not its being Greek.

Irrational exuberance

Made in Greece has never been associated with innovation, quality or style. And this one of the reasons why the country has for decades spent more than it made as consumers looked outside for good products.

But the situation really spun out of control after the country joined the eurozone in 2001. Thanks to the stable and trusted currency, Greeks were able to borrow cheaply. The balance of trade took a nosedive as Greece imported more goods than it produced.

In 1990, Greece’s balance of trade deficit was 446 thousand euros, by 2002 it had soared to 1.7 billion, while in 2006 it hovered at 2.1 billion. Meanwhile, Greek imports in 1990 were valued at 1.6 billion euros; in 2002 the figure went up to 4.7 billion and by 2006 it had skyrocketed to 5.9 billion.

The overconsumption of foreign goods also had a cultural aspect. After a long stretch of political instability and poverty, the newly empowered Greeks — often powered by provincial attitudes — developed a soft spot for foreign goods. The figures were backed by anecdotal stories of Greeks infamously storming London’s Harrods and Selfridges on weekend shopping sprees.

The situation prompted a reaction by the now defunct association for the promotion of Greek products. A Buy Greek promo made at the time mocked Lakis, a tacky character showing off his flashy designer buys — all foreign imports. At least Greeks created their own word for the trend, “xenomania,” meaning the extreme love for all things foreign — a regular topic of high school essays during the 1980s and 90s.

These days, the Buy Greek message is mostly spread by private firms and business associations, while a number of Facebook pages and citizen groups have also added their voices to the campaign. The Greece520.gr website for one aims to inform consumers that products carrying bar codes starting with 520 are made in the country.

The costly truth

The campaigns seem to be paying off. The National Confederation of Hellenic Commerce recently said sales of local products have gone up 44 percent this year as Greeks turn away from dearer imports.

“It seems crazy to me to buy American rice when I can buy Greek-grown rice,” said Katerina Petraki, a mother of two who works as a food inspector.

In the case of foodstuffs, Petraki says, she usually prefers Greek products — including the supermarkets’ increasingly popular own-name brands. They are just as good, she says, and at the same time you support homegrown products.

“I mean, I know it’s a profit-driven ideology — but why not support it? After all, it will help us become more competitive,” she said.

But not everyone appears convinced. Products made here often cost more and some consumers won’t hesitate to opt for cheaper foreign-made items to help their own finances.

“I haven’t started buying more Greek products because of the crisis. I buy what’s on sale. I look at the price, not the origin,” said Maria Andritsou, a civil engineer who has been unemployed for over a year.

“Until now I used to buy Greek flour. Now I buy foreign-made,” said Andritsou, the mother of a 3-year-old daughter.

People like her dislike the idea of having to accept poorer quality or more expensive products in the name of alleged benefits to the national collective. Such misplaced patriotism, she says, would be like a reward to substandard local suppliers.

“Greek manufacturers have overcharged for so long. Why should I support them now?” she said.

The costly truth is that concepts like home economics and consumer education have long been mostly alien to the average Greek. Consumers rarely did any market research, thus discouraging price competition among local retailers. Greek products were as a result more expensive than their foreign counterparts, which made little economic sense given the cost of transport and logistics.

Who gains?

Consumers often complain it’s hard to know if their money goes to the right place. Product identity in the globalized marketplace of complex ownership structures and competing loyalties can become uncomfortably fuzzy.

The fact is it’s not always clear where products are manufactured or who profits. The Misko pasta factory is controlled by the Barilla Group, Marinopoulos has been taken over by Carrefour, even Metaxa, the world-famous brandy maker, is now owned by France’s Remy Cointreau Group.

But commerce is not necessarily a zero-sum game. Although owned by Barilla, Misko still makes the brand’s products using Greek raw materials. For obvious commercial reasons, Barilla has kept the famous Misko brand logo featuring a Greek Orthodox monk riding a donkey. But, more importantly, the Italian giant operates one of Europe’s biggest pasta factories in Viotia.

Foreign companies like Ikea, Bic or the AB Vassilopoulos supermarket chain, which is controlled by Belgium-based retailer Delhaize, are keen to stress their contribution to the local economy, since they employ thousands of Greek staff and pay taxes to the Greek state.

“We don’t see ourselves as a foreign supermarket,” AB’s communication manager Alexia Macheras said, noting that the company is the fifth-biggest employer in Greece with more than 11,000 staff.

She said AB has for years supported local production by promoting homegrown goods while running campaigns to support Greek foods, clothes and tourism.

I want that Pony

Despite upbeat early statistics, experts insist that Greekness alone is not enough to shape people’s long-term purchase preferences and ensure sustainable growth for the companies.

“Consumers can see through advertising practices and remain rather skeptical toward them. They need a stronger sell to adopt a habit. A product’s national identity is not a strong sell on its own,” Patrikiou said.

Business gurus have a tendency to urge us to see crises as opportunities. Reports last month said that former Greek car manufacturer NAMCO is due to begin production of a new version of the poor man’s SUV, the Pony, which hit the country’s streets in the late 1970s and early 80s. If Greece were to exit the eurozone and return to a devalued drachma, beloved products like quality German cars would be out of reach for local consumers, who would have to depend heavily on locally made products. It would be interesting to see then how many people here would give up their dearest BMW or Mercedes for the more humble Pony.

Seeing is believing

Photo by Joseph Galanakis

By Harry van Versendaal

When Thimios Gourgouris first caught the news of furious rioting in downtown Athens in December 2008, he reached for his Nikon camera. As the Greek capital surrendered to an orgy of violence and looting sparked by the fatal shooting of a teenager by police, the curious young man from the suburbs took to the debris-strewn streets to document the mayhem.

Three years later, the number of people like Gourgouris have skyrocketed. As public rallies against the Socialist government’s austerity measures — sanctioned by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the debt-choked country’s foreign creditors — keep coming, more people seem to have set aside the traditional flag and banner for a more versatile medium: the digital camera. Just type “Greek protests 2011” into Google Images and you’ll get more than 5 million results.

This burst of interest in user-generated content is propelled by more than one reason. But, like elsewhere around the world, it is principally born out of public skepticism toward conventional media.

“I want to see with my own eyes what is happening out there. I stopped relying just on the stuff I was being fed by television,” Gourgouris, a tall man with a dark beard and expressive eyes, said in a recent interview.

Greece’s mainstream media have not escaped unscathed from popular criticism of the country’s institutions. Television channels and newspapers — traditionally associated with the nation’s political parties — are seen as pandering to political and business interests.

“I only trust what I see,” Gourgouris said.

Born in 1980, Gourgouris has never belonged to a political party. A former graphic designer who now works as a commercial representative in Elefsina, a small town west of Athens, he dreams of one day becoming a war photographer. The streets around Syntagma Square make good training ground, he jokes. When venturing into the urban scuffles, he wears gloves, body armor and a green Brainsaver helmet equipped with a built-in camera. “Last time a piece of marble hit me on the right shoulder,” he said.

Gourgouris makes a point of sharing all of his pictures on Flickr, the image- and video-hosting website. All his photographs are free to download in high resolution. One of his shots from the latest riots shows a riot policeman trying to snatch an SLR camera from a man standing in Syntagma Square. A woman reacts to the scene while trying to protect a fellow demonstrator who appears to be in a state of shock.

“If I had to keep a single image from the protest, it would have to be that one,” he said.

Protest 3.0

Around the globe, protests are reshaped by technology. Ever-cheaper digital gadgets and the Internet are transforming the means and the motives of the people involved in ways we are only starting to witness.

Last spring, the twitterati hailed the “social media revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt as protesters made extensive use of social networks to bring down their despotic presidents. Facebook and Twitter played a key role in fomenting public unrest following Iran’s disputed election in 2009. Like Iran, Libya showed the same media are available to the autarchic regimes.

Greece is not immune to social and technological forces. In May, thousands of people responded to a Facebook call by the so-called Indignant movement to join an anti-austerity rally at Syntagma and other public squares across the country. Demonstrators, who have since camped in front of the Greek Parliament, use laptops to organize and promote their campaign through the Net.

When individuals’ behavior changes, mass protests also change. Gourgouris says that whenever he sees the police arresting a demonstrator, he feels that by running to the scene an officer will think twice before exerting unnecessary physical force.

“When everybody is filming with their cell phones, you’re not going to beat the hell out of that person,” he said.

Switching places

Technology is also transforming the news business, as ordinary folk get involved in the gathering, filtering and dissemination of information.

“It’s evolution,” said Pavlos Fysakis, a professional photographer in his early 40s. He says that this type of guerrilla journalism may not guarantee quality, but it is certainly a force for pluralism.

“The news now belongs to everyone. It comes from many different sources, and it is open to many different interpretations,” said Fysakis, who is one of the 14 photojournalists to have worked on The Prism GR2010 multimedia project, a collective documentation of Greece during last winter that is available on the Internet.

If there is one problem will all this input, Fysakis says, it has to do with the diminishing shock factor. With all the imagery out there, he warns, audiences as well as photographers risk getting a bit too accustomed to graphic images.

“Violence is demystified. We almost think it’s normal to see a cop beating up a person on the street. The image is everywhere, as if [the event] is occurring all the time,” Fysakis said.

User-generated footage of the June 29 demonstrations depicted riot police firing huge amounts of tear gas and physically abusing protesters, including elderly men and women.

The apparently excessive use of force by police is the subject of a parliamentary investigation. Meanwhile, a prosecutor has brought charges against the police for excessive use of chemicals and for causing bodily harm to citizens. Amnesty International has also condemned the police tactics.

Exposed

For Liza Tsaliki, a communications and media expert at the University of Athens, crowdsourced content “is laden with democratic potential.”

“Civilian footage of the riots has widened our perspective and understanding of what actually happened,” she said of the June demonstrations.

A few hours after the protests, the Internet was churning with footage apparently showing riot squad officers escorting three men who had covered their faces and appeared to be wielding iron bars, prompting suggestions that the police had either placed provocateurs within the protesting crowds or that the force was offering protection to extreme right-wing protesters who were battling leftists.

However, an official reaction (a statement by the minister for citizens’ protection that left a lot to be desired) only came after television channels had aired the controversial video.

Trust them not

To be sure, citizen journalism is far from perfect. A lot of the rigor and accuracy associated with traditional news organizations inevitably flies out the window. Ordinary people cannot perform, or are insensitive to, the (meticulous but costly and time-consuming) fact-based reporting, cross-checking, sourcing and editing of newsrooms proper.

A survey conducted in the UK a few years ago found that 99 percent of people do not trust content on blogs and forums uploaded by their friends and the rest of the public.

Lack of verification and eponymity is not the only problem, as input from non-journalists is not necessarily synonymous with objectivity.

Writing in Kathimerini about the controversial video, liberal commentator Paschos Mandravelis criticized social media users for unquestioningly embracing what seems to confirm the views they already hold.

“The T-shirt he was wearing to cover his face, which is usually offered by every protester as a sign of innocence (‘I was wearing it to protect myself from the tear gas’) was, in this case, used as a sign of guilt (‘It’s obvious. These are the hooded troublemakers’),” Mandravelis wrote.

Tsaliki agrees that not everything captured by amateur journalists is necessarily benign.

“Even in these latter cases, a certain alternative reality can be constructed under the guise of the non-mediated experience,” Tsaliki said.

“All you need is a certain choreography, some volunteers and a smartphone,” she said.

But the speed and diversity of social media is hard to beat. After all, it was a Pakistani Twitterer grumbling about the noise from a helicopter that gave the world live coverage of the American raid that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in May.

Before that, it was some blurry footage of Alexandros Grigoropoulos’s murder in Exarchia, captured with a phone camera by a resident standing on a nearby balcony, that fanned Greece’s 2008 riots.

Traditional media have tried to take advantage of the trend, launching citizen journalism platforms of their own — CNN’s “iReport” or Al Jazeera’s “Sharek,” for example. And as suggested by Al Jazeera’s mining of the social media during the Middle East uprisings, the use of citizen-produced material can help commercial networks come across as the “voice of the people.”

“They overtly take the side of the protesters against these regimes. And their use of social media and citizen generated content gives them the ammunition and credibility in that campaign,” blogged Charlie Beckett, founding director of Polis, a journalism and society think-tank at the London School of Economics.

Preaching to the converted?

The Internet has changed the way people organize themselves and protest, but has it really helped expand the reservoirs of activists on the ground? Experts are divided on the issue.

For one thing, cyber-pessimists are right that support-a-cause-with-a-click attitudes produce great numbers but little commitment. Web-powered activism, Tsaliki adds, is still a lot about preaching to the converted.

“The Internet will chiefly serve those activists and groups that are already active, thus reinforcing existing patterns of political participation in society,” she said.

But Gourgouris is confident that simply by recording and sharing the message of a demonstration, you are increasing its impact.

“The world isn’t beautiful. I record the ugliness so I can put it out there and — to the extent that I can — fix it. I am trying to raise awareness. I am saying, ‘Here’s the violence of the people behind masks’,” he said.

As always, some people out there prefer more direct forms of engagement. As photographers zigzagged through the infuriated crowds at a recent demo, one hooded youth shouted at them to “put down the cameras and grab a stone.”


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