The Post-COVID Consumer

This week, my wife and I finally bought our new home. We first made an offer for the house back in February, and due to a combination of structural issues in the house and a global pandemic you might have noticed, it has taken us until the 18th August to get the keys. As you can imagine, we are quite excited, and if you have been watching my social media feeds as closely as you should (admit it, you do nothing but…) then you will have seen a selection of shots from the new house. You will have also noticed, undoubtably, that the house is empty.

When we sold our old house, we temporarily moved our furniture and possessions in to storage and moved in with my parents. Our buyers were keen to get moving on the sale, and we did not want to lose them because the house we were buying was being slowed down. When we called to arrange getting our stuff out of storage, it appears the house market has bounced back, and the earliest the removal company could do is in September.

It is frustrating, as we cannot get moved in for another week or so, but it has also given us the chance to give the house a through clean and start some basic DIY without needing to move the furniture.

It has also given me in particular a chance to get the bills set up. I lived in the old house before my wife (then girlfriend) moved in with me, so the bills were already in my name, and it seems they have remained my responsibility in the new house while Sarah is busy arranging contractors for repair work.

To date, I have arranged the gas and electric, phone and broadband, water supply, council tax and home insurance. Although it is not the most exciting of jobs, it is clearly essential, and it was helped by the fact I knew which companies and suppliers I intended to use. Where many people might choose a comparison site to find the cheapest option, I am prepared to pay a little bit more (though nothing extortionate) to have my utilities provided by companies which align best with my personal views.

You might be wondering what on Earth I am talking about at this point, but it might make more sense if I tell you my gas and electric supplier is Coop Energy, my broadband supplier The Phone Coop, and my home insurance is provided by The Co-operative Insurance.

Even the most casual of readers will have spotted a pattern there. I have chosen where possible to be supplied by cooperatives for utilities rather than the more typical corporations. I will discuss some of the reasons in a paragraph or two, but it is enough at this moment to say I think cooperatives are a business structure society more broadly should encourage other alternative company structures.

And this has got me thinking more broadly about the economy and my place within it. The economy has collapsed as a result of COVID, and the government in particular seem desperate for us to get back out spending money again, with incentives live half price food during the week and a cut in VAT to influence us.

What I feel they are not encouraging, and I suspect the current government will never bring themselves to speak about, is how we can rebuild an economy which works better for more people. We are encouraged to be consumers, to spend our hard earned cash on things, sometimes what we need, not infrequently what we do not need, and as we spend our money, the wealth trickles upwards.

If we need to get the economy moving again post-COVID (for this post I am going to assume that is a given, although this is questionable) then I think it is important to consider how we can make a more balanced economy which is better for those who work in it, shop in it, and more widely for society and the environment.

But I, like you reading this, am just an individual. I have little say on the overall changes which effect the economy. Yes I can vote for this party or that at elections. I can sign positions and support campaigns, but as an individual, the impact I can make is minimal.

What I can do, what we all can do, is make a choice about where my money is spent. I can have the personal satisfaction of knowing I have spent my money with an individual or organisation which is making the world a better place, be it through paying fair wages to staff, making environmentally friendly products, or giving me a say in the way the organisation is run. These are small things for the economy as a whole, but big things for me, and more and more people band together to shop for good, then more substantial change is not impossible.

Before we explore some of the ideas I have had for moving towards a better economy, a warning! I am not a financial planner or advisor. What I have discussed below should not be used to make financial decisions big or small, these are simply ideas I think are a good idea. Before you make any decisions you need to make sure a decision is right for you, and get independent advice if you need it. Obvious advice I know, but worth reiterating.

I should also say I do not endorse any particular organisation or product, and I have definitely not been sponsored by anyone for this post.

Co-Operatives

I have already mentioned several co-operatives in the introduction to this post, and I am sure you know a few more. If you live in the UK the Co-op will be the most obvious I suspect, but there are many more cooperatives you might not necessarily have considered. For example Arla, the dairy supplier, is a co-operative owned by the dairy farmers themselves. You can even consider John Lewis Partnership, the owners of John Lewis and Waitrose, a co-operative, as the employees, or partners, are also the company’s owners. And as you have seen, even your electric, broadband and insurance can be provided by cooperative organisations.

You might be wondering at this point what it is about cooperatives I like so much? For me, the biggest advantage of cooperatives over most other companies is the generally better working conditions, the higher quality products with greater consideration to things like animal welfare, and higher quality customer service. I have used the services of numerous co-operatives over the years, and the service I have received from them has always been top notch. And when a co-operative adheres to the Rochdale Principles, the organisation focuses not just on making money, but on social goods like education, training and community development.

Mutual Money

It is not just food and shopping which can be supplied by a cooperatives. Several systems for money management with a mutual feel exist. In the UK, building societies are the most common set up. Traditional involved in savings and mortgages, some of the bigger societies have branches into currents accounts as well. Nationwide is the largest building society in the UK, and provides current accounts with all the functionality of a bank. The advantages I see over banks are numerous, including customer involvement in the running of the society and more ethical investment practices. For those of you outside of the UK, you may well find a credit union which offers much the same services and benefits.

Not-for-profits

If you cannot find a cooperative or mutual organisation which offers a service you are looking for, it might be worth considering the not-for-profit sector, including charities and community benefit societies.

I’ll admit when I first think about buying from a charity, it is the high street charity shop which first comes to mind. Of course, you can get some great deals from charity shops, but buying from a not-for-profit does not mean just second-hand clothes. Several of the larger charities such as WWF, Amnesty and the RSPB have online shops selling high quality goods and gifts.

Eco-friendly and Socially-Conscious Organisations

Not all corporations are equally as damaging for society and the environment as others. Some organisations make genuine efforts to do more than just make money whatever the consequences. Whether it is focusing on improving the environment, such as the electric company Ecotricity, or providing second chances for people who traditionally struggle to get work like Timpsons do, there are organisations which can make a difference to the world for the better and are worth giving our custom to.

When trying to make a decision about the ethics of a company, there are some labels to look out for which can help. Fairtrade products are probably the most widely known label which suggests a social conscience and positive impact on their suppliers, but other certificates Ecosia to such as the Rainforest Alliance and the Red Tractor can suggest high quality products with positive social benefits.

Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs)

SMEs are consistently touted as the lifeblood of an economy, and they certainly have an important role to play. Of course it is impossible to generalise to all SMEs, but they do on the whole employ local people in local businesses, are more likely to purchase and use products from local supplies, and are more likely to get involved with the local community, for example through sponsorship of sports teams.

To finish this post, it seem’s fitting to speak about one SME in particular which I have discovered during the process of moving home. My wife loves her coffee, and in our precious house she would achieve her fix from a well known chain as the only choice around. Since moving to our temporary lodgings, we are too far away from a chain coffee shop to make it practical during the day, but we are in walking distance of a lovely little independent coffee shop called Gray’s. And what is more, Sarah loves the coffee. If you have wandered past a small local coffee shop or other shop near your house but are yet to step inside, then maybe today is the day to try it out. Who knows, you might find a little gem of your own.

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