Today’s interview is with John Bird, the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Big Issue. I think I can say without question that John is an inspiration to most: a business-leader, he started in poverty and learnt the skills needed to print his own publication, sticking to his morals the entire time.
If you’re not familiar with The Big Issue Group, they’re one of the UK’s leading social businesses whose mission is to dismantle poverty by creating opportunity through self-help, social trading and business solutions. As well as The Big Issue magazine, they have a social investment arm, Big Issue Invest and an online shop selling products with a ‘social echo’. Their charitable arm is the Big Issue Foundation.
I had the pleasure of speaking to John on the phone, and while he’s a busy man, he’s also a friendly and driven person. Our interview takes place while all across London – and the country – more and more people are finding themselves homeless and sleeping rough.
We discussed the issue of homelessness and how ethical business and open communities can tackle this crisis, as well as create a better world for everyone.
1. Hi John, thanks for speaking with me today. As we finish 2017 knowing that the number of people sleeping rough in London has doubled since 2010, what is your next goal in tackling the big issue of homelessness?
I’m interested in the role of trade in tackling homelessness and demonstrating the opportunities that trade brings. We’re talking poverty intervention – giving a hand up, not a handout. This is nothing new! You can give a man a gold coin and he will have a good time, but unless there is the opportunity to turn it into something positive he will return for another gold coin, and another, and another.[After my activity in the House of Lords] I’m now revisiting the idea of creating a “social Amazon”; trying to sell to people what they want and buy into an open community, not a gated community. The Big Issue’s online shop is the first step in the initiative. We’re learning by doing; the shop is doing well but there’s a long way to go and a lot to learn.
2. On The Big Issue Shop, you sell items with a description of the positive social good that it will do for both the purchaser and the vendor. How did you select the brands you work with?
We found people by meeting them and by being chased by them! There is an enormous amount of people hoping to make a change through business and we want to support them in doing so.
It’s a growing market, and it’s crucial we can decipher those doing good from the big boys and big girls who are ethical washing – just like greenwashing. Take Innocent – when they were bought out [by Coca Cola] their directors gained a huge amount of money, and the business has kept its ethical reputation even though it is no longer ethical. I find it really disappointing. Luckily I haven’t been offered the big bucks for The Big Issue – I won’t be selling it to Rupert Murdoch anytime soon!
3. It’s great to hear you have a real understanding of ethical business, from top to bottom. What business support do you have for budding social entrepreneurs hoping to make a change as well as make a living?
The Big Issue Invest [the social investment arm of The Big Issue Group] demonstrates our support well – we want to support stumbling entrepreneurs and teach them how to walk. Our aim is to give people the skills necessary to get out of the sticky stuff, and actively learn on the job how to create ethical businesses.
We’re planning on working with a group called the Pop-Up Business School, who take unemployed people who haven’t done well out of education and show them how to start their own enterprise – without borrowing money or without a business plan. It means you start an enterprise without debt. You don’t want to start in debt!
4. It’s a great plan, and interesting to hear how you are diversifying your support. It brings me onto the question: with more and more people getting their news online, how is The Big Issue changing to cater to online readers and supporters?
We’ve tried a few different types of digital, but it hasn’t yet worked quite as well as the paper. We’re working closely with our Digital Director to develop our offering more and more – we have great aims for 2018.
We actually seem to be selling more copies of The Big Issue now than before, but that represents the fact that there is more of a crisis. In an ideal world, none of us would be doing what we’re doing.
I believe the answer now needs to be found in the marketplace – with us all learning to trade ethically, and supporting everyone.
5. In these wintry months, what is one thing we can all do to help those sleeping rough?
Let’s be frank: it’s really hit the fan. We’ve got to do two things: one is to support those people on the streets by helping them, talking to them and supporting the groups that are getting them off the streets. I’m not just talking about supporting The Big Issue; Sadiq Khan’s London Homeless Charities Group is a good example.
But what we’ve really got to make sure is that this palaver doesn’t happen again next year. We need political action; we need young people getting involved in politics. You can’t leave it to a load of old grey hairs – they didn’t get it right, and unfortunately the next generation is going to have to sort these problems out. More activity in terms of trade, in terms of culture, is the way forward.