Social enterprise hiSbe is redefining what it means to be a retailer in the modern world.
There are times when the world’s problems feel so big as to be impenetrable. From mass inequality to worsening climate change, these issues are symptomatic of the deeply embedded economic super structures we live under. One solution is to break free from these structures entirely – a revolutionary aim which in turn means dismantling the hegemony of the multinational corporations that maintain them.
Taking everything back to the local level is one way of changing the world. We have already seen this start to take place with the emergence of countless ‘challenger brands’, particularly in food and drink, which have ethical values and sustainability at their heart.
But transforming the retail model – and the supply chain in retail – is even more important for achieving fundamental economic and social change. It is here that Brighton supermarket hiSbe comes into the equation.
The independent store opened its doors in 2013 with the express aim of leading a “supermarket revolution”. Founded by sisters Amy and Ruth Anslow and their friend Jack Simmonds, one of the core principles of hiSbe (which stands for ‘how it should be’) is that it will refrain from stocking big brands made by large corporations, preferring instead to support smaller suppliers in the local economy.
The business is run on a social enterprise model that sees 68p in every £1 go to the supplier, and 50p in every £1 stay in the store’s home county of Sussex. This means that hiSbe can help local farmers, manufacturers and brand owners to build up their own businesses, in turn promoting a cycle of prosperity in the region.
Before setting up hiSbe, Amy worked for public and third sector organisations, whereas Ruth worked for large food corporates such as Unilever and Sara Lee – jobs that included dealing with stockists like the big supermarket chains. HiSbe is intended to be a solution to some of the mass market abuses she saw first-hand – and became disillusioned with.
“There are many horror stories out there,” says Ruth. “There is a lot of exploitation in the food system – of people, of animals, or just treating the land and food badly basically. There’s a lot of over-processed rubbish on the supermarket shelves, a lot of food with not much in it in terms of nutrition.
“There’s a dark side to it but there’s also a bright side because in amongst all that there’s people who just create brands for the love of it, farmers who raise animals for the love of it, who care about feeding people well and also want to make a living from it. For every kind of horror story in the food industry there’s an example of someone doing it how it should be.”
Off the back of crowdfunding and local community engagement, hiSbe has built up a large following in Brighton and wider Sussex. It is now targeting significant expansion.
The business is currently in talks to set up a second shop at a former Tesco convenience store elsewhere in Brighton (an irony not lost on its founders) and aims to set up a collective of around 10 shops in Sussex within the next five years.
From there, hiSbe plans to take its model out to other parts of the country, helping other local communities to set up hiSbe-branded clusters (which it calls hives) built around the same principles. Were this strategy to gain nationwide momentum, it would have the potential to reshape the wider economy by undermining the power of multinational retailers and consumer goods conglomerates.
“We know there’s a lot of interest in this concept in other cities around the country – Bristol is an obvious one, for example,” Ruth says. “It would be great to one day go to Bristol and develop a hive there by taking all our knowledge with us on how to do it – how to set up resourcing, the branding, what customers want – and create something in another city so that a hive could build there.
“Our big ambition is to create a national chain over the next 30 years that’s built that way. Built through local, regional hubs that are independent from each other, and that basically are there to serve the local economy.”
Expansion carries its own risks, of course, not least the potential erosion of a business’s founding brand values. Ruth acknowledges that “recreating the ethics and the culture” will be one of hiSbe’s biggest challenges as it moves into new territories. She is confident, though, that by empowering local communities to run their own stores on the same social enterprise model, the brand’s values will not just endure but flourish.
“Our big ambition is to create a national chain over the next 30 years that’s built through local, regional hubs”
Ruth Anslow, hiSbe
Alongside running the business, all of hiSbe’s founders offer coaching services to startups and entrepreneurs seeking to build new, socially responsible companies. Indeed Ruth speaks regularly on the topic at conferences, including presenting at TEDxBrighton in 2014.
This consultative arm to hiSbe highlights the extent to which new economic models are becoming formalised, taught and absorbed by the next wave of entrepreneurs coming through. As young people in particular reject the status quo and seek to reshape the future, businesses like hiSbe are positioning themselves at the forefront of a potentially profound change movement. Perhaps even a revolution.
“If you can show people that we are running a supermarket on a social enterprise model, you are raising the bar of what is possible and helping redefine that,” says Ruth. “People look at it and say, maybe I can run my business on that model, and they follow.
“We started looking at how something is – supermarkets – and thought that’s not right, this is how it should be. If everyone did that – saw something that’s not right and thought this is how it should be, I’m going to put all my energy into that – we’d have a very different world.”