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Interview: Sebastian Ross, social entrepreneur

24 July 2020

‘If technology can be aligned with people’s passions, it could pave the way to innovate out of the mess we have created’

We are on a mission to bring communities together and change the world with one of the most powerful tools at our disposal: our collective buying power. The Society Company is a new venture that aims to provide great-quality food and household essentials, while helping raise money for local communities like schools, charities, or places of worship — and help the environment at the same time.

When a community buys together, people save time, money, and packaging together, and they can invest the profit back into the community they love.

We offer sustainable subscriptions delivered monthly to any community. Each month, people can choose from 60-plus of the best eco essentials to feed and clean a family and home, at a fraction of supermarket prices and without that nasty plastic. We return 15p of every £1 spent back to the community, and we handle everything; so there’s no effort required from the community leaders.

The problems we all face are two-fold, and well understood. Ecologically, we find ourselves in a perilous position. The UN’s General Assembly went on record last year to say that we’re the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet. The normally optimistic Sir David Attenborough suggests we’re now entering the sixth mass extinction.

Societally, every community could do with more assistance. Communities often serve as the backbone of our society, and many are facing harder times, whether that’s a school needing more supplies or a church with a leaky roof.

By making communities the focal point of the change, we want to make it easy for people to contribute to both these causes. By buying essentials in an easy, cost-effective way, there’s a greater chance of effecting real change together. We keep a running total, and publicise the results on your community page; so you can see how much revenue is being generated and how much plastic is saved each month.

We launched in London this year, with various communities, including some churches. We’re now ready to offer it to the next 50 communities who express the most interest. You need 25 or more members in your community signing up — and we help you publicise the scheme.

We hope to expand our range of products to 100-plus very soon. We want to be the one-stop shop for the best eco version of whatever people are looking for — like an ethical Amazon with zero plastic waste. We use the same type of model as the Co-op, but our prices should be much lower than the supermarkets because we don’t have their overheads or their marketing budgets.

It’ll only work if it is easy, hassle-free, and works around a family’s routine. Because people collect their goods when they are already visiting their school or church, it’s convenient, and ordering couldn’t be easier. You don’t have to be your community leader or an eco-warrior. It helps if you love the community you are a part of and want it to benefit from your purchases. It also shows children that we can start to tackle our serious problems in practical ways.

Our suppliers are locally sourced where possible, organic, and sustainable. Going green shouldn’t be expensive or time-consuming, and we’ve made it accessible by working directly with suppliers to get the best value for our members.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of communities and groups, and it’s not clear whether they will be able to survive the economic downturn. There’s never been a greater need for leadership to try new, proactive approaches.

It’s very much a case of me standing on the shoulders of giants. I was lucky enough to have a broad pair to stand on in the case of my father, Oliver Ross, who is the Vicar of Malmesbury Abbey. All the good things I have learnt in some way lead back to his example, and I couldn’t be more grateful to him.

The life experience that most stood me in good stead was travelling with Sir Ghillean Prance, the former director of Kew Gardens, on a botanical and anthropological mission to the Amazon basin to study the Guarani tribe. It gave me an insight into a completely foreign and isolated culture that hasn’t changed in millennia. What I learnt there will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Before it was fashionable to be eco-conscious, real scientists knew the extent of the danger we faced. Sir Ghillean was one of the pioneers who consistently worked to communicate with a wider audience over 30 years. Being there with him was a direct challenge to the mess we’ve made of our ecology.

My background was in technology, as the business-development director of the largest innovation ecosystem in Europe. I brought the best start-ups in disruptive tech (cyber security, AI — a long list of technologies which will change the world we live in drastically) to the Olympic Park after the athletes left. That showed me how technology could be used to bring people together, and for the benefit of the places they love.

The problems and opportunities with these technologies are growing exponentially as we speak, and will define our next century, but there is no time to debate them.

My passion and experience outside of work focused largely on building communities, helping to start the largest community garden in London in Brick Lane, and playing a role in various charitable organisations like Paracarnival. It provides workshops for paraplegic and disabled performers, culminating in award-winning carnival performances. They won first prize in the Notting Hill Carnival and the Hackney carnival parade in the same year.

My childhood was spent in Hounslow, a very multicultural area of London. It was a melting-pot, and a very enjoyable one. I spent a lot of time climbing trees, annoying my sister, and running everywhere in uninterrupted bliss, until the devastating day my younger brother arrived and almost immediately outstripped me in all areas of talent, intellect, and beauty. I now live outside of my younger brother’s long shadow, in east London.

I had a vision of God when I was about ten years old. My faith has waxed and waned over the years, but it serves as a bedrock of all my values.

Disconnected consumption makes me angry. We don’t know who makes our clothes, where our food comes from, or what process goes into the energy we use. We handed over control of these aspects of our lives for the benefit of convenience. As consumers, we are the only ones who can take it back.

Being with my four wonderful, life-giving, and endlessly joyful nieces makes me happy. My sister, of whom I couldn’t be more proud, seems to have the hardest but happiest job of all.

I love the sound of waves and birdsong.

We are living in an amazing time, when different technologies are more accessible to those around the world. If they can be aligned with people’s passions, and used in the right way, it wouldn’t just give us the power to shape our own future for the better: it could pave the way to innovate out of the mess we have created.

I’m not a big pray-er, but I wish I could be.

If I was locked in a church with anyone, I’d like it to be with Bob Dylan. The acoustics would be amazing, and the conversation more so.

Sebastian Ross was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. www.societycompany.co.uk

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