Why did I start Community Buying…?


I guess i started Community Buying because i wanted to influence that difference, I saw an injustice. I wanted to influence the change that would right that wrong. 

My background is consultant in all things to do with Sustainability: hence the latest Community Buying venture is involving Heat Pumps. So I certainly did not launch Community Buying to become an expert on Heating OIL that’s for sure. I did it because I believe when you see what you perceive to be an injustice then you should do everything you can to follow the philosophy of those who knew a thing or two about fighting for a cause: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” – Martin Luther King Jr.

What happened is almost impossible to fathom – millions of pounds saved, thousands of members joining the group and, probably of greatest importance, hundreds of communities finding their voice and saying enough! Simple as this, when a community chooses it can achieve anything. Those that come together and change the way they buy stuff via Community Buying are then able to evolve that it many different ways.

This week I head to speak at the DTA Scotland conference and I cannot wait to meet so many people that influence communities and inspire change where many believe it is impossible. In my session we are going to go all Pimlico! One of my favourite old films is one of the classic Ealing Comedies: “Passport to Pimlico”. Watch out because we are going to design a brand new product in that session…actually I am going to let them do all the hard work: they will be designing it!

passport to pimlico

As ever, come and say hello:  chris@community-buying.com

What does Boilerjuice have in common with Sky TV?

YouTube! Boilerjuice now advertises on YouTube. I don’t mean they upload their videos – we can all do that for free – I mean when you want to watch a video and that deeply annoying delay occurs where you have no choice but to watch an advert for a few seconds. That type of advertising. That is what Boilerjuice has in common with Sky TV – oh and a plethora of other large corporations as big as Universal Studios. Not only is the advert the usual flavour of Boilerjuice half-truths, but a BBC Radio Two legend is doing the voice over and, of course, there is the banner offering £5 to anyone introducing a friend. Hmmm, me thinks the part of the heating OIL supply market that is funding that has made a very big mistake – you’ve paid them too much!

They have something else in common with Sky TV – deeply worrying business practices. The News of The World actually had to close down because of the extraordinary depths they had lowered themselves to in the quest to bring their readers more sleaze than anyone else. Every other outlet owned by News International has been damaged by the ongoing cases brought against the parent company – the phone tapping scandal case continues right now. Of course that includes Mr Murdoch’s Sky TV. It frustrates me that I am subjected to having to watch Sky adverts when I want to watch a video on YouTube. I guess this is the power of the control massive corporations have over our lives. Imagine just how deep into my core that frustration ran when instead of Sky advertising at me it was Boilerjuice! Another company with a dubious past.

Why would any supplier use Boilerjuice? The business model, that is low on ethics and high on profit, is completely flawed, because with zero levels of social responsibility it does not fit in the 21st century. With a series of dubious issues still following it around, the company has now grown to over 20 staff. That is a larger workforce than all but a very small number of the UK heating OIL suppliers. Think on. The MD refuses to take my calls to come and have a chat and see how they might help with a number of social issues that they could influence. Why? Because they are only interested in profit. Nothing but profit. Suppliers that work with them must have grasped that, I mean some of them are paying them over 5ppl. At this rate those that use them will be funding a national TV advert next. 

I think it is fascinating that suppliers that work with Boilerjuice have chosen to turn a blind eye to all the dubious shenanigans of the past. Why? Probably because they see this source of business as Plan B. Believe me this is no Plan B, this is a Plan D and it stands for Disaster. But do you know how I know that every supplier that uses Boilerjuice actually knows this? That would be because, whilst they are quick to put links to others in their stakeholder chain on their website, they are so embarrassed that not one supplier appears to make it clear to public view that they are “proud supporters of Boilerjuice”. Why do you think that is?


Something wrong with the price of OIL again: it’s too low, unless Anglian Farmers buy it for you of course

This week we bought a quarter of a million litres of heating OIL on behalf of our members at prices lower than at any time during 2013. Yes the market is extremely depressed – it is so mild after all – and the wholesale price is very low. However, it is really about how extraordinary the suppliers are that we work with and the lengths to which they are going to work with us. Of course OIL prices are not too low, they are just extraordinarily low, particularly given that we are in the midst of winter. Unless, as I said, Anglian Farmers buy it for you.

Imagine my surprise when I saw this proudly displayed on the website of a rural charity based in East Anglia whose “early January” order was placed on 9th January:

  • Highest price quoted by a supplier: 65.67 pence per litre
  • Average price quoted by suppliers: 60.82 pence per litre
  • Member price (kerosene): 55.42 pence per litre

why am I surprised by this, the member price is in the mid-50s all sounds good, right? Well actually all is not good. We check thousands of prices right across the UK to ensure our stats are the most accurate there are – our integrity is critical to us. On that very day we collected a quote in that area for 54.7ppl from Boilerjuice. If you know anything about CBL member prices then you know we generally annihilate Boilerjuice prices by 2ppl – and sometimes 5 or 6ppl.

There is something very wrong with this price: simple fact is CBL placed orders at that time in the 52s and 53s. We placed very few in the 54s. Absolutely nothing in the 55s. Therefore, there is something very wrong with that price above. CBL didn’t buy in that area on that day, so of course I don’t know what we would have bought at, I just know our price would have been a lot less than these unfortunate OIL buyers have received.

But how is this possible? This organisation have the following message on their website:

“Our scheme began as part of a national initiative started by our colleagues in Oxfordshire. By June 2013 we had grown to a size where purchasing can be undertaken locally for our members on our behalf by AF Affinity, a subsidiary of the Anglia Farmers co-operative, and we expect to see significant price improvements with bulk purchases each time, because we are part of bigger scheme, we should be able to get better prices for everyone.”

Looks like that didn’t work out so well does it?

But how can AF Affinity be so bad at buying community OIL? Well maybe this passage from their information will give us an insight as they talk about the “unparalleled buying power” of their parent company Anglia Farmers (AF) which is:

“a dedicated purchasing organisation with a negotiating turnover in excess of £200 million. (VAT of 5% must be added to all prices shown) AF Affinity Limited is a wholly owned subsidiary of Anglia Farmers Limited, the leading agricultural purchasing co-operative in the United Kingdom with a turnover well in excess of £250 million, employing over 100 staff.”

One hundred staff! It would seem that the need to pay the 100 staff, rather than the “unparalleled buying power”, may have become the dominant factor that drove this final price. Do you have a better explanation?

But who loses out? Well sadly the hundreds of members that belong to this OIL buying group. They joined a group that began with the vision of creating safer, more sustainable communities, helping those in fuel poverty to make the step up, engendering the spirit of community, supporting a rural charity to extend their vital services and reducing the miles, fuel and emissions of their energy deliveries, at the same time as generating fair prices for heating OIL helping those buying smaller amounts, in particular, to access significant savings. What they now think they are a member of I can’t begin to fathom.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote: “If people never did silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done”. It is pretty clear someone did a very silly thing, the intelligent next thing is completely obvious…you know where we are…your members certainly deserve better.


On the second day of Christmas…look what Waitrose gave to us all

When you work really, really hard on behalf of those struggling to stretch low incomes to cover their bills and who are very often not just in Fuel Poverty, but also seriously vulnerable, this particular scene is difficult to watch. Rows and rows of containers full of milk being poured down the sink. From every single one of us I would just like to say thank you Waitrose…

Milk waste

This is even more difficult to take given we are in Christmas week and there are any number of homeless centres putting on extra dinners and food banks literally reaching beyond their capacity, all in the name of protecting the vulnerable. It doesn’t matter any which way you, I or any executive from the perpetrator of this crime look at this, there is no doubt it is wrong. I mean it is milk. Milk always has a very long date on it. So it is hardly as if the ‘sell by’ date crept up on them and shouted “surprise” is it?

I have been writing about such corporate incompetence for over a decade and it still amazes me that this sort of disconnected thinking still goes on, seemingly unabated. Take just a quick look at the Waitrose website and you will find that “being a ‘force for good’ in the community has always been part of the Partnership’s vision” and that they “make every effort to reduce impact on the environment and to promote good environmental practice”. Scary isn’t it that anybody would read that stuff and buy into it. How does “the Partnership’s vision” of being so conscious of community and environment fit with this type of obscene waste? You would like to think this is an isolated case, but no sadly not. Even though this is one tiny store it throws away a skip full of food on a regular basis. Feast your eyes on this:

freegan freegan 2

Huge bin liners full of food – perfectly edible food – thrown away one night recently at the same store. I don’t make a habit of routing through bins – neither am I regular ‘freegan’ – but I saw this being taken from the store and knew where it was going. My curiosity got the better of me and I had to go and find it so I could actually say I have seen this waste at first hand. I understand this is not an example of big night’s throw outs! Those people that work there, make none of the buying decisions, and yet have to do all the throwing away, tell me that it makes them want to cry. The man pouring that milk away was a picture of embarrassed frustration.

How is this allowed to happen in 2014? We are bombarded constantly with so many stories about the poverty around us, the shortage of food across the planet, the lack of space in our landfill and on and on…and yet this supposed leader of good corporate citizenship shows such a clear lack of vision in protecting the very community in which it exists.

Oh I am very aware that this level of obscene waste is rife across every one of our supermarkets, although I believe it was Tescos telling us last month that it was our fault for so much food waste! Likewise, each of them share this level of hollow hypocrisy written in their Corporate Social Responsibility reports. So I make this offer to any one or all of them that we are here to help. CBL connects and collaborates across a huge number of communities and as Community Buying continues to grow rapidly we inevitably bring the power of the group to this debate. What happens then is our members will get involved and will create many opportunities to hold these organisations to account to stop this appalling waste of our precious resources. Which means as we continue to fight hard to tackle Fuel Poverty, bringing solutions where others only see challenges, we will be the perfect partner for the supermarkets to find the communities that should be receiving this food, rather than it shamefully heading directly into landfill.

Day Three: Dear David…this is what we are doing about it

Over the last four winters we have done our very best to tackle what is a hideous issue for many heating OIL users – OIL Fuel Poverty. Having completed some very important work with many charities – including AgeUK over the last winter – it was obvious that there is a massive void in the UK as no organisation exists that is dedicated completely to eradicating this one issue. Age UK’s Charity Director General, Michelle Mitchell makes the case perfectly: ‘Many of our poorest and most vulnerable older people live in the country and have little choice, but to use heating oil to keep warm. A significant number can’t afford the hundreds of pounds they have to pay up front and simply do without, often, in the coldest months of the year.’ She goes on to say that those living in the coldest homes cost the NHS over £1.3 billion – and that is just in England. In other words many see this as a massive problem, but none of the organisations that work to eradicate Fuel Poverty have the level of expertise, knowledge or even the practical resource required to specifically help those who are fuel poor and use Heating OIL. Step forward Marion Lathar!
OIL Fuel Poverty Solutions – Marion Lathar is in the midst of launching a brand new social enterprise that will act as a resource and a hub for ALL charities, social enterprises and good causes working to eradicate Fuel Poverty, but that have no specialist knowledge about those using Heating OIL. She will be stepping into a vacuum that only she could fill. It has been an extraordinary pleasure to both work with Marion and to watch her confidently gain real expertise in this subject during her four years with CBL. We know we have saved lives together in that time. Marion is about to launch something that will go on to save thousands more.  
What next? The two organisations will be completely separate, but there are many ways in which we will be able to work together as allies and I look forward to developing this on many levels this winter. Further to this we will collaborate with as many organisations as we can as we seek to eradicate this pernicious issue. No doubt when we meet you will want to collaborate with us too.