Features / Business

Can Bristol crowdfund its way to a sustainable future?

By aphra evans, Wednesday Aug 2, 2017

Everyone from venture capitalists to Americans desperate to cover their healthcare costs are turning to crowdfunding, and for charities and small businesses, it provides a financial boost from affluent or empathetic individuals when grants and funding aren’t forthcoming.

In July, sixteen sustainable Bristol-based projects successfully raised some much-needed capital through a crowdfunding initiative, many helped over the line by a match-fund pot of £45,000 from Bristol Green Capital Partnership.

Meeting three of the winners not only revealed the diversity of the projects taking part, but also mapped out some pressing issues in the city.

“It made me realise how much need there is,” says Laura Williams, treasurer of the Baby Bank Network, one of the winners. “What all charities need is money, but there’s only so much we can ask of our supporters in terms of giving us their hard-earned cash.

“It’s filling a gap where, once upon a time, the government and local authority would have helped.”

One in four children in Bristol live in poverty, and many low-income families cannot afford essential baby items despite being in work.

The Baby Bank Network, a completely volunteer-run organisation, collects pre-loved baby essentials and supplies them to those in need. The network helps fifty families per month in the Greater Bristol area, and advises similar organisations in Devon, the Midlands and Scotland.

“We set up after the 2015 General Election. We saw that the divide between the haves and have-nots wasn’t going to get any smaller over the following few years,” says Williams.

“The voluntary sector is stepping in because the government isn’t supporting communities properly. And it’s not going to get any easier for us as more voluntary organisations pop up.”

Ellen, Becky and Laura (L-R) at the Baby Bank Network unit in Fishponds

It only takes a look at the council’s 2016–17 Joint Strategic Needs Assessment to see low-income families with babies are not the only group growing more vulnerable.

The report shows that 13.6 per cent of households in Bristol are fuel poor, against a national average of 10.6 per cent.

There were 28.6 per cent more people were dying in winter months compared to non-winter months that year: in real terms, 289 people lost their lives. In comparison, this figure was just 7.2 per cent in 2013–14.

The link between energy poverty and the housing crisis is often overlooked, but Bristol’s rising rents and house prices, coupled with stagnating wages and many poorly-insulated Victorian homes, forces people to choose between eating or heating.

“It’s desperate how much energy is affecting people’s lives,” says David Tudgey of Bristol Energy Network, another winner, which unites thirty member groups spanning fuel poverty, renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“We were the first community energy project to form, but we’re one of many now. This kind of project is thriving across the country.”

Networks like his inform local and national agendas, and empower local communities to take energy issues into their own hands, including groups without an energy agenda like Bristol’s African Voices Forum.

“We want to make it clear how people can make changes themselves using DIY measures,” adds Tudgey, giving draught-proofing as an example. “Energy issues will not be solved by market drivers or top-down approaches. It’s about co-led design.”

Energy Tree Millennium Square built by member of Bristol Energy Network

It’s not only charities that took part in the crowdfunding initiative, but also small businesses like The Good Wardrobe, an ethical clothing directory that wants to grow a network of makers, menders, and designers in Bristol.

“Back in 2009, people weren’t as aware or interested in the ethical side of things,” says its founder, Zoe Robinson, a reformed fast fashion addict turned personal stylist. “And it can be hard to find ethical clothes that are stylish and affordable.”

Nowadays, however, many consumers are realising that low quality, low cost clothes don’t last, especially since events like the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, which forever tarnished the names of big brands like Primark, and placed ethical fashion permanently on the agenda.

“People are fed up with the gluttony of recent years. They’re slowing down,” says Robinson. “There’s more discussion about conscious clothing, and people are asking what they can do about it.”

Read more: Crowdfunding campaign launches to help green businesses blossom

The Good Wardrobe photo credit: Barbara Evripidou

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