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Can ethical be profitable?: EYEYE talk money and morality

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EYEYE on Division Street

In the ruthless world of business, are ethics and profits mutually exclusive? Can you make money as a small business while sticking to your values, or does such woolly thinking lead to getting crushed by the big boys?

On 23 May, 'Can Ethical Be Profitable?' explores these questions at the Festival of Debate. It's hosted by independent opticians EYEYE on Division Street, and we asked owner Karl Hallam about the tricky issue of morality and making money.

Can you tell us a bit about the event?

There is no point owning a business if you can't be proud of how you run it. My aim is that EYEYE is both profitable and ethical. I wanted to run a Festival of Debate event that debated the challenges of this aim.

We can't bemoan the death of the high street and then buy stuff on Amazon

People who don't run businesses often make lazy assumptions about people who do and I'd like to debate these issues, ideally with other Sheffield businesses who share our values.

What are the challenges small businesses face when trying to adopt ethical practice?

Well, at first, I really didn't want to do it. I was stressed by the idea of - as I saw it - putting ourselves on a pedestal. It was only when we went through exercise thinking about marketing (with the wonderful Justine Gaubert) that it became clear it was something we could talk about as an attractive feature of our offer.

In addition, the less ethical option is cheaper and many members of the public will say ethics matter, but this does not stop them using businesses that are cheap because their ethics are 'questionable'. I include myself in this.

Is it difficult for businesses who pay their fair share of tax to compete against those that don't?

Not if you want to sleep at night, and beside paying tax only comes with profits and we are not at that point... yet.

How have you put these ideas into practice at EYEYE?

1. Up-front pricing, with no up-selling. Our prices are literally on the wall, prices are all-inclusive. We aim for giving a price at the beginning, not the end.

2. We search for frames made from recycled materials - sea plastic or bioplastic - and are happy to put lenses into old frames to re-use them, at no extra cost.

3. Our eye tests are double the length of industry standard, so we can explain stuff properly and answer questions.

Environmental and social justice should be two sides of the same coin

4. We use a local lab to cut and fit the lenses into frames. Would be cheaper to get them done in Thailand like Boots.

5. We give £10 off to people who bring their bike in for an eye test.

6. We pay living wage and give Westfield [health insurance] to staff.

There are other things too and of course so much more we need to do. Ideas welcome.

What policies could be put in place either by local or central government to help businesses that operate in an ethical way?

Well, there are thousands of things they could do, but we must all look at ourselves too. We can't bemoan the death of the high street and then buy stuff on Amazon. Or moan about corporations not paying tax and then pay cash to trade people. In summary, paying tax is a privilege and Greta Thunberg is right about sustainability. Environmental and social justice should be two sides of the same coin.

Sam Gregory

'Can Ethical Be Profitable?' is part of the 'Looking Forward' strand, kindly sponsored by Barnsley Digital Media Centre.

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Glasses at EYEYE

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