Why the producers of coconut nice cream chose to sleep on the streets in winter.
James Crow, co-owner and co-founder of Tommy & James, is a strong believer in ethical business. One of the first New Zealand businesses to implement the ‘living wage’ initiative, Tommy & James’ Nice Blocks and Little Island coconut ice cream and drinking milks are made with natural organic ingredients which are Fairtrade and locally-sourced wherever possible. Both men are interested in social issues that affect New Zealanders, which is why getting involved in social development agency Lifewise’s Big Sleepout was a natural fit.
On July 2, Lifewise hosted the annual Big Sleepout, an immersive event that recreates the experiences of a rough sleeper, raising awareness and funds to further their work ending homelessness. A growing issue in New Zealand, more than 30,000 Kiwis are severely housing deprived, yet the country faces a severe housing shortage and still does not have a national strategy to combat homelessness. Rough sleeping is the most extreme form of homelessness, and a recent ‘street count’ found a sharp rise in the number of rough sleepers in central Auckland, where the Big Sleepout has been held since 2010.
Lifewise empower those on the margins by offering long-term solutions and wrap-around support – helping them to find permanent homes and get back on their feet.
The Big Sleepout is Lifewise’s largest fundraiser. Exposed to the winter elements, business, community and political leaders spent a night on cold concrete, receiving an insight into what it means to sleep rough. Their commitment was sponsored by donations to Lifewise’s work, from family, friends and colleagues.
This was the second Big Sleepout for James, who became involved with Lifewise through ‘Gimmeshelter’, a software solution he created to assist social services with data collection. “Lifewise’s ‘housing first’ model resonated with me,” he says. “They get people into stable accommodation first, then address the underlying issues that led to them being in that situation, and take a practical, proactive approach to many of the issues Tommy and I are interested in.”
Leaving a good taste
James believes that business involvement with social initiatives must be genuine. “It’s important our business reflects the same values we apply to ourselves personally,” he says. “We don’t want to just pay them lip service, we want to make a difference.”
James says the benefits of getting involved in the Big Sleepout extended to his wider team, and reaffirmed the business’s key values. “Our staff care about making a difference, but participating in the Big Sleepout generated a conversation within the culture of our business,” he says. “Our team engaged with the event, sharing content on social media which in turn generated conversations among their networks. Tommy and I acted as ‘reporters’ for our staff, customers and followers, talking about our experiences and what we learnt, which created an increase in knowledge of the issues that Lifewise are addressing. Our greatest growth from the Big Sleepout came after the night, and as a result, we’re a more engaged, thoughtful, socially conscious team.”
Like attracts like
Their commitment to the Lifewise Big Sleepout demonstrated that Tommy & James are a business not afraid to walk the walk. “The Big Sleepout reaffirmed with ourselves, our customers, the media and other businesses that we’re not simply a ‘one-trick pony’,” says James. “We have the capacity to take part in various projects, and initiatives like the Big Sleepout prevent us from becoming complacent and accepting the status quo. Simply offering ethical products isn’t enough, we’re constantly looking to support others doing great work, and thus benefit and grow ourselves.”
James believes that profit shouldn’t be a business’s only motivation. “We want to run a successful business,” he says. “But we want to be able to supply people with more, for less. We want to sell to people like ourselves, who care and who think, and while we want to thrive as a business, this won’t come at the expense of our values and community.”
A new appreciation
The Big Sleepout made James aware of how much energy and resource is required to address an issue like homelessness. “I have a new appreciation for Lifewise’s work,” he says. “It’s important for businesses to get involved, continue the conversations and create bigger ripples. We support Lifewise because without funding, they cannot continue their work, but the issues will continue to exist and people will continue to be affected. To make a difference to our communities, we must work with organisations who are supporting those who need it most.”
James and Tommy were joined at 2014’s Big Sleepout by staff member Channelle Haffenden. Formerly homeless, Channelle took to the streets of Auckland with a sign reading “Please give me a job – customer experience, fast learner.” James and Tommy saw Chanelle’s photo on Facebook and contacted her.
She’s now a committed member of the team, working in outbound sales. “Hiring Chanelle was beneficial for everyone,” says James. “Seeing her do something out of the ordinary to better her prospects made us think she’d take initiative, and we were right, she’s extremely good at what she does. What she wrote on her sign was true – and now it’s hanging up in the office to serve as a reminder of our values.”