Mission Impossible? Lily Cole on changing how people think about money

Lily Cole has been on a mission with her social platform Impossible to empower people to trade without money. Now she has a new calling, using her socially conscious community to push brands to be more transparent, and driving consumers to realise the political sway they hold when deciding where to spend their cash.

When model and actress Lily Cole first launched her social giving site Impossible in 2013 the initial aim was to encourage people to trade without money, allowing users to help each other for free. Now she has a new focus: addressing the commerce model and encouraging brands to become more transparent to help change how consumers think about money.

Discussing the original impetus behind her social gifting platform Impossible, she tells The Drum: “The aim was to try and connect people to trade without money. It was post-economic crisis and we were talking about why is it that society is so dependent on money?” That seed of an idea was five years ago, and since launch in 2013 has steadily bloomed into a website that has fulfilled countless ‘wishes’, or requests for services pro bono by its users.

Cole came up with the premise of Impossible just as the idea of the sharing economy was beginning to weave its way into society and disrupt the norms of how and when money exchanges hands. “It’s been really interesting to watch that space grow and move because we’ve had the proliferation of peer to peer trading sites,” she explains.

“They are slightly different in manifestation to what we are doing at Impossible because usually money is involved, Airbnb and Uber X the two most notable examples. I definitely think that thesis was correct and we are only potentially at the beginning of seeing what the internet can do in terms of offering different ways of trading with one another.”

Socially conscious commerce

It’s that curiosity and confidence in the power of the internet to benefit society both socially and psychologically that has led Cole to embark on the second manifestation of Impossible – to take its socially conscious community and relay that ideal to commerce.

“I think that what we buy as individuals has a profoundly political impact,” she says.

“How we spend our money shapes the world that we create and how you spend your money means you are voting for a certain system of doing business. It’s really necessary for people to become more conscious about the power they have with money every day.”

Cole says one of the biggest barriers to entry to changing the way people think about money is that “opaque” brands make it hard for consumers to understand the true impact of how they manufacture goods.

To help change this Impossible is working with a number of artisanal and socially-conscious brands to showcase the companies it believes are operating in a positive way. On the website’s e-commerce platform users can buy anything from jewellery made by the San tribe in South Africa to soon-to-be launched items from designers Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood. A physical presence of Impossible also opened its doors at London’s The Glass House, which acts a showroom of sorts for people to allow people to feel and test products before buying. The company is run as a business, with profits reinvested into its social aims – vendors on the e-commerce platform receive a share of the revenue generated from sales with the rest to be reinvested in Impossible.

Another facet to Impossible’s commerce ambitions is to create editorial content to tell the story of how products sold on its site are made. The company has teamed with Provenance, a real-time data platform that helps brands promote supply chain transparency, to create that content.

“We are at the beginning of that process but I think it is very important to work out how much information we need to give. That makes it authentic but also keeps it engaging to people,” says Cole. “We want to look at how can we open up supply chains and Provenance is looking at block chain technology, which is the technology behind Bitcoin, to make that more secure. We’ve partnered with Provenance because it’s quite a challenging thing to do, bringing transparency into supply chains, and we believe the more brains the better.”

The long-term editorial plan is to crowdsource stories and enable users of the platform, and those outside of it, to become part of the dialogue. It’s an important step to take, stresses Cole, who doesn’t want Impossible to morph into a “singular omnipotent authority” on whether a company is good or bad.

While the e-commerce offering currently sits side by side with Impossible’s social network, the idea in the future is to integrate the two in a deeper way.

“The long-term ambition is to continue growing both those entities and grow a movement platform whereby people can take a certain way of seeing the world, which is really just caring, and apply that in different areas of their life, whether that be connecting to strangers or their local community or purchasing products they know are having a positive impact.”

Is it enough to subvert capitalism? Could we see society taking a more positive approach to business once and for all? It remains to be seen whether Cole’s mission will be successful, but the appetite for Impossible indicates consumers are becoming more aware of their options. And that can only be a good thing.

This feature is published in The Drum's 9 December issue, published this week.

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