sustainability | Dec 5, 2023 |
House of Hackney’s newest board member is Mother Nature

House of Hackney, the British lifestyle brand known for its bold florals and art nouveau motifs, recently announced two new board members: Mother Nature and Future Generations. You read that right–the Mother Nature and those who haven't even been born yet. The move was not some sort of publicity stunt designed to draw attention to the company’s ample green bona fides (it is already a B Corp and partners with the World Land Trust)—it’s a real, legally binding act. Mother Nature and Future Generations have been given legal personhood on the company’s board, in the form of a non-partisan individual from outside the company who will represent the two entities moving forward and have a voice in business decisions across all departments.

The House of Hackney founders, Frieda Gormley and Javvy M Royle, were inspired to make the move after learning that U.K.-based cosmetic company Faith In Nature had taken a similar action in 2022, adding “nature” to their board. “Our minds were kind of blown when we learned about what Faith In Nature had done,” says Gormley. “On paper, we would already have been called a sustainable business, but this prompted a rise in our consciousness. It showed us that there was an opportunity that would allow us to move beyond our good intentions, which we’ve always had toward the environment, and legally enshrine them.”

House of Hackney’s newest board member is Mother Nature
Frieda GormleyCourtesy of House of Hackney

Gormley and Royle worked with Lawyers for Nature, a U.K.-based collective of attorneys, researchers and activists that had helped orchestrate the move for Faith In Nature. Members of the group are advocates of the nature’s rights movement, which pushes to give legal rights to the natural world.

That campaign has taken many surprising shapes in recent years, and not just across the pond. A practical example of the larger movement’s goals came to fruition in 2021 when a group of waterways in central Florida independently sued to stop the construction of a housing development. In 2020, the affected area had been given legal personhood by the voters of Orange County (which encompasses Orlando and the bulk of Disney World), and an environmental lawyer helped craft the suit. It was one of the first notable cases of its kind, garnering international attention before a judge dismissed the lawsuit, citing a state law that disallowed granting legal rights to any “part of the natural environment.”

Because House of Hackney is based in the U.K.—where, like the U.S., nature does not have constitutional rights—the founders had to appoint a human as the legal representative for its two new board members, tapping Lawyers for Nature director Brontie Ansell. “My role here is to be a conduit and a voice for Mother Nature and Future Generations, with the freedom to consult a wide network of experts as and when required,” says Ansell. “This system is designed in a way to avoid bias—personally, professionally and financially—and to provide a truly ethical view of the business and all decisions made. … We’re breaking new ground here, and we’ve been learning as we go, which is exactly what nature does as well.”

Gormley and Royle felt that if their goal was to give a voice to the voiceless, then having a representative for future generations was an equally important addition. Gormley was particularly inspired after reading about a philosophy put forth by the Haudenosaunee (an alliance of six Native American nations more commonly known as the Iroquois Confederacy), which affirms that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. “For us, that became crucial—this idea of legacy planning. It made us question, Why aren’t we applying that? How can we make that a part of our decision-making? The capitalist model is so focused on three- to five-year business plans, which are very short-term and shareholder driven,” says Gormley. “We wanted to rethink that.”

Ansell says that the process of working with House of Hackney over the past year to bring this initiative to its legal reality was akin to making the company go to therapy, causing its team to deeply interrogate their values and motives. “It’s a very different way of thinking, where we’re asking you to unwind this disruptive, capitalist mindset of making as many things and as much money as quickly as possible, and instead consider: What does the world need right now, and what can my business do for the world?” she explains. “We’re not asking pioneering businesses to choose between making money or answering to nature. But we do ask that the business leaders that we work with do some really deep work, where you might have to sit at home with a glass of wine and start to think of nature as a shareholder in this world instead of a police force that you have to answer to.”

As House of Hackney moves forward with its two new board members, Gormley says the company is closely evaluating its manufacturing and supply chains, moving toward a goal to become a regenerative business—a more ambitious idea that goes beyond the basic tenets of sustainability by promoting the restoration and recreation of natural resources and social systems. The company recently hired a Head of Regeneration, Kellie Dalton, to shepherd it on that path, and has enrolled the senior management team in a course on regenerative economics. Early efforts are already hitting the market: The brand is sourcing fibers from regenerative farmers and recently released a line of Christmas decor that features sustainably harvested mycelium and wool. “This journey often feels like trying to write with your left hand,” says Gormley. “You’re having to unlearn certain behaviors and be creative with how you move forward.”

Making progress has also meant learning to say no. As House of Hackney continues to explore possibilities like alternative materials and sustainable supply chains, making better choices for the environment often means ending relationships with some existing vendors. “It’s difficult, but we’ve tried to be really transparent and say, ‘Look, this is where we’re at on this journey, and if you get to a point where you’re there too, we’d be happy to work together again in the future,’” says Gormley.

To that end, she’s been actively trying to connect manufacturers with alternative materials experts in order to help facilitate solutions more quickly. Gormley’s current mission is to find a way to make wallpaper, the brand’s number-one category, without cutting down any trees. “We need collaboration over competition, and it’s going to take really open communication to make that happen,” she says.

For a small company to make this change might not seem revolutionary—House of Hackney isn’t Ikea, after all. (It has under 100 employees.) But in the U.K., small- and medium-sized entities make up 99 percent of the country’s business population, a statistic that Gormley finds encouraging. “The story of capitalism and trying to function apart from nature, it hasn’t worked,” she says. “If businesses can come together, I think there’s an opportunity to accelerate change. The private sector can step into its power, accept this duty and act.”

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