Friday, 29 January 2016

There's a Company Trying to Change the World... By Selling Tea Towels

Let me take you back to the 12th of September, 2015: Jeremy Corbyn has just won the Labour Leadership election with a landslide victory and 59% of the vote. There's a speech, a pub, some red flags and wait, what's that? A tea towel? 
Yep, that's right: one of Jeremy Corbyn's first acts as the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition was to hold up a tea towel. A Tony Benn tea towel, in fact, adorned with one of the late Labour MP's most inspirational quotations: "Hope is the fuel of progress, and fear is the prison in which you put yourself." The BBC's Allegra Stratton tweeted during the event, saying: "Quite a moment this - Jeremy Corbyn holding up a Tony Benn tea towel. Some would say the Bennites won today."
But who on earth is making these radical tea towels? Well, it's none other than The Radical Tea Towel Company, an online business that prides itself on its creation of radical, left-wing, environmentalist and liberal-themed merchandise. Their slogan speaks for itself: "You wash, I'll try... to change the world."
I know what you're thinking: who buys this sort of stuff? As with a number of online niche businesses, a surprising number of people, apparently. The company makes thousands of sales every year, their chief market being the large number of left-wingers who like to wear their values on their sleeve and give gifts that 'mean' something. 
The Radical Tea Towel Company told me that their little family venture was no more than an "idea around the kitchen table" that quickly developed into a full-time business. Started in May 2011 as a bit of fun, the company gradually gained traction online through social media and other outlets. In fact, they now have over fifteen thousand Facebook fans and hundreds of followers on Twitter, including the Green Party and their leader Natalie Bennett, Channel 4's Harry Horton, Stewart McDonald MP, Red Pepper magazine, the "JeremyCorbyn4PM" campaign, and a number of the UK's Labour party groups.
In late 2011, the company featured in the Guardian newspaper's "What You Like" column after jokingly sending one of their "Keep Left" tea towels to the notoriously bigoted Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, suggesting that he follow their advice. Unsurprisingly, Clarkson didn't get back to them...
All of their products are manufactured in the UK and designed in-house by the entrepreneurial family that founded the company from their front room. With a father delivering the product and website design, a mother organising the fulfilment and customer service, and a son running the social media and business side of things, they make a perfect team. 
The idea originally came about when the family were contemplating what to buy for a politically-active relative for his 91st birthday. It was then that they believed they'd found a gap in the market: a lack of liberal or left-wing merchandise other than t-shirts and badges. Tea towels were apparently the 'obvious' choice: they're something that everyone needs and uses every day, and decorating them with poignant quotations and images seemed to be the best way to convey pertinent messages and ideals. But The Radical Tea Towel Company doesn't just make tea towels: more recently, the family has started selling aprons, mugs, fridge-magnets and even Christmas cards. 
Starting a small business wasn't easy, they told me, particularly in the economic climate at the start of this decade. But despite having to juggle several projects at once, they continue to thrive, still packing their orders from their home in South Wales, with help from a few friends and seasonal workers. They also remain committed to their goal of "spreading thoughtful and interesting ideas across the world" whilst supporting ethical UK manufacturing. 
Whatever our political views, maybe we can all learn something from this family's little venture. They've shown that we can all do something, no matter what it is, to change the world for the better and to spread the beliefs that we hold dear. A little so-called 'armchair activism' never hurt anyone!
But will making tea towels actually have any effect on today's political landscape? Arguably not; but Jeremy Corbyn's act of holding up their tea towel at least demonstrates an ability to promote ideas and to push out inspiring messages from historical campaigners. The Radical Tea Towel Company is perhaps an example of the UK left's newfound confidence, unafraid of openly voicing their views and beliefs now that one of their fellow radicals has won the Labour leadership. The company shows that the left have not given up hope - even if they risk becoming torchbearers for the capitalist system!

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