What’s in a name?

the naming of thingsI am not a person who is known for my love of high culture. Business, drive, innovation, Shania Twain perhaps – but not high culture. The closest I come to the cultural icon who is T S Elliot is his poem ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’, or probably if I am honest, just the musical ‘Cats’. But in that poem he has a section called the Naming of Cats and in thinking about this blog I discovered that this whole area is usually referred to as ‘nomenclature’ – the study of the naming of things. Anyway, in ‘Cats’ we are told that all cats have not one but three names and if you ever see one in deep contemplation then it because he is consumed in ‘the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name: his ineffable effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable singular Name.”

Well in the style of the Aldi advert, ‘I don’t like cats, I like dogs’. So why all this talk of cats and their names?

I spend my time looking at social challenges and trying to find innovative, entrepreneurial paths through them. At the moment I am spending a lot of time thinking about food, its supply and production, the oversupply in the food chain and the people experiencing food poverty. In order to find solutions to social problems I think it is sometimes best to look at the problem every single way round, and inside out, until you see something that helps you think about it differently. And here is the reason for my drivel about cats (did I mention I don’t like cats…), anyway.

Naming of Names Part I

I am working with colleagues and one of them has spent decades in the commercial food redistribution business. His business rescues tens of thousands of tonnes of food each year and retails it to people, often low paid, in the food production and supply industry. He does this not as a charity but as a business. The first naming of names. He is part of a business that is proudly low key, proudly down to earth and very northern. Where there’s muck there’s brass. I am blown away by the work they do. Rescuing tens of thousands of tonnes of food from landfill, having a massive positive impact on the environment and people’s lives and providing well paid employment for over 400 people. In any other part of Europe this would be seen as social business and would be hailed for its sustainability. Here in the UK because it’s not a registered charity it is, well, not even recognised for the work it does. It’s all about the naming of names, and sometimes cats have three names.

Naming of Names Part II – the important sequel

But here is my second revelation from the naming of names. The guy who runs this business has a visible strop if people call this food, waste. Because, it is not waste until it is thrown in the bin. Like people who often say, there is no such thing in Britain as bad weather, just the wrong kind of clothes.

And here, in his down to earth passion and protest about food being called ‘waste’, is my greatest revelation about the problem of food being ‘wasted’ while people are going hungry.

Ever since our ancient ancestors gathered together in clans and tribes and hunted and gathered, we have sought to produce surplus, we have longed for a little excess. Why? Because when the tough times came, when the trees were bare and the fields fallow we would have enough stored up from the surpluses we had collected in the good times. This is what tribes did to survive the fluctuation of the seasons. And when times got hard and when some in that tribe didn’t have enough, the tribe would release the surpluses they had carefully acquired in order to meet the need. That food which was over produced was not waste – it was salvation. In the DNA of our human race this activity was our survival instinct. So there is nothing wrong with over supply or over production.

The only thing our ancestors would have puzzled at is a tribe that judiciously over produces and then, noticing that some members of the tribe are hungry, destroys the surpluses.

They would have really scratched their heads at that.

So do I.

Naming of Names Part III – a third way

Well, if cats have three names then I am guessing that I am looking for a ‘third way’;

A way not constrained by having to be a charity ‘doing good’, or even sometimes seeking to perpetuate the reason for the existence of the charity rather than solve the problem.

A way not satisfied to call over supply in the food chain, ‘waste’ and then treat the whole problem as a ‘waste disposal problem’.

A way not happy to sit by and watch food bank use top half a million people this year.

I guess I am looking for a way to look at this problem and perform a kind of social alchemy. So I am working hard in this area knowing that the answer is to be found in naming that food as it is, and not as waste, and working out how together we use it in the best way.


About Sarah Dunwell

Sarah Dunwell is executive director of Arena Partners and has twenty years experience in the corporate and business sector. After a number of senior roles in customer service and retail management, Sarah led her own successful catering business and is experienced in business turn around and SME growth. Sarah has a particular interest in the role of robust business planning and development in the not-for-profit sector. Her passion lies in seeing social businesses grow successfully and sustainably through creating mature businesses that deliver strong social agendas.
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