[Written by Rosa Gilder (she/her)]
Content Warning : brief mention of mental illness
Free time, made available during lockdown, offers a variety of new opportunities but to choose to be productive with this time, to improve or make something, is another matter. The pandemic, placing a hole in people’s schedules, disrupted ‘normal life’ and allowed entrepreneurs to create new businesses in response to the crisis. These start-up businesses joined the life and death of companies in a time of record unemployment and predictions of a major recession. Are these businesses new capitalist opportunities springing from distress or do they offer ordinary people a leg-up in an ever-changing market?
With spare time available new ventures have developed out of need: financial need, need for mental outreach, need in the market. Constance (@lovecutsilver), a lockdown business starter, commented on this: “Initially, when I started making bits of jewellery my intention wasn’t to start a small business. Lockdown was a really good chance to pause […] and have a go at some more creative things.”
Lockdown also presented a positive opening in the creative industries, providing scope for new potential careers. Constance remarked: “[…]my dream job would be a professional silversmith, but I really didn’t think that was feasible”. Adaptation became fundamental during lockdown, the world halted and businesses did not function as usual. For Kate (@live.laugh.lobe) and her postponing volunteering in the Philippines, a start-up company offered a new way to fundraise. Kate comments that despite “already planning on making earrings as a way of fundraising […] I was not planning to do it to the degree I have done now”.
New businesses take the form of both ‘side hustles’, like Kate or Constance’s, and full-time businesses, such as Olivia’s (@olivia.fit) sports training and rehabilitation company, which initially began to get a “bit more money”. Olivia states that her entrepreneurial drive offered a self-betterment purpose and was “one of the main ways that [I got] out of my depression”. These unexpected benefits aided all interviewees, with Kate commenting that it “made lockdown so much more bearable. I now understand more what’s going on behind the scenes of small, local businesses and how important it is to support them”.
This inclusivity towards other independent sellers offers an interesting question about the ironic nature of start-up companies. Despite closures of long-standing businesses past recessions have led to some high-profile companies (with Uber and Airbnb founded in the 2008 financial crash) highlighting the power economic downturn can have on global markets. Ruth (@reworkedbyruth), a mask seller, commented “I think it was a really unique situation […] where I was making and selling something [at the start] that the shops weren’t.”
Some lockdown businesses found gaps in the market, utilising this before factories started churning out masks. Etsy reported that over a weekend, buyers searched for face masks an average of nine times per second; it is not surprising that face mask sellers on the site grew by five. Capitalising on demand makes businesses thrive but also makes their origin stories questionable.
Many of these start-up companies initially sold their products through social media and/or companies such as Etsy and Depop. Holding onto the capitalist agenda, these shopping apps profit from other people’s labour with both sites charging sellers fees. Ruth added: “It’s impossible to sell completely handmade clothes on those sites for people our age and make a good profit.” Interestingly during lockdown, Depop witnessed double its usual demand, allowing for a hiring spree. Mirroring that, new businesses offer a new income for younger entrepreneurs while young people suffer the biggest unemployment rate. As Constance comments, “I spend about 10 hours a week working so it works well as a part-time job!”
Opening scope for an enquiry into ethical capitalism, within which companies contain a moral imperative to better society, these new businesses can build ethical foundations. New companies tend to hold higher values and some traditional business empires maintain long-standing unethical practices. Small businesses, therefore, offer an escape from the capitalist agenda of large corporations towards hand-crafted products, with many large companies holding non-ethical values behind a pretence of greenwashing. But things are usually different with small businesses, as Ruth explains, “In theory, everyone who has a reusable mask doesn’t use disposable ones, so they don’t contribute to landfill.” Homemade reusable masks do offer a partial solution to the single-use masks’ waste and plastic pollution, many sewn, like Ruth’s, utilising “fabric that I’ve had lying around since I was a kid.”
However, is it morally acceptable to profit from masks, PPE, or hand sanitiser when they’re necessary items, amidst a pandemic? It is important to note a difference in the people who, despite making facemasks, have done so in an ethically correct way, rather than those selling ‘coronavirus essentials’ at highly inflated prices. Price transparency and affordability play a crucial part in the ethics of companies. As Ruth adds, “I was very aware of this [pandemic capitalising] from the start which is why I never charged more than £5 for a mask.”
It can be argued that many companies make masks as a lifeline. With the British Fashion Council predicting up to 240,000 jobs at risk, the mask industry has offered new expansion opportunities. For Ruth, making facemasks fashionable “hopefully means they wear a mask more than they would have if they didn’t have one of mine”. Offering a touch of individuality to an outfit while helping slow the spread of coronavirus seems reasonable. But coronavirus is a crisis that respects no economic division and utilising facemasks as designer items (like designer Virgil Abloh £70 masks) has become the first signifier of the individual while broadcasting inequality. In contrast, the proliferation of homemade masks being somewhat quirkily diverse, when united with craftiness, signifies the wearer’s communal experience.
A flurry of new businesses have arisen from a graveyard of bankruptcies and closures. Offering fresh faces, they stand as blockades to large corporate companies and hopefully propose ethically sound alternatives. Capitalising on desperation remains morally unethical but starting up a business during a pandemic doesn’t necessarily equal moral outcry.