Ho do co-ops decide which clients to work with from an ethical P.O.V?

Hey folks,

Does anyone have any policies or any work that they have done to come to an agreement about how to decide which clients to work with? And also about who (in the co-op) makes that decision?

In the past we’ve broadly said that we don’t work with the fossil fuels industry or the military/weapons industry. Beyond this, it’s pretty much up to the individuals if they want to work on a project. Plus we mostly have seen Outlandish as having a ‘Robin Hood’ model - so if we work with organisations who aren’t 100% ethical, we charge them more and that allows us to do more good stuff with our money.

However, lately we’ve seen a couple of edge cases and realised that we don’t necessarily have a completely shared understanding of what we work on, or who can block us from working on a project. We want to get the balance right so that we remain sustainable, but also we want to feel confident in our decisions.

If anyone has any thoughts on the above I’d be really interested to hear them.



Great topic, thanks Polly!

For myself, and when I participate in collective decision-making, it’s more the project than the client. As the client is less and less ethically in tune with me (and I say me rather than us because our ethics do vary a fair bit between members) I see it as less likely to find good work, but still not inconceivable. Even with, say, the military I can envisage trauma-healing work; or establishing information systems to help people move out as and when they discover their own ethics. With the fossil fuels industry I can imagine (even if only barely!) initiatives that aren’t just greenwashing, and which move to diversify away from extraction.

I see it as a hard option to say collectively ‘no’ to a client that some members are happy working with. What I would be completely solid about is that there should be no pressure at all, implicit or explicit, for anyone to do work that is against their conscience.

Maybe it would be good practice for co-ops to dialogue around this every so often; to understand each others’ ethics, whether just felt or rationally justified. In any learning organisation I would hope (hope, this is not from experience!) that its members are each supported to develop in their awareness and their authenticity.

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Ethics are subjective, so you would need to have an agreement on what your collective ethics are and draw out your red lines. This will lead to many, many conversations and responsibility delegated to someone to maintain your ethical guidelines.

This will also lead to confusion, and perhaps discontent in the organisation if the reporting process is not kept transparent, which could well lead to negative business performance.

Alternatively, you could delegate to a small group who have a particular interest in deciding the ethical soundness of a particular organisation, either internally or externally.

An internal model requires multiple levels of governance to satisfy everybody’s need for democratic input in the running of things. If you outsource it, it saves you a lot of organisational time so you can just get on with doing your project work.

Eg, find an ethics consultant you can use as a business intelligence service to verify the pros and cons of your prospective client who can provide a well sourced recommendation, tailored to the ethical profile of Outlandish as an organisation. It’s quite niche, but BH have been doing this for years, perhaps to our detriment…!

You go: hey, Consultant, is Pension Company X good or bad, and the Consultant goes: well, they’re kind of lawfully good, but after some research they’ve been investing in black label mercenary companies so you many want to give it a miss. Or, if you’re interested in a Robin Hood approach, these are a list of organisations you can volunteer pro-bono time in order to balance it out.


Good topic @polly!

Basically we’ve done it by having a very clear mission, vision and values and basically asking ourselves when a project comes in:

  1. Does it align with our mission? If not really close to it, how far away is it and is this acceptable?
  2. Will it pursue our vision?
  3. Will be feel like we compromise any of our values in doing this work?

We have a supplementary rule that says we “do not work with law enforcement authorities, be that the police, immigration enforcement officers, or those who have close associations with the police, like contractors or groups of engineers”.

The whole coop are pitched the project in our opportunity development meetings. In theory utlimately the members will decide, but as non-members will be working on stuff that comes in, they have a say too. At this meeting, we will be offered the chance to reject it on these grounds. We’ve done this a few times. Sometimes because it feels like excessive mission drift rather than because the person or organisation we would be working with is ethically problematic. But other times it has been because the politics the organisation are endorsing don’t feel right to us, or that we’d be intervening in a political situation we didn’t have a clear understanding of who precisely we were empowering and what they stood for.

I feel there is a lot in the Robin Hood model. It’s not something we’ve ever had the opportunity to do quite yet. We’d have to consider it if it did and I am sure and faced with the reality of the situation it would become a lot more “real”. Which is to say, this model hasn’t been tested in a situation where the redistributing bit could be transformational so the we’ve not played it with “real money” (ha!). Worth saying that Thoughtworks were set up to run in a Robin Hood way.

Unfortunately in capitalism money is capability and autonomy for many things and to generate this and redistribute it is certainly a strategy. Often the work done for charities is ultimately funded by the fact that someone at some point got hugely rich and set up a philanthropic foundation.

So at a higher level of abstraction even saying something like “we only work with non-profits” doesn’t avoid this issue and it feels contradictory to say no to the Robin Hood model and work with organisations that wouldn’t exist without some version of it happening at some point in time. Sometimes as a result of money made in version of capitalism far more horrifying than our own (i.e. those that, say, involved the slave trade).

Sanctuary Computer in the States have an interesting approach to this but do much more straightforwardly "commercial’ work (i.e. big brands) than many coops in the UK at least - Our Moral Compass - by Sanctuary Computer - garden3d

It is refreshingly clear as to the red lines. Seems like a solid starting point and this thread is making me think we should make it more explicit!

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Personally, (and of course it is just personal) I find myself in sympathy with quite a bit of garden3d’s piece in general. However this extract on “Moral Turpitude”…

If an individual is accused of immoral, unethical or unjust behavior, we have a zero tolerance policy, and always default to believing the victim’s word. We do not attempt to make judgements around whether the accused has been reformed, nor do we wade into the details of the accusation to try and make a judgement call. It’s not our place, we simply move on.

looks at least on the surface as taking a position that you could call “guilty until proved innocent”, but actually not even that, it looks more like “once accused, always guilty” which opens huge gates to abuse. All someone has to do is to accuse an enemy of moral turpitude, and that’s it. What happens when two opposing groups each accuse the other of moral turpitude I shudder to think.

So it seems to me not at all clear as to the red lines, and some “clearer” red lines seem to me wholly unjustifiable. As such, the piece as a whole looks to me more like simplistic virtue signalling.

Now of course if you have a niche clientele and you need to do some virtue signalling to get their work, that is understandable, but I don’t see how that is better than or fundamentally different from greenwashing.

yeah it’s an interesting thing to point out. I can’t imagine working in an organisation that sacks you (or worse…!) immediately if someone says something bad about you. It would be like being in some kind of prison camp where everyone would be afraid of doing anything, and the best ‘accuser’ will become the boss, I suppose leading to some form of classical Egyptian pyramid scheme.

I would, however, love to live in a world where this kind of office environment is greeted with ridicule, because then maybe organisations wouldn’t do it and people could have more fun.

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@3wordchant ready to publish our WIP ethical process? :upside_down_face:

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Thank you for sparking this inspiring conversation @polly !

When faced with this question a few years ago we decided to develop a KPI-oriented approach, which originally only worked as a post-project assessment tool - our first annual report with some background.

Then we moved to also assessing work opportunities before we take them on. Here’s our latest report, which also recaps on changes we have done to the original framework.

We look at the scores on a quarterly basis. If we don’t comply with our policy target over consecutive 18 months (6 quarterly reports) we have 6 more months to rectify our trajectory or else we dissolve (more details in the policy itself and our AoA).

Our current challenge lies with assessing projects at the opportunity stage - most often we only get to properly run through KPIs when we are about to start working on the project. Perhaps this is in line with the Social Value policy origin, which was (&is) to monitor whether we stray away from our desired trajectory.

Would be very happy to discuss more and learn from everyone’s experience!


It’s an interesting discussion because ethics evolve over time, and, at least in our case, we find ourselves looking back at some of our work and wondering how ‘ethical’ it actually was. Of course, in the heat of production it was the most ethical thing in the world and we were ‘making a difference’, but time passes and contexts shift.

I think the best solution is that if you practice coop principles and values, the work delivered for any client ought to be ‘ethical’ and perhaps even form the basis for organisational change in ‘unethical’ organisations.

If you market the company as one that does work for socially aware organisations, it’s unlikely you’ll attract work from evil companies. Unless you manage to attract evil companies looking to market themselves as ethical (and they usually offer tantalising budgets).

All balanced with trying to earn enough cash to pay the bills, whilst retaining a degree of ‘righteousness’ to remain ‘revolutionary’ and not do work for some annoying bureaucratic conglomerate (and not becoming one yourself).

And the real issue is that once you scale operations to do the work for evil companies marketing themselves as ethical, you need to keep doing that kind of work in order to pay for the overheads you needed to invest in in order to deliver the work.

Maybe this is a universal dilemma amongst cooperative enterprises, and the best solution is to find some form of benign passive income so you don’t have to engage in this problem at all, as the solution to ethical evaluations probably doesn’t exist to any level of satisfaction (as evidenced by this thread).

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Wow thanks everyone for some very enlightened and thorough responses.

Definitely it’s time for Outlandish to formalise some of our processes around this. It’s been a while since we revisited our mission, vision and values. And we certainly don’t have a social value scoring matrix like Animorph’s. We’re going to have a workshop in a couple of weeks to discuss this and hopefully we’ll come out of it with some updated agreements. I’ll report back.

As ever, big love to the coop community for sharing all this wisdom.



We look at the scores on a quarterly basis. If we don’t comply with our policy target over consecutive 18 months (6 quarterly reports) we have 6 more months to rectify our trajectory or else we dissolve (more details in the policy itself and our AoA).

Wow, I absolutely love hard coding not meeting the ethics KPI === dissolving the whole coop into your articles. This is playing hard ball!

someone should invent a radar gun to detect malicious intent, would save us all a lot of time eh

@decentral1se no, but maybe a sneak preview:

We did a coöp-wide survey asking for stand-asides / blocks for different kinds of work, we got a few blocks, and that resulted in a mini shit-list:

  • Advertising
  • Biotech / pharmaceuticals
  • Fossil fuels
  • “Gig economy”, e.g. Uber, Deliveroo, etc.
  • Harmful, addictive substances (e.g. sugar, tobacco, alcohol)
  • Military / security
  • Property management

This worked so well that just sending it to a prospective client smoked out their weapons technology aspirations and saved us all wasting each other’s lives :relieved:

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It’s a tricky one, but at We Are Open:

  • We have the Spirit of WAO which helps figure out whether it meshes with our ethos
  • We discuss our pipeline / bizdev at our weekly meetings, and people can raise ethical concerns.

However, it’s essentially a case of an individual member convincing other members to work on a project with them. If no-one else wants to do it, then they can always work on it outside the co-op…

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