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Archive for June, 2009

Ben Barry’s After-School Project

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

May 31, 2009

Greetings, all:

Because I need to finish the book I’m writing on the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, I’m taking a leave of absence from the Herald for the month of June. I won’t be filing another column after this one until July.

This column — like several other recent columns — is actually a shortened section from the book. I hope you enjoy it.


Ben Barry’s After-School Project

“I started my business when I was 14, in Grade 9,” says Ben Barry. “My company was focussed on trying to challenge status quo beauty, and create a fashion industry that celebrates beauty that’s authentic, beauty that’s in everyone and that really works to empower, and develop positive self-esteem.”

It started when a friend at Ben’s Ottawa high school took a modelling course — and was told to change her appearance, and lose some weight.

“I thought she was beautiful, and she shouldn’t have to change herself,” Ben remembers. “So I sent off her picture to magazines and local companies, and got phone calls back from people that wanted to hire her, and assumed that I was her agent.”

His first model was delighted that Ben had found work for her, and began sending other friends to him. He found work for them too, and soon he was hanging between the two worlds of fashion and high school — and making some interesting links between them.

“I was learning about the strict criteria the fashion industry has for models and their narrow idea of beauty — and I was seeing that my high-school friends and their families certainly didn’t look like the models in the ads. In fact, looking at these models day after day was negatively impacting their sense of themselves. The culture is so visual. You have images on the internet, in magazines, on billboards, on buses, on university campuses — and every image is essentially the same. So inevitably that one ideal seeps into your system.

“So I just wanted to have my friends and their families represented. We’re not trying to replace one ideal with another. What I wanted to see was body variety, and age variety, and cultural background variety, so that you see a plethora of different shapes and forms and sizes and ages and backgrounds represented in the images.”

After high school, Ben Barry got a Millennium scholarship and headed off to the University of Toronto to study business. He quickly realized that he already knew a good deal about business, and thought he should broaden his horizons by studying something else. He chose Women’s Studies, and it was “the best decision possible. It changed the whole way I thought about my business.”

He concluded that it was not healthy for his models to work full-time as models, because in modelling “they’re solely valued for how they look. And in fact they’re more successful and more creative when they bring their varied life experiences to bear on their modelling. So the models we represent are artists, students, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and we really encourage them to reveal their personalities and their character and their attitude in their work.”

Does this remind you of the surprising array of beautiful and varied women in the Dove soap “Campaign for Real Beauty?” Yes? No wonder. Ben Barry consulted with Ogilvy Mather, the advertising agency behind the campaign, and also provided some of the models. And how did the campaign succeed in the marketplace? Within six months of the first installment of the campaign, Dove’s sales increased by 700%.

Which proves that the consumer is ready for a different approach to modelling and beauty, right?

Well, maybe. Other companies and agencies remained wary. The Dove campaign, they said, was a fluke. It worked for Dove, but where was the research to support this wacko notion that consumers would respond well to real models?

If the research didn’t exist, Ben would create it. He signed up for graduate studies at Cambridge University, winning an M.Phil. in 2007. Now he’s running focus groups and surveys in Canada, the US, the UK, China, India and Brazil, testing “whether viewing models of the age, size and cultural background of the consumer increase purchase intentions more than using a model that reflects the current Western beauty ideal.” When he’s done, he’ll have a PhD.

Meanwhile, the Ben Barry Agency has grown to represent more than 300 models — all of them beautiful, every one unique. It employs 30 trusted people who keep it humming while Ben commutes between England and Toronto, running his life from his laptop. The agency is 12 years old now.

And Ben Barry is 26.

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Jeff Rubin: Prophet of Petroleum

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

May 24, 2009

When Jeff Rubin said that oil was going to $50 a barrel, other economists thought he was on drugs. But it did. They scoffed again when he said it would go beyond $100. It went to $147 before dropping to $50. Don’t be suckered, says Rubin. As the recession ends, oil will go far higher — $200, $400, who knows?

For 20 years, Rubin was Chief Economist at CIBC World Markets. His newly-published book Why Your World Is About To Get a Whole Lot Smaller (Random House,$29.95) rests on a simple argument. Our entire globalized economy depends on cheap oil, but we have already burned most of the easily-obtained free-flowing oil. That’s why we’re now spending vast amounts to wring the difficult oil from the deep sea and the tar sands, because that’s all that’s left.

So the world’s steadily-rising demand for oil ultimately can’t be satisfied. According to conventional economics, when a thing is scarce, its price goes up. Higher prices stimulate more production, which drives the price down again. But not this time. With the easy oil already used, we’ll be hard-pressed even to maintain today’s production for very long. More and more dollars will chase less and less oil, and the price will soar.

When the oil price jumps, the economy slumps. One of Rubin’s startling assertions is that four of the last five world recessions were caused by upward spikes in oil prices — two after the OPEC oil shocks of the 1970s, one after Iraq invaded Kuwait and torched its oil wells, and another one right now. This recession, Rubin contends, is a result not of malodorous mortgages in Middle America, but of $147 oil.

There’s a pattern, says Rubin. The oil price rises, and the economy stalls. The demand for oil then drops sharply, and the oil price falls. Consumers and producers alike heave a sigh of relief and get back to work until the next spike. But notice this: the prices always ratchet upward. In 2000, when Rubin predicted $50 oil, a $30 price was considered high. Just eight years later, we regard $50 oil as cheap.

Without cheap oil, the globalized economy withers. As fuel costs become prohibitive, companies stop importing raw materials and shipping products halfway around the world. High transport costs, says Rubin, work exactly the same as a tariff, penalizing imports. Firms realize that they can compete more effectively if their factory is close to the consumer.

The bad news is, no more Chinese-made bargains at Wal-Mart, no more cheap food from California and Chile. The good news is, a lot more jobs in factories close to home, and a bright new dawn for local agriculture.

Coping with climate change will also erode globalization. Rubin predicts that the US will soon impose mandatory carbon controls on its own industries — and will insist that its trading partners cut their own emissions too, or face a carbon tariff for their products at the border.

Indeed, a carbon-control bill now in Congress includes a provision to impose tariffs on imports from countries with lax climate-change rules. The main target is China, but Stephen Harper’s Canada is not exempt. Expect hard questions about the tar sands, for instance. Bob Page, an Alberta energy executive, chairs the national roundtable on environment and the economy, a true fox in the henhouse. He condemns the Congressional initiative as “protectionism.” I’d call it “leadership.”

The inevitable adjustments will be painful for a small province that generates power from coal and heats its homes with oil, but we may like the eventual results. Think of walkable neighbourhoods, efficient public transit, revitalized small towns and villages, close relationships between local businesses and customers. Cleaner air, safer food, healthier forests. How bad is that? Europeans, Rubin notes, already live like that. In 1950 we lived that way too, and we thought our lives were pretty good.

Is Rubin correct? Well, this summer, Marjorie and I are going to insulate and tighten the house, build a woodshed and install a solar hot water heater. Last winter’s oil prices were an unexpected gift. They gave us a chance to prepare for the next spike — and we’re not going to waste it.

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