‘Justice is served!’: scoring tiny wins over big companies, one disgruntled email at a time

<span>Photograph: Dan Matthews/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Dan Matthews/The Guardian

A while ago – in September 2020 to be precise – Joe in London bought a kettle. Not just any kettle: this was a designer kettle, by Sowden for Hay, in cream, with a red base and a blue lid. “Because I’m the type of millennial who believes I deserve a little treat, even when I’m just buying a kettle,” he says.

The kettle took 10 months to arrive – but that’s not central to the story. What is important is that a couple of months later, the kettle malfunctioned: the lid release button jammed, and Joe had to manually prise the lid open. Annoying, right? Certainly not what you’d expect from a £100 kettle.

He got in touch with the online store he’d bought it from, and they asked him to send a video of the faulty lid mechanism, which he did. “At that point we entered into the kind of protracted negotiations unseen since the Treaty of Versailles,” Joe says.

It took three years and 46 emails from the original order to resolution, during which Joe was told the kettles were taking longer than expected to come back into stock, and that the factory had changed hands.

His indefatigable determination finally paid off in September 2023, when he was sent an automated newsletter announcing that the kettles were back in stock. “I forwarded it to customer services, who begrudgingly conceded that this was the case,” says Joe. They sent him a brand new, fully functioning kettle. He must feel immensely satisfied every time he has a cup of tea? “Sadly it’s more a reminder of my own shameful pettiness.”

Victory nevertheless, and that’s what we are talking about here: tiny wins. Not in the league of Mr Mr Bates vs The Post Office (don’t hold your breath for an adaptation of Joe vs the Online Retailer), but significant and satisfying to the individual. It’s about the little guy taking on the big guy, the corporation, bureaucracy, David fighting Goliath by slinging emails at him.

We asked you, the readers, for your own tiny wins. And you came good. Several battles with broadband providers – admirable, and plaudits to anyone who won, but too boring to retell here I’m afraid. Likewise parking tickets. Well done, now shush.


Popcorn is not boring. Stacey wanted some, at the cinema, but not one of those massive buckets. So she ordered a Kids Combo – a snack box comprising a soft drink, popcorn and a chocolate bar. But they wouldn’t give it to her. “They told me I wasn’t allowed because they were only for under-12s.”

At the time Stacey, was about twice that age. There was no passing for under 12. It would have been nice if she’d got a kid in the queue to buy it for her, like getting your big brother to buy you a bottle of cider in reverse. That didn’t happen. She went in with nothing and doesn’t remember the film: she was probably too hungry to focus.

That wasn’t the end of the matter. Stacey wrote a letter of complaint, “as I often do, especially if something is unfair. I told them they were being ageist and they shouldn’t discriminate on snack sizes based on age.”

Resolution this time was swift. Back pinged an email from Vue customer services: Stacey should have been allowed the Kids Combo, and the issue would be raised for internal review. There was also a goodwill £5 gift card. “It feels great when you win,” says Stacey, who digs out that email any time she’s refused a Kids Combo. “You’ve beaten the big guy, right? Justice is served!” And justice, like popcorn, can be served in small portions. Some of our readers’ wins are hard to categorise as small, frankly. Ruth, was cycling to work one day when a man in a white van shouted “nice legs” at her. “As any reasonable person would, I told him to fuck off,” she says. But she found herself alongside the van at the next lights, “at which point he began swearing at me, calling me a bitch as the van pulled away”.

If you don’t care about and do something about the little things, what hope is there for the big ones?

Guess what? The company name and phone number were on the back of the van. When she got to work, she called and asked if that’s how they wanted their employees to behave. “When I described the man, the woman on the line replied, ‘I know exactly who that is.’ I heard later that the man had been suspended. A very satisfying small win!”

As I said, not so small, but we’ll allow it as a message, and a warning, to all the pests still out there, in white vans or otherwise.

And still on sexism, to Angie in Newcastle upon Tyne, who was fed up that toys in a local department store were still being labelled for girls and boys, especially as it meant taking her nieces, who were into Lego and cars, into the boys’ section. “I wondered about the wider implications of children feeling they were in the ‘wrong’ area for them just because of the way they wished to play,” says Angie, who was brought up in a household where there were no limits on what could be played with and would go on to study gender at university.

“It took a few letters back and forth but eventually they agreed to my suggestion to simply label the toys according to what they were.” And if you’re reading, Newcastle department store, Angie regularly goes back to check that it remains thus. “It wasn’t much but it meant a lot to me and my nieces.”


This is why the tiny wins matter. It may not seem a massive deal, next to war or climate meltdown or industrial-scale injustice, but anything that means a lot to someone is important. And if you don’t care enough to do something about the little things, what hope is there for the big ones? Also, Angie, don’t do yourself down. It was rubbish, and they changed it. Because of you, the world is a little better.

It just popped into my head: throw a birthday party for a pothole. Within two weeks, the council had repaired it

Potholes are politically important, but also boring, right? Not when Martin in Worthing is involved. He got so fed up with a particularly deep and damaging pothole on his school run that he took the extreme action of … throwing a party for it. “It had been about two years, so I thought: I’ll throw it a birthday party. There’s a corner shop around the corner, so I popped in to see if they had a cake and candles, and they did!”

He took a picture – cake, candles, pothole – and sent it to the local paper. Within two weeks the pothole had been repaired. “I’m not kidding – it was the best repair I’ve ever seen in Worthing,” Martin says. “It felt great to harness the power of shaming into getting the council to do some competent work.”

Nigel in Lancashire’s story is one of the nicest – he got something wiped off the map, literally. Well, toned down quite considerably. He can explain.

“In 1999 the Ordnance Survey started putting thick purple lines on its paper maps to designate the boundaries of National Trust land. I do quite a lot of walking and became frustrated when new maps were virtually impossible to read for all the purple lines obliterating footpaths, bridleways, streams.”

Nigel wrote to the OS, and was delighted to receive a reply from the publishing manager of small-scale mapping at the time, Paul Franklin, acknowledging Nigel’s (and others’) concerns. Nigel still has the letter, which contains this beautiful line:

“I have to admit that perhaps we have been a little on the heavy side in regards to the purple banding, and as a direct result of public concern have decided that on all future reprints … the purple banding will be toned down quite considerably.”

Isn’t that perfect? Just like Mick’s toast after his successful battle against the industrial toaster complex. Mick is a retired professor from Lancaster, and his hypothesis is that toasters are designed for American processed bread, which is basically square. But most UK bread is rectangular, so the top bit ends up sticking out of the toaster, untoasted. You have to turn it upside down to get a full toast, which is, I think we can all agree, a faff. Mick’s quest for the perfect unAmerican toaster led him to cut a piece of cardboard to the exact dimensions of his ideal slice, and persuade the manager of his local Curry’s to allow him to open the box of each model. Mick inserted his prosthetic toast into each toaster until he found one that could toast it in one. (In case you care, and you should, the two-slice Dualit 2 does the trick). Give the man a knighthood.

Mick cut a piece of cardboard to the shape of his ideal slice of toast, and persuaded Curry’s to let him try each model

But perhaps the case that most encapsulates the essence of the tiny win (certainly the tiny part) belongs to Steve in Guildford. Steve was a temporary general assistant at the AQA examination board. His job was to check that the examiners had tallied up their marks properly (“very tedious work”). During his first summer working there, Steve noticed that the temps were being told at break times that the instant coffee (and the microwaves) in the kitchens were for regular staff only.

“I thought we were being unfairly discriminated against. It was petty and pathetic. Eventually I complained to the Manchester main office. A week or so later it was announced that we were welcome to the coffee and microwaves. I considered getting a Che Guevara tattoo but didn’t think I quite deserved it.”

Steve, you fought injustice and won. Get the tat.