Ethical homeware: Decorator's Notebook
Joe and Bethan John are a brother and sister team, based just outside Bristol. They run the online ethical homeware shop Decorator’s Notebook, selling design-led home accessories and gifts sourced from fair trade groups, social enterprises and artisanal co-operatives all around the world. Bethan put on the tassel making workshop at our blogger/press event a couple of weeks ago. On the night, Decorator's Notebook also had a stall filled with their homewares – the ceramic mugs received particular huge appreciation. Our digital editor first met Bethan during a weekend of camping with creatives, in Devon. Nomads and Decorator's Notebook it seemed, are very much aligned in ethos and style. After many horus poring over Bethan and Joe's shop website and blog, it seemed that it was about time for an interview to find out more on what's involved in starting a new ethical business, from the inspiration, dynamic, sourcing and producing, to curating and selling online. Definitely have our eye on one of those kantha quilts!
2. What led you to starting Decorator's Notebook? What were you both doing before?
Bethan began writing a blog – the original Decorator’s Notebook – in 2011, while she was working as an interiors journalist. The idea for a shop that sold a curated collection of products with a similar aesthetic grew from there. Joe was working in e-commerce development at the time, so we teamed up, enrolled on a startup business course and launched the Decorator’s Notebook shop in October 2013. Our aim was to create an inspirational homeware boutique that proves beautiful design and ethical production can go hand-in-hand.
3. How do you source the items for your store?
We source our products from social enterprises, fair trade groups and artisan-owned co-operatives in developing countries – our current collection has pieces from Kenya, India, Bangladesh, Peru, Mexico and more. Often our journey begins with researching handicraft skills that are indigenous to a place, such as basket weaving, embroidery or metalwork. We then look for ethical producers using those skills and, if they meet out social and environmental criteria, we’ll connect with them. We want to challenge the perception that ethical goods are all ‘hippyish’ and give people a beautiful online shop where they can buy thoughtfully-designed homeware that shines in a contemporary home.
4. How do you support artisans around the world?
There are so many artisans in developing countries making beautiful things, but too many retailers opt for mass-produced goods instead. As a result, traditional craft skills are being lost and families are often torn apart when they’re forced to move to the cities and find work in factories. By paying fair wages and helping our artisans develop their designs, we can help them make a sustainable living from their skills, stay in their homes and keep families together. Every product at Decorator’s Notebook has a story to tell so customers can ‘meet the makers’ and understand how their purchase helps talented artisan entrepreneurs gain financial independence, challenge discrimination and send their children to school.
5. What's it like, starting a business with so many components – with your brother – it must be challenging?
The key to our relationship is that we both have a shared focus, but different skills. It means that when a task needs doing it’s usually clear who should take charge and we don’t step on each other’s toes too much! Bethan looks after product selection, liaising with suppliers, PR and social media. Joe runs the website, does all our product photography and controls everything to do with numbers! Our skills are complementary, but different – that’s what makes us a good team.
6. Duncan and Vicky started in a similar way, but without the internet – how has this benefitted Decorator's Notebook?
Running an online business definitely has pros and cons. You can potentially offer your collection to the world, but there is also a huge amount of competition. Online, you need to work extra hard to stand out from the noise and communicate what makes your products special. For us, growing the Decorator’s Notebook shop from our existing blog worked well because we already had an audience of people who liked what Decorator’s Notebook was about. That was really helpful in the early days to help get the message out there, but we still work hard daily to maintain our visibility.
7. What are your favourite pieces from your current curated collection?
The kantha quilts are amazing. We work with a social enterprise in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that helps women escape the sex trade and offers fairly-paid employment making traditional kantha quilts from vintage saris. Every single one is unique, with a different vintage sari on each side, embroidered all over with neat lines of hand-stitching. They also come with an embroidered label with the name of the lady who made it and a link so the new owner can read her personal story and send a message if they like. Our kantha quilts really embody what Decorator’s Notebook is about – beautiful products that make a genuine difference to the lives of the makers.
8. What do you love about what you do?
Working with our amazing suppliers in developing countries and showcasing the quality of their work to our customers. Because we weave the stories behind the products into all parts of our website so customers can connect with the makers and own something truly unique that they’ll treasure forever. Craft and design have the power to bring people on other sides of the world closer together - we love making that happen.
9. What's next for Decorator's Notebook?
We’re continuing to expand our range and bringing more wonderful artisan producers into the Decorator’s Notebook family. I think there’s still a perception that fair trade is somehow an ‘alternative’ way to run a business, while exploitative production practices are necessary for commercial success. We want to be at the forefront of the ethical consumer movement and help people realise that they do have a choice. And that they can enjoy shopping in the process!
10. Where can we find you?
You can visit our online shop at www.decoratorsnotebook.co.uk and find us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest @DecoratorsNotes. We also have a pop-up stall at The Frome Independent on 6t December 2015.