Tell us about Eco Emporia’s philosophy?
Eco Emporia sells desirable objects handmade from discarded things. We believe that repurposing a discarded item into something desirable not only helps to reduce waste, it gives the item a new life and a unique story of its own. All of our products have been handcrafted by artists with a passion for reusing and recycling, so our customers not only get an unusual eco-friendly gift they also help to support craftspeople make a living from doing something they love.
Sourcing only handmade and recycled products must be quite tricky, how do you go about it?
We were first inspired by handmade recycled crafts during our travels abroad. When we got back to the UK and developed our business idea, we began to source products by visiting craft and trade fairs and searching on the web. In recent years there’s been a growth of online marketplaces, photo sharing sites and forums which have all been a great source of suppliers. Now that our website’s live, green designer-makers are getting in touch with us direct.
And how to do ensure the quality?
It’s great news that we’re finding more and more designer-makers who are creating some fantastic recycled products. Not every item will meet Eco Emporia’s criteria though. Customer research has taught us that it isn’t enough for a product just to be eco-friendly, it has to be attractive and desirable too. We’ve really kept this in mind when selecting products to stock and ‘desirability’ is high on our selection criteria, together with being skilfully and cleverly-made in a sustainable way. We always like to see and test out products for ourselves before we buy them. We also ask suppliers to complete a questionnaire to tell us more about how they make the products and source materials.
How do the craftspeople get hold of the materials? For example, Bryan Parks uses old chopsticks for his bowls, where does he get them?
Our craftspeople are as equally creative at obtaining their raw materials as they are about making them into something desirable and new. For example friends and family can be a great source of unwanted clothes and charity shops and scrap stores can benefit from craftspeople buying items which would otherwise have been ‘unsaleable’ to regular customers. Bryan Parks lives in Oregon, USA and has a fantastic story to tell about the bowls and jewellery he makes by reusing bamboo chopsticks. He used to live in China and one day asked the question about how many chopsticks were thrown away each year. The answer is billions of chopsticks are binned and millions of trees are harvested to make them. To help give these ‘single-use’ utensils a longer life, he works with local Chinese restaurants to collect chopsticks previously used by their diners. He then sterilizes them, stains them with tea and creatively threads them into necklaces and cleverly-designed folding bowls.
Is it easier to get hold of recycled materials these days?
Yes, I think it is a little easier these days for craftspeople to get hold of enough unwanted materials to be able to replicate, to some degree, the products they make and so create a sustainable business from it. Many local businesses are keen to work alongside our suppliers in an effort to help reduce the amount of material sent both to landfill and recycling. For example Karen Davies sources the wine and champagne bottles she uses to make her ‘squashed’ platters, from local pubs and restaurants. Sarah Baulch works with textile factories near her home in West London to source off-cuts of cloth which she transforms into decorative soft-furnishings, and EaKo rescue decommissioned hose from fire brigades across the country to create very funky belts.
The ‘green’ business sector is getting busier and busier, how do you stand apart?
By focusing on the niche market of desirable handmade recycled products. When we designed our branding and website it was very important that they reflected our ethos and helped us to stand apart. We’ve made our website very attractive to look at and easy to navigate. Buying on the web means that the customer can’t touch the product for themselves, so we’ve made sure our photos are clear and focus on the detail. All of our products have past lives which we tell our customers about both on the site and in the product information card we come with each order. We make the craftspeople the ‘stars’ of our site by including a photo and a profile of each. Not only do we enjoy selling recycled crafts but we like to have a go at making them too, so our ‘Make It Yourself’ section features a number of projects we’ve created to make practical and attractive use of everyday would-be waste. A lot of people have told us their love this fun element to our site.
How did Eco Emporia start and what’s your background?
Like many businesses, my husband Peter and I came up with the idea for an eco gift company by identifying a problem. We were becoming greener at home – reducing, reusing and recycling, but when it came to looking for Christmas presents in 2005, we struggled to find suitable things that were both eco-friendly and desirable too. At that time many of the green stores offered only functional products or ‘eco-gadgets’ as gift ideas. For us they weren’t attractive enough. So we’d identified a gap in the market. Our entrepreneurial plans had to be put on hold though, because we’d just got married and were about to embark on a year long honeymoon travelling around the world. That year away gave us the chance to dream about our business idea and to get inspired by seeing craftspeople who reused and recycled as a way of life.
We had a ‘eureka’ moment in Australia when we wandered into an art gallery exhibiting recycled crafts from South Africa. We were excited by the creativity and amazing stories behind the products and the people who made them, and this really helped us to focus on our niche market. Prior to travelling both my husband and I worked for several years in corporate marketing and Peter specialises in eCommerce and internet marketing. I’ve always enjoyed making things and have been on various craft courses, so Eco Emporia has enabled us to combine our interests and play to our strengths.
What’s your favourite product?
I really do love all our products so it’s difficult to pick a favourite, but the ones which appeal to me most are those which are ingenius yet simple in design. Like Darrell and Julia Gibbs’s Rescued Paper Notebooks where each page is made from a sheet of waste paper with the printed side folded in on itself to make two sides of blank paper to write on. I also love fun products that make me smile like Lorraine Berkshire-Roe’s quirky papier-mâché tea cups which even have bubbles painted in the ‘tea’.
What are the company’s plans for the future?
We’re a very new company, having launched our website in September 2008 so hopefully the next few years will be ones of growth as we spread the word to new customers and expand our product range. We’re attending markets and fairs as well as selling online and in the future it would be great to have more face to face contact with customers. We’ve got lots of creative ideas about how we do that, so watch this space!