Interview by Ursula Lake
Make magazine catches up with Emily Mathieson from ethical interiors brand Aerende to hear her how she is trying to change the way we shop for our homes for the better.
Tell us about yourself and how you got started?
I’m a journalist-turned-social-entrepreneur living with my husband and two children in the small market city of St Albans in Hertfordshire. For most of my career, I worked in travel and lifestyle publishing. I loved my job but was finding it hard to manage alongside my family’s needs and felt increasingly uneasy about the environmental and social impact of my work so I started thinking about ways to balance a desire to make a difference alongside a love of life’s finer things. I mulled over charity and voluntary work but in the end, felt I wanted to start something so that I could run a business whose impact I could see and feel.
As interiors have always been a passion, the idea to combine the two resulted in Aerende, a homewares shop selling products made by people facing barriers to employment. The idea is to challenge stigma, generate revenue for craft and creative charities and show consumers that you can shop and ‘do good’ at the same time. There is a growing awareness among conscious consumers about ethical fashion and ethical food, so I spotted a gap in the market for a truly ethical British interiors brand. I hope to be at the forefront of that movement and to act as a benchmark for good business in that field.
Q. What is the concept behind Aerende and where does the name come from?
A. Aerende (meaning ‘care’ in Olde English) launched in 2016 to be an antidote to the lack of individuality, ethics and transparency in the interiors retail sector. We’re trying to use the exciting possibilities of the direct-to-consumer retail by linking it with non-profit trading for the benefit of people and the environment. It’s a new twist on purpose-driven shopping, where every single element of the business has been considered to do no harm and to benefit makers as much as it delights consumers. Aerende’s tagline of ‘life-improving homewares’ reflects our commitment to sourcing and designing unique, limited-edition products that will bring joy, beauty and utility to our customers, as well as a sense of purpose, pride and revenue to makers, via the charities and social enterprises that support them. It’s important to us that our collection and brand are competitive in the market: we want customers to love the products and to buy them because of their desirability, not just because of their positive back story.
Q. You talk a lot about ‘slow living’, can you explain that concept?
A. At its heart, ’slow living’ is about simplifying, being more in the moment, finding ways to find to appreciate what we have rather than needing more, more, more!
Q: All your products are made in the UK, tell us about this process, do you have a factory etc?
A. We commission, buy and co-design products from a range of charities and social enterprises that offer creative therapeutic work around the country. We don’t have a factory of our own but because we are working with groups that most people overlook when it comes to manufacturing, 90% of our products are own-brand or available exclusively through Aerende. It’s important for us to manufacture in the UK for transparency, practicality and environmental integrity but the design process itself can be a bit ad-hoc, working out what to do with a box of donated linens, for example! Working with people who don’t consider themselves manufacturers means we have to have a different and more slow and flexible approach to product development. Also, the quantities we make of products are tiny, which we think makes every product extra special.
Q. Tell us about the people you employ?
A. Almost of our makers are supported by wider companies and charities from around the UK, many of whom have not really traded outside of their own doors before. One of the first organisations I approached when I was researching the business was Studio 306, a creative programme for people recovering from mental health illnesses. They now make our beautiful porcelain tea lights and pottery candle holders and now have such a good idea of the things I like that they are always coming up with brilliant new ideas, including some hand-hammered brass dishes that recently arrived in store. The links between making with our hands and wellbeing are well documented, but craft is not a particularly inclusive sector so it’s rewarding to know we’re helping to raise awareness and nudge the dial a little bit.
Another of the really rewarding partnerships has been with FabricWorks, which supports marginalised women in East London. They make our bed linen and other textile items and have really shown us the human face behind the products we buy This shouldn’t be unusual, but is and it reminds us to stop and think about who might have made the linen we sleep under every night. The idea is to celebrate their achievements and tell positive stories while also acknowledging the challenges they face in terms of stigma, discrimination, access or practical issues. You can read more about them on the Makers page of our website.
Q. We discovered your shop via Instagram, how important is social media to your business?
A. I love social media and I’ve definitely found an audience on Instagram. It’s been brilliant for building the Aerende fanbase and I’d even go so far as to say Instagram and Twitter have led to some superfan brand ambassadors. However, there’s still a crucial place for the traditional press and really established blogs that take content seriously rather than just chasing ‘likes’ and social media status. Social media is so instant I think it is easy to disappear into the fray. And to get hung up on ‘likes’ or to think they’ll equate to sales which of course they often don’t. So it’s important, but not the be all and end all.
Q. What inspires you?
A. Whatever I’m reading, it’s currently In Spite of Oceans by Huma Qureshi and 21 Lessons For The 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari) for nourishing my brain and providing perspectives on the world that I wouldn’t otherwise see. I’m also inspired by period architecture and craft, in the pure sense. I also get ideas from Instagram and Pinterest.
Q. You focus on soft furnishings and tableware are you hoping to expand into furniture etc?
A. We’d like to and I have plenty of ideas but we need to find the makers first.
Q. What small steps do you think we can all make to all become more ethical and sustainable in the way we live in our homes?
A. Buy less. Use what you have. Buy pre-loved things. And when you actually need something new, come to Aerende and know that it will be the most thoughtful, socially beneficial and environmentally friendly version of that thing you can buy. Oh, and ditch the harsh chemical cleaners. Dirt is your friend!
Q. What is next for Aerende?
A. We’ve just launched a gift list service for weddings, house moves or milestone birthdays. It’s the first sustainable gift list in the UK and people are loving it so far so we’re hoping to see that go from strength to strength. We’ll also be popping up at Lassco at Maltby Street from 22nd June for anyone who lives in London and would like to see our products in the flesh.
Visit the Aerende store at www.aerende.co.uk