Bringing Business to Life: Aerende

Ethical and inclusive handmade homeware shop Aerende is a social enterprise that sells beautiful products and gifts for your home, all made in the UK by people facing social challenges and barriers to employment. Founder Emily Mathieson shares the story and inspiration behind her business, and why she is passionate about changing the way we shop for homewares in the UK.
By Kelly Green

What inspired you to launch Aerende?
I was inspired to set up Aerende after realising that there were no homewares shops anywhere in the UK that really integrated social and environmental considerations alongside style and desirability. Yes, there are artisan products but many of them lack supply chain transparency and are mostly shipped from overseas, generating a huge amount of pollution in the process. For me, putting a product out into the world comes with a lot of responsibility. There’s not much point in creating products that claim to do good in one area (e.g. providing jobs for adults with learning disabilities) if they do harm in another (e.g. using toxic candle wax or fragrances that have been linked with ill health). That’s why our products are handmade - to avoid the energy consumption and emissions of mass manufacturing - and sourced and designed within the UK. By commissioning craftspeople who face barriers to employment, we create hours of meaningful work and wellbeing for people who often don’t have an outlet for their talents, and of course this has wider social benefits too in terms of improved mental and physical health for makers, as well as reduced intervention costs from public money. I’m passionate about changing the way we shop for homewares in this country, and want to inspire people that they can make a difference by showing how ethics and aesthetics can go together.


Who makes your products?
We work with social enterprises, charities and community groups from around the UK who offer therapy, training, employment and meaning activity through craft. We pay a price set by them, create achievable, compassionate deadlines, design collaboratively, and are working on an impact report (due March 2019) to show the full range of values and benefits created by Aerende.

What are your sustainable priorities for the business?
We have a do-no-harm ethos which is enshrined in our name, Aerende, an Olde English word for care or message – which runs through everything we do, from who we bank with and get our electricity from (the only renewable and vegan supplier in the UK) to how we do business. It feels pointless to be trying to support groups of vulnerable people on the one hand if any of our other actions may cause harm to them or other groups. That means limiting our carbon footprint (one of the main reasons to work with British makers and mostly local materials), considering our packaging at every level (at the moment it’s fully compostable for customers with those facilities), understanding the privilege that facilitated the creation of Aerende leads to more inclusivity and a greater platform for people who are wrong isolated or marginalised by society. 

How challenging is it to maintain your eco principles as you grow?
Many of them are completely enshrined in the business at a systemic level so I’m hoping we can hang on to all of them. In some ways it should be easier to maintain principles - as our buying power increases - but sometimes the decisions are tricky. For example, FSC paper boxes made in a low-emission factory in the UK versus less transparent but fully recycled boxes? Or whether textiles woven in the UK but grown organically in India are better than fabrics with a closer-to-home, minimal water consumption option. I guess my approach is to consider every issue with care and diligence and to make sure we make the best one for the world as well as for the business.

What advice would you give to anyone hoping to launch a sustainable business?
Think about systems. Being sustainable shouldn’t be a tick-box activity but should be an approach woven into every part of a business. We need to think of sustainability as something akin to customer service - Ie, it has to be there and businesses that get it wrong will struggle to succeed. I also want to see more representation within the sustainability sector – at the moment it is predominantly white middle-class women and that needs to change if we are to see meaningful impact. Those who are already in the sector need to create an environment for aspiring entrepreneurs and great ideas for people from different backgrounds to evolve and thrive. 

What have been your biggest milestones and triumphs so far?
The first time one of our maker groups said we were helping them to keep going (this is really at the crux of it all); every time a customer or potential customer says we’re helping them to see things differently (I tried to get a #whomademyteatowel hashtag going to encourage people to think about people behind their home textiles as well as their wardrobes). In terms of other recognition, winning Appear Here’s Spaces For Ideas competition (judged by Natalie Massenet and Nick Jones, among others) really changed the trajectory of our company and winning a WeWork Creator Award last year has provided the funds for us to really grow our collection, bring more makers on board and consolidate the future of the business.

We’ve also just launched our gift list service for weddings, big birthdays, new houses, etc. which we are incredibly proud of as we genuinely think it is the most meaningful and beautiful gift list service in the UK, with much more considered curation and of course loads of social and environmental credentials compared to other gift lists.

"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” 

What is your mission or ambition for Aerende?
To spark an ethical interiors movement with real integrity and impact. To inspire consumers and create a new, more inclusive business model in the world of e-commerce.

What is your top tip for people looking to furnish their homes ethically and sustainably?
As with fashion, buy way less than you think you need. Ask questions. Look beyond labels that say ethical and sustainable and ask whether your money might be funding something unsavoury somewhere along the line. Channel Marie Kondo at the point of purchase - is this product going to spark joy beyond the initial rush of acquisition? Or William Morris (whose writings and ideas have had huge influence on Aerende) - "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” 


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Bringing Business to Life: Aerende