Looking to start your own ethical business?  Read along for some insights and tips into getting started.

I come from a long line of shopkeepers – my parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and possibly beyond, were all self-employed shopkeepers.

While I, nor my sisters, decided not to take up the family grocery when my parents retired, every once in a while I mull over the idea of opening up some kind of ethical business or shop.  What can I say, it’s strongly in my genes!  Although I generally quickly rule the idea out, sometimes the idea sticks for a bit longer, and I think “hmm, maybe it could be a possibility”.

Although an ethical business is not something on the cards for me right now, I thought it would be really interesting to interview an ethical business owner to get the low down on the highs and lows of running an ethical business.  

Perhaps a few of you out there dream of opening your own ethical business or store, whether it’s an online or a bricks and mortar store, then it may inspire you?  Who knows, it may even inspire someone out there to set up their own ethical business!

Decorator’s Notebook on Starting An Ethical Business

Bethan John, the co-founder of online shop Decorator’s Notebook, kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the running of her ethical business.  Bristol-based Decorator’s Notebook sells beautiful handmade home accessories from fair trade groups, social enterprises, and artisan co-operatives around the world.  

Bethan runs the shop alongside co-founder Joe (her brother!). So, as a family business with strong ethics at its heart, I was really pleased to have her on board for this feature!

setting up an ethical business

The Decorator’s Notebook team – Bethan and her brother Joe

Hi Bethan, first things first, why did you set up Decorator’s Notebook?

Because I genuinely believe that design can change the world!  I’m really passionate about helping people create a home that’s personal to them and connecting them to the makers of the things they buy.  There are so many artisans in developing countries making beautiful things. However, too many retailers opt for mass-produced goods instead.  

As a result, traditional craft skills are being lost. And what’s more, families are often torn apart when they’re forced to move to the cities to 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. This can help them to stay in their homes and keep families together.

What makes Decorator’s Notebook different from other homeware shops?

Quite often, making socially responsible choices when you shop can mean compromising your style.  Our mission is to prove that design, quality, and ethics can go hand in hand.  

As an ethical business, we sell a curated collection of design-led home accessories made by artisans who get a fair deal.  We want to challenge the perception that ethical goods are all ‘hippyish’. Therefore, we wanted to give people a beautiful online shop where they can buy thoughtfully-designed homeware that shines in a contemporary home.

Was Decorator’s Notebook your ‘plan A’ or did you do something else before?

Before Decorator’s Notebook, I lived in London and worked as an interior design journalist for about seven years.  I absolutely loved it. However, I became tired of seeing the same mass-produced designs season after season.  At the same time, I could see that consumers had a yearning to know more about the origins of the things they were buying. I could see that people wanted unique, handmade accessories that would make their homes stand out from the crowd.  

started writing a blog – the original Decorator’s Notebook – to highlight independent designers and traditional craftspeople making unique things.  The idea for an ethical business – a shop selling home accessories with a similar style and ethos grew from there.

Who benefits from the social element of your business and how?

Our home accessories come from projects that support disadvantaged people in developing countries.  

In some places, disadvantage can come from simply being female. Or it can come from living in a remote rural area.  Some artisans are war widows or victims of sex trafficking.  Others are older people who aren’t fit enough to farm anymore or people with physical disabilities.  

By partnering with social enterprises that support these groups, we can help artisans facing a range of different difficulties earn a sustainable income. This in turn can increase their self-esteem. What’s more, they get to enjoy the therapeutic benefits that come with practicing a craft in a supportive setting.

fair trade baskets

Tell us a little about the story behind your products?

Our products are a celebration of traditional crafts and contemporary design.  We sell sisal baskets handwoven by members of a women’s co-op in Kenya. There are quilts made from vintage saris by women recovering from trafficking in Bangladesh. We have hand-thrown pottery made by disabled artisans in India and so many more.  

Connecting the products to the people and the stories behind them is really important to us. Therefore, when you visit our shop you’ll also find interviews with our makers and photographs of them at work.  Some products are even signed by the individual maker.

Why is it important for people to invest in ethically produced goods?

Because by doing so, you can give someone the chance to work their way to a better life with pride and dignity.  By taking the small action of buying something ethically-produced, you contribute to a much bigger change that can really make a difference.

Was it difficult to find ethical suppliers for the products you wanted to sell?

Buying from developing countries isn’t easy, especially when you’re intentionally looking to work with small-scale producers.  Finding the right groups that could produce the designs we wanted, fit our ethical criteria, and could get to grips with the complexities of export has been tough.  It’s taken a lot of hard work to get it right. However, with research, perseverance, flexibility, and a dose of good-humour, we’ve found some fantastic groups to work with. decorators notebook
Kantha Quilts from Decorator’s Notebook

What challenges have you had doing business in developing countries?

There are lots of extra costs involved when your stockists are outside of the EU. We weren’t really aware of this at first.  Things like exchange rates can make a big difference. And then there are duties, taxes, international shipping costs, and handling fees to pay.  

Not only is it expensive financially, but it also takes a lot more time too.  Fortunately, we’ve got into the swing of things now so we’re a lot more efficient and savvy when it comes to all the extra paperwork.

What is the best part of your job?

Working with our amazing ethical suppliers and showcasing the quality of their work to our customers.  We weave the stories behind the products into all parts of our website so customers can connect with the makers and understand how their purchase makes a difference in improving their lives.  Craft and design have the power to bring people on other sides of the world closer together – we love making that happen.

natural african basket

Kenyan basket with the maker’s details

And your least favourite aspect of running an ethical business?

I’m a self-confessed control freak and I worry a lot when things go wrong.  When you start a new ethical business you can’t possibly get everything right the first time and I find that quite stressful!  Thankfully Joe is good at strategising and calmly seeing the bigger picture, so we balance each other out.  It’s important to understand that mistakes are how you’re going to learn and improve.

Finally Bethan, can you share something you’ve learned that you wish you knew before you started out?

To do good, you must do well.  Having a philanthropic aim isn’t enough on its own.  Building an ethical business is tough and you need to have a sustainable business model that means you can support yourself while you grow

Thanks so much for taking part Bethan, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this insight into running an ethical business.

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