Is it Made to Last?
Do you ever ask yourself this question when you buy something? It's something that I find myself doing more and more recently especially with buying toys for the boys and I’m definitely seeing a shift in the interiors industry as well. It's not only an issue about spending or saving money but it also addresses how we see the world and how our purchasing decisions have an impact on the environment whether we realise it or not. (Thankfully we do now thanks to science and the age of communications we live in). This week on the blog I’m delving into these big questions to Joel Chudleigh who’s own journey through this led him to set up his own business Made to Last in response to what he was seeing going on around the world. His dedication to sustainability and the quality of the products that he supplied is what drew me to their company and I'm excited to share some of my conversation with Joel to find out more about his company and his unique offerings to the interiors industry.
what’s your own style preferences towards interior design?
Both my wife and I like good quality, well designed products and we buy for the long term. We have a lot of solid wooden items such as our bed and all other beds in the house, a kitchen dresser and bookcases. Our dining table and chairs are antique from Norway. The table-top is plywood I think but blended so well it looks solid. The sofa is hand-made in Japan and nicely upholstered in a grey/brown mixed fabric that the cats seem to age a lot more quickly than we would like! I grew up in a 400 year old house and there were a lot of pieces of antique furniture but not ornate - just simple and nicely finished. This has definitely influenced me. I appreciate simple good workmanship and prefer not to go for intricate designs.
Tell me a bit about your career and how you ended up in Japan...
I grew up in a village just outside Cambridge and after going to university in London, I then travelled for a few years working in various countries. Whilst travelling I saw a lot of inequality and environmental degradation which was concerning so resolved that I would like my work to be connected to this.
I really felt that I needed to connect emotionally with the organisations I would work for and decided to work for charities including the Fairtrade Foundation and then a large cancer charity. After having my son and and knowing I enjoyed marketing roles I started working for commercial organisations and spent a few years working for Laura Ashley on their digital marketing. I then managed a small digital marketing team at another London retailer and it was here that my digital career started to coincide with interiors.
After 7 years in London my wife who is Japanese was growing homesick for Japan and I was in a job that did not suit me so we decided to move back to Japan. A month before leaving the UK I set up a company so that I could work as a freelance digital marketing consultant.
I'm dying to vist japan. What is life like there and how do the interiors differ from the UK?
Life in Japan is a lot more relaxed than in the UK. People take more time and care over all of their actions and activities which is really calming (frustrating at first). We live in a small town north of Tokyo where the neighbourhood is pretty green and quiet in a free standing two-story house with a very small garden. The differences to a typical English house are that the house has a large entrance way (genkan) where shoes are removed before entering the house.
The walls are quite bare compared to British houses - we do have some pictures and photos on the walls but not to the extent that British houses often do. We do not have any clutter in the house. Whenever we get a small build up it is the catalyst for a big clean out where we reorganise and get rid of things that we do not need. I think that I have learned to buy less in general and to only buy what I actually need and want!
There is no carpet in the house - carpet is very rare in Japan. The walls are very thin and there is no central heating so it gets hot in the summer and cold in the winter. People usually just have air conditioning units in each room that run both hot and cold. We have a big balcony and I love to relax out there as much as possible. Most of the year the climate is perfect so we can just leave the windows open and the house feels really fresh. The weather also facilitates outdoor sports so I spend my free time going surfing and rock climbing as well as playing tennis with our son.
How does those Japanese attitudes affect you in terms of design and your business? For example their simplicity in design, cultural philosophy...
In terms of the business I think that my experiences in Japan have helped us to keep the website clean and simple as well as free of clutter. As I mentioned previously we value things being well organised. This may not always mean that they are minimalist, it is more about having a logic to things and not having stuff lying around that never gets used. For some of our categories we have purposefully not added too many products. We could add thousands more products that fit in terms of their design but we have refused a lot of suppliers because they have not been a good match for us in terms of the theme of long lasting and good value for money. It is difficult to know what is right to do as we know that people like choice, but then too much and they are confused. It is definitely a fine balance...
I think that the role of a retailer is to curate a collection of products around a theme and to then connect those products to the people that they appeal to. Our theme is quality of build and value for money. We also want people to be able to easily find the products that they want. Sometimes this gets complicated, for example in the lighting categories we have hundreds of products but to make this easier to cope with we have added many filters so that people can logically narrow down their choices.
Where did the idea for Made to Last come from? What is the most important element of your business?
It is the marrying of a personal interest in the environment and wanting to do something about the crisis that is currently unfolding around the world along with a professional interest in the internet and digital marketing. Although we knew how to sell products on the internet, we also knew how competitive the furniture and lighting industires are. If we were to make a success of Made to Last we knew that we needed a brand that people could relate to as well as exceptional products.
I cannot remember exactly how the conversation went but my business partner Kinjal and I were discussing the problem of selling products that sometimes have an above average price tag. It is difficult to prove to people the value that they are getting for that higher price. This is why people are drawn towards cheap brands with good design - people understand the price perfectly but they do not understand why the company is able to sell the product at a cheap price. We then realised why price is so important to people in purchase decisions - it is very easily comparable. We realised that if we could add a second easily comparable value that was linked to product quality then we would be able to simply communicate to people why products cost what they do. We decided that product warranty/guarantee length was the perfect way to do this because good quality products simply last well.
So what does sustainability mean for you?
To me it is very simple. It means living in a way that does not impact our ability to live well at any time in the future. Currently the human population is consuming the world’s resources about 60% faster than is needed for those resources to replenish. This is not sustainable. Either we need to stop consuming so fast or we will run out of resources - it’s as simple as that. The big problem with this is that scarcity will be painful for a lot of us - we are already getting used to famines and water shortages in areas of the world. This relates to interiors products because if, for example a family buys a kitchen table that lasts for 50 years then they use 10% of the materials that they would if they keep buying new cheaper tables every 5 years. We want to persuade people to find products that they love and that they want to keep forever. We need to stop making short term buying decisions.
Tell us why you have chosen some of you suppliers? Tell us about some of your favourite ones and their stories.
Our criteria for suppliers is that they are happy to offer a guarantee on their products, that their products are manufactured in the British Isles and are fairly priced and finally that we like the design of their products. The range I am perhaps most proud of is the lighting range as we have a great mix of modern and industrial style lighting that suits all interiors - even for pubs, restaurants and hotels. The brand we sell most of is Mullan Lighting. They have factories on both sides of the border in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Their story is quite interesting as their factory used to be a shoe factory with it’s workers living in the village around the factory but the whole place was abandoned after the factory closed in 1975. They took up shop in the abandoned factory and now some of the workers are living in the newly refurbished houses in the village.
Another company we work with is Netherton Foundry in Shropshire. They have a real focus on sustainability through creating great products that last well through using local materials and local craftspeople. They make spun iron pots and pans that last forever and are perfect for cooking with. Even Nigella Lawson raves about them! They refuse to use PTFE on any of their pans - this is the chemical coating that most of the non stick pans have on them and that wears off after a few years. Instead their pans are treated with flax oil from Sussex. They understand that if you develop local networks and employ local people then the whole local economy grows. For example - if they buy their iron ore from a local mine then that mine will need to pay an accountant, and the chances are that they will use someone local. Whereas if they imported the ore through a distributor then this knock on effect would not happen. It's great to support the British economy in this way.
Is it true that you have designed your own products?
Yes I'm very glad you asked about this! Since we started the business we have been learning more and more about the different products that we have been selling and it is exciting to spend time with the makers who are so passionate about their products. So much so that when we were looking for sofa bed suppliers and met a company that suggested doing our own brand range with them we decided to give it a go. Through being involved in the design and construction as well as managing the deliveries ourselves (via a transport partner) we have greater control and responsibility over the whole experience that we can deliver to customers.
By far the most common customer service issue we have is delayed deliveries or items damaged during transit. Because we know exactly where all of our sofa beds and sofas are at all times and know that they have been properly checked we have not yet had one issue of this kind. If we do have delays in the future we will know in advance and will be able to keep customers fully informed.
Going back to the products themselves - with sofa beds we set out to find the manufacturer that is making sofa beds with the best quality mattresses. There is nothing worse than a poor nights sleep! We found that there are so many sub-standard sofa beds being sold that just do not justify their price. By having exceptional mattresses our customers are delighted by the sofa beds and tell their friends. Our factory began life as a family run mattress maker. They still focus heavily on the mattresses and the quality is excellent. They have been doing upholstery for over 20 years now and know their frames and fabrics too. We put together a range of 90 different fabrics to choose from. We want to broaden this a bit as we are missing some reds and blues that we would like to add but the range is very strong in neutral colours. You can browse the range here.
Have you got any good tips for businesses that are starting out?
I think that stamina is incredibly important when starting out. It is exciting during the early stages as everything gets planned out but then once you open shop and the customers do not flood in it can be disheartening. Of course all small businesses that do not have large investments in them experience this and have to learn how to make steady progress. This is when having a plan of goals to achieve helps. I do not mean financial goals but rather practical goals of things to do that will move the business in the right direction. It is important to enjoy these small steps forward. Each time we bring on a new supplier, or develop a new piece of functionality on the website it is progress and something to be proud of!
Thanks so much Joel for your insight into your business and for sharing your thoughts on sustainability. What you said at the end about celebrating the small wins as a small business owner is vital - that really resonates with me and like you I think it's important to have a bigger mission like sustainability to drive the passion needed to stay committed. I appreciate the dedication of companies to protect the earth with their entrepreneurial endeavours and I think it's a great opportunity to consider our spending on interiors as well as the other things in life. Here's some of my favourite pieces from Made to Last's lighting collection that I'm dreaming of in my home...
Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post where Made to Last have allowed me to choose a product for my ongoing kitchen renovation. As always I only write about brands and products that I am passionate about and think will help you on your own interiors journey. All photos supplied from Made to Last.