What do you get if two entrepreneurial friends with a background in design and a passion for ethical lifestyle set up a business together? A beautifully designed, high-quality home wares brand that strives to make sure that each and every product leaves a positive footprint.
Meet Lara and Laura, founders of bennettandbates. The pair both took an Art Foundation course at Camberwell Art School in 1999, and went on to get to know each other during their degrees in Textile Design at Central St Martins in London. After pursuing careers in interior design and menswear and retail design and production, they decided to set up their own interiors business based on values that they found lacking in their old jobs.
They launched bennettandbates last October, with a pop up shop in Sevenoaks, England, and a thriving online shop. After over five years of hard and careful work, these ladies understand the value of taking a slow and steady approach to building a business that they are justifiably proud of.
We spoke to Lara and Laura about the challenges of setting up a small business, the values behind their products, and more.
Where did the idea for bennettandbates originally come from?
Laura: “We had the idea about 10 years ago. We always used to talk about it when we studied together, and then about 5 or 6 years ago we went travelling on a road trip around Turkey together and were both very dissatisfied with our jobs and lives, so we just decided to hand in our notice, make the jump, and set up our own brand.
It has evolved as we’ve gone along, because we’ve made choices along the way for it to be as ethical, as pure, and as good as it could be. We were never willing to compromise, which means that it took a very long time and it was very hard work, but we weren’t prepared to drop those standards at any point.”
What informs bennettandbates’ ethical business values?
Lara: “We’d describe something as being ethical when it causes as little harm as possible to people and the planet, whether that’s by reducing water usage, making sure that people are paid fairly, or just generally making sure that the processes don’t damage people or the environment.
I worked in high-end interior design where the waste levels are high and money is just thrown at things, which kind of leaves a sour taste.”
Laura: “Working in menswear, there was also a lot of selfish behaviour as retailers, dehumanisation of the people who actually made the product and a constant pressure to push prices down all the time – and I just really struggled to handle that way of working and it weighed heavy on my conscience. When we thought of making our own brand, we wanted to do it all differently, do it all better – and we have!”
What makes bennettandbates different from other brands?
Laura: “We didn’t like the idea that to be ethical things had to be very hippy looking. We didn’t really like all of the colours and patterns people tend to use, and we didn’t understand why, just because a product has all of these other qualities, it has to look like that. So that was something we thought was missing in the market: to have home wares that are beautiful and also good for the environment and everyone else.”
Lara: “Every time we looked at a sample, the first thing we would say was ‘We want someone to buy this because they want this product, because they love the product.’ The first thing that they fall in love with is the product’s quality and design, and then the bonus factor is that it is also ethical. That was important to us; if it’s going to be a successful business it has got to be based around the product.”
Laura: “We’ve had a couple of focus groups with our entire range at different stages so that we could get honest feedback for every design, to make sure it wasn’t just about us and our tastes. So it has been quite a collaborative process.”
What have been some of the challenges you have faced?
Laura: “I think we were both used to working for big companies with a lot of clout and a lot of money, and so to set up on our own where we have none of that and our minimums are so much lower, means that we’ve encountered a hell of a lot of hurdles along the way.
Finding the fabric and where to have it produced was very difficult; we tried different suppliers and different parts of the world, and every time the quality just wasn’t good enough, so that took a very long time. It was very difficult for us to wait four months for a round of sampling to come back and then open up that box and discover that it’s not good enough. Every time that happened, that was a really big knock to us, but we kept on trying.”
Lara: “We didn’t realise how long that process was going to take. The other complication was the issue with the time that it took to resolve problems, or communicate when something wasn’t good enough. That also added to the length of time that it took us to get to the correct supplier, the supplier that we were happy with. So it was a bit of a journey, but we learnt a huge amount through that process.”
What advice would you give other businesses who want to work ethically?
Laura: “You have to remember that you can’t take anything for granted, because people have very different expectations coming from different cultures.
And also, if you’re a small start-up and you can’t guarantee large orders, you have to be quite flexible; we built our colour range around some stock fabrics that were available to us, so we worked around what was there, rather than demanding what we needed.”
Lara: “That was really key, because coming from the companies we worked for before, we are very used to saying ‘I want this silk or cotton and I want it to be this thread count’, but you can’t do that if you’re working on a small scale, you have to look at what’s already available. I think that would be very good advice for anyone starting out.
Another thing would be to stick with your ethics and values, even in the little decisions like which labels you use and so on, because I think people do immediately question everything, whether your packaging is recycled and so forth.”
What are your future plans for bennettandbates?
Laura: “We’re very guilty of running before we can walk. We’ve got a file full of future products; every day the list of things to do just keeps getting longer.”
Lara: “We have a lot of new products up our sleeves. We’re keen to bring organic hand woven bergama cotton towels from Turkey into the range, as well as bed linen. We’ve just launched a range of candles. We do want to extend the range; it’s just a matter of timing.”
Do you have any tips for decorating your home in an environmentally conscious way?
Laura: “We both absolutely hate waste! That combined with our creativity means that we keep everything to re-use or re-invent. We always keep all gift-wrap to use again, we repair and alter our own clothes, we make rag wreaths from scraps of fabric, and we jazz up old jars or boxes with off-cuts. We love car boot sales, charity shops, and antique fairs – you can express a lot of personality in your home if you combine all that you love (family trinkets, creative projects, and pre-loved items) with stylish, new ethical goods to make it all come together in a way that’s all your own.”
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A few of Lara and Laura’s favourite home decorating brands:
– Auro paints – “Eco paints made with 99% natural and sustainable raw materials.”
– Ian Mankin – “Fabulous organic fabrics that are classic and well-priced. We especially like their simple organic ticking.”
– Organic Textile Company – “A great selection of fair-trade and organic fabrics.”
– Natureally (organic leather) – “We haven’t worked with them yet, but love their company ethos and the background behind their organically reared cows, and the natural way in which they treat the hides.”
Author: Sophie Caldecott