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What Sustainability Means for Spark & Bell Founder Emer Gillespie

Emer's holistic approach to handmade, custom lighting prioritizes what’s best for the environment, her customers, and her community.

When Emer Gillespie bought her first home in Brighton, UK, she had a vision for how it would look. With a background in textile design, fiber optic lighting, and photography, she’d developed a specific aesthetic that she wanted to represent in her new space.

At the time, the kind of customized lighting she wanted to purchase for her home was out of budget and the more affordable alternatives didn’t suit her taste. So she bought the parts herself and built a light for her daughter’s room. The idea took off. She threw herself into creating other custom lights for her home, for her friends and family, and eventually for an Etsy shop.

What started as a kitchen table project 7 years ago has blossomed into Spark & Bell, where, alongside her team of 6, Emer creates custom, handmade lights at an affordable price, using sustainable materials.

For Emer, sustainability isn’t just a catchphrase—it’s the foundation from which she makes all her decisions. She told Mailchimp about her holistic approach to creating products thoughtfully, collaborating locally, and minimizing waste.

Initially, you created products in conversation with your friends and family, as well as your creative community in Brighton. How did that feedback shape Spark & Bell?

I want to be happy for every light on my website to go into my home. Feedback from friends and family is key. I filled my mom's house with lights, my sister's house with lights. It’s a lovely dynamic and conversation. I’m really trying not to follow fads, because I feel that creates more waste in the long term. And I think with interiors, it's best for something like lighting not to stay completely neutral but to just complement and add a point of interest—not to dominate too much. The conversations between customers, my own design aesthetic, and what I wanted in my home really fed and created the Spark & Bell aesthetic.

Who are your customers?

My audience seems to be people who want a little bit more customization for the pieces that they bring into their home. They might, for instance, have a little bit of a tricky corner that a normal off-the-shelf product doesn't work for. I think my audience is people who care for their home and want to have useful pieces made out of sustainable material. That's the way I've always tried to steer the design of the lights—to make them as customized and adaptable as possible for people.

My aim isn't to take over the world. I just want to make small batch, well-made lighting. You have great buying power as a business, and it's important where you put your money.

Emer Gillespie, Founder of Spark & Bell

What kind of priority is sustainability, and how does that show up for you personally and in your business?

I'm definitely a bit obsessed with recycling. Essentially anything that comes into the workshop—any packaging, any boxes—if it's double layered and strong enough, it goes back out to customers. I think that's the audience that I have—they're the customers that appreciate that. That might not be the prettiest sometimes, but this obsession with perfection can mean that there's more waste. I'm very reluctant to create or overly manufacture extra packaging. I know the experience is important, but for me, I'm more appreciative if something arrives and I can drop everything into the recycling.

Another focus for the last couple years has been to create more with local makers. The pandemic showed us that being dependent on things coming from a bit further away meant we were hit with some logistical issues. I'm interested in investing in local artists and makers. If I can commission them to make a part and then promote them as makers, I think it’s really valuable.

You recently started offering a recycled-plastic “marble” light. Can you tell us how you took it from idea to an actual product?

I collected soft plastics, thinking, “What can we do with them?” We were playing around with the idea of melting them down and creating a finish that we were really happy with, which is quite tricky. Then we took on a local intern from the University of Brighton who specialized in plastic recycling and created these lovely pieces.

I put time and energy into gathering plastics from local communities and organizing them. Not all plastics can be recycled together—it's quite complicated. We spent 6 months playing around with this. The idea was to try and make a surface that resembled marble, was beautiful to the touch, and didn't look plastic. Now we've started to collect plastics from local businesses as well. We keep everything and we recycle as much as we can in our workshop, and we are looking, with the materials that we've created, to create new pendants in the future.

You put so much effort into these values—into recycling, working collaboratively and locally, and reusing products. How do you communicate that value to your customers?

I think it can be tricky sometimes to convey just how eco-focused we are. It's a term that's bandied around these days by companies, and it has to be quantifiable. I've started my B Corp certification journey, and I've also started to research carbon neutral certification. I think that's needed. It's always been a part of my own ethos, and I think it's been on the radar for a lot of businesses lately: How do you differentiate those sustainable values that are truly ingrained in the company culture and the company ethos, or those which are greenwashing? As a consumer, how do you know where your money is going? If you're conscious of investing your money in green-focused companies, then there has to be some kind of quantification of that.

In terms of my immediate audience, I try and share a lot of the local makers. I showed a little journey around Brighton—going around and collecting things from my carpenter and from my ceramicist and things like that. So, showing how local it is.

You talked about the care that you take with your materials, but you also prioritize affordability for your products. Why is that important to you?

When I set up Spark & Bell, we had just bought our first house, and anything nice and customizable was out of our reach. That's why I actually ended up buying all the parts myself—it was to save. I liked the idea of being accessible.

We don't do wholesale. I'm really trying to hang on to that. If you price for wholesale, you're essentially doubling your costs or your price point. What I would lose if I did wholesale is that personalization. For me, this is what works. For a lot of businesses, it probably sounds absolutely bonkers, but if I'm selling directly to the customer, I've got the conversation, I've got the custom details, I can make it easy. Nothing is sitting on the shelf. That means you don't create waste, you don't create a whole warehouse of lights that have gone out of fashion or anything like that.

If you create something you're passionate about, then you're going to enjoy it and you're going to want to make it work. People will feel that your business is coming from a place of love.

Emer Gillespie, Founder of Spark & Bell

What's the best business advice you've ever received?

Don't work at night. Really. Don't answer messages at night.

This female business owner that I very much respect could see I was always frazzled, and she was like, “Just stop working at night.” She says it actually looks unprofessional sometimes when you answer straight away. Now, I take all those messages and read them all in the morning and quickly answer. The whole reason I started was so that I could spend time with the kids more. That means getting the work-life balance and knowing when to delegate.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own business?

Speak to other businesses. As a small business, you can just sit there in a corner reinventing the wheel, and that can be a huge waste of time and it can be discouraging. Whereas really talking to other business owners and redeeming some lovely advice from them is key.

And make what you love—I think that’s key. If you're going in with the mindset to just make money, I think that can then create a business that is not going to hold up or last. Whereas if you create something you're passionate about, then you're going to enjoy it and you're going to want to make it work. People will feel that your business is coming from a place of love.

Photo of Emer Gillespie by: Alun Callender

Published: April 25, 2022

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