I’m Emma Winfield, and I run a shop in Bristol called The Natural Building Store. We also make and sell some of our own products; the Simply Natural range.
I was inspired to set up the shop after learning about how to build sustainable homes; I discovered that there wasn’t a shop in Bristol specialising in low impact building products. I saw an opportunity, and was passionate enough to turn an idea into reality – I believe that there are many more opportunities for people as a result of today's need for low-impact living.
Although I went to university, I don’t feel that my degree is essential to what I do now. The most important requirement is being able to take care of your own business administration and finances; I did a 6-month business training course and that's been hugely helpful.
Most of my days centre around the products that we sell and helping our customers. I meet lots of people – the customers themselves, suppliers, and like-minded people attending various events. I’m so passionate about what I do, and that really helps; it’s much easier to talk to someone about something you have a genuine belief in.
Tell us about your job – where do you work and what do you do?
I run my own shop in Bristol, called The Natural Building Store, and a product line called Simply Natural. We sell products that help people build, decorate or maintain their homes with natural and environmentally-friendly products. We also make and stock non-toxic cleaning and personal products that help people to look after themselves and their homes without damaging the environment. Our store offers a whole range of products - from paints, insulation and woodburners, to cleaning products, washing powder and other ethically-sourced household goods. Some of these products we make ourselves, some we buy in from other suppliers.
What inspired you to do what you do? How did you get into it, did you have a plan?
A few years ago, I went on several courses to learn how to build eco-friendly, low impact homes from natural materials, and found it really exciting that you could build houses and work spaces out of straw bales and earth! I then volunteered on a few projects and discovered that there wasn’t a shop in Bristol specialising in low impact building products, so I decided to set one up.
Why is your job meaningful? Both to you personally, and in how it benefits the wider world in terms of climate change and other environmental challenges.
My job means a lot to me because I know that the products and expertise we offer, through our shop and some of the other things that we do here, really do make a difference. We're able to educate people about all the various choices they have when decorating or building their houses, and we can offer alternative products to help people care for their homes without damaging the environment. My job is ideal for me because it satisfies my interest in low impact living, and it's great to be able to work for myself.
Many jobs in this sector are very new, how long has your job existed?
I’ve been running the business for just over 2 years, and opened the shop itself a year ago. There aren’t many other small businesses doing what I'm doing with my shop, though there are several retailers online.
Running a shop or business isn’t new to the world at all! However, I think there’s now a growing need for information and products around environmentally-friendly and low impact living. This creates opportunities for people with passion and ideas to build a business around that need and make a living.
What personal qualities do you think have got you where you are today?
I think having a lot of energy and being able to work hard is important. It’s also important to enjoy working with people and learning new things. I'm extremely passionate about what I do, and that helps a lot; if you really believe in what you're doing it’s much easier to work at it and talk to others about it.
What are the essential skills for your job?
To run your own business, it’s essential to be good at business administration and be able to take care of your own correspondence and finances. Good computer and communications skills are important, as is being able to manage a budget. I completed a 6-month business training course, which was really helpful in teaching me all the different aspects of running a business.
What qualifications do you have? Are these typical for people in your role?
As well as GCSEs and A-levels, I have a degree in International Relations, which focused on the developing world and world systems. Although my degree isn’t especially relevant to what I do now, I worked as a fundraiser for community projects both here and overseas when I first graduated. It did really help with those posts - and they were great work experiences to have - but I don’t think it’s essential to have a degree to set up your own business. The business course I attended was much more relevant; I think that understanding administration and financial management is the most important thing to focus on when running your own business.
What do you think most helped you get where you are now?
When I completed my degree, I went to work as a fundraiser for community development projects, later moving to South Africa to continue this work. It was this experience that fuelled my passion for natural building methods and low impact sustainable solutions; whilst working there I saw lots of low cost, low impact housing, living and food production methods being practised or developed – and it really got me thinking about what I could do. From there I learnt more about some simple methods for food-growing in poor soils (called ‘permaculture’), then went on to my eco-friendly natural building courses.
Please describe a typical working day
On a typical working day I'll get in, open the shop, check my emails, talk to customers, and talk to suppliers of new products or research things that we might want to sell in the shop. Obviously, I’ll be serving customers throughout the day, or I might be making some of our household cleaning products to sell. In the evening I sometimes open up the shop space to my local Transition group or other community groups, so I might prepare for that. Otherwise I lock up and go home, where I’ll often need to do some more paperwork or update the website before the day is over!
What do you enjoy most and least about what you do?
I love being able to work for myself, and I really enjoy meeting lots of different people who are also passionate about low impact living and sustainable solutions for the future.
I think what's hard is balancing my passion for learning more with all the business administration that’s needed to keep us going - sometimes it’s hard to fit it all in, but I’d rather be busy working for myself than working for others.
What kind of people do you meet through your work or do you work alone?
I get to meet all kinds; people from my local community who come into the store, and new customers looking for information or advice. I get to meet those who run, or are developing, low impact building projects, and I also get to meet or talk to the many different suppliers whose products we sell.
I go to low impact living events that are part work, part my own passion and interests. When I'm not working, I may meet like-minded people through various groups that I’m involved in.
Do you feel well paid for what you do, or is it not about the money?
At the moment I’m not well paid at all - I'm living off savings that I had from my last job - but by the end of the year I should be making a living from this. It’s quite common, when starting your own business, to have to wait a while until you're able to draw an income, and for a while that income will probably be lower than if you had a job with someone else.
Finally, what do you know now about jobs, careers and the future that you wish you’d known when you were at school?
I chose my subjects at school based on which ones I enjoyed most and was doing best in, because I wanted to get good results in subjects that I liked. At the time, many of my classmates were more focused on choosing the ‘right’ subjects for the job they wanted to go into, even though we were quite young and didn’t really know much about the variety of jobs that were available. I was made to feel like I wasn’t taking things seriously enough and that, without a focus on a degree path leading to a specific job, I wasn’t going to get very far.
In the end, I took 3 years off before doing my degree; it took me that long to find out what it was that I had enough passion for to succeed at. I wish I’d known then that the most important things I could learn and develop were:
• Learning how to learn (no matter what the subject);
• Developing research skills;
• Focusing on the things you’re passionate about;
• Putting in the effort to do your best
The thing is, you can build on these skills whatever job you find yourself in. That way, even if you end up doing something that’s not your dream role, you can at least do well at it while you work out how to switch into something that excites you more.