Circular Podcast with Chris Miller - Katie Treggiden Skip to content

Circular Podcast with Chris Miller

This season is all about repair and in this episode, we’re talking to Chris Miller the co-founder of Skinflint – Europe’s leading vintage industrial lighting website. Skinflint scours locations across the world to source historic vintage lights, which are restored with a gentle touch by UK-based lighting experts, ensuring their stories shine through. We discuss:- How a life-changing experience in Sri Lanka set his life on a new path- How his company, Skinflint, got its start- The interesting places he sources lights from and why. – His ‘Full Circle’ buy-back program and how it’s helping his clients.- How his approach relates to the circular economy. – How he is aiming to be carbon-free by 2025. … and more!

Below is a transcript of our conversation. Find the full episode available to listen on Spotify here.

Katie Treggiden 

I’m Katie and this is circular a podcast exploring the intersections of craft, design and sustainability. Join me as I talk for Thinkers, Doers, and Makers of the circular economy. These are the people who are challenging the linear take, make, waste model of production and consumption and working towards something better. In this series, we’re talking about repair.

Chris Miller 

This isn’t just looking at the environmental impact of the business. It’s looking at social performance, it’s public transparency and its legal accountability. And the important bit for me in this piece is how, as a company, we balance profits with purpose. And I think if everyone’s looking at those two things, we move forward.

Katie Treggiden 

Chris Miller is the co founder of Skinflint Europe’s leading vintage industrial lighting website. Skinflint scours locations across the world to source historic and vintage lights, which are restored with a gentle touch by UK based lighting experts ensuring their stories shine through. Skinflint collection includes Hungarian railway ceiling lights, German cargo ship wall lights, check pendants and machinist table lights from the Eastern Bloc. In October 2020, Skinflint launched its full circle buyback scheme, offering customers 50% off a new light when they return one they no longer have a use for. Chris lives and works in Cornwall in the far southwest of the UK.

Katie Treggiden 

Thanks so much for joining me, Chris. It’s really exciting to have you on the podcast and I’d like to start at the beginning and ask you a little bit about your childhood and how mending or repair or restoration sort of showed up in your early life.

Chris Miller 

Okay. Well, I grew up in fairly humble surroundings. My mother was a teacher, and my father was an artist, a jazz musician, so money was always quite sporadic, shall we say. As such, there was never really an abundance of stuff. We had what we had and that was enough. Things broke, they were fixed. It was a different time. The creativity my father gave me was balanced by my mother’s empathy. And in relation to this question, nurturing, which I think is inherent with mending and repairing anything, you have to care. It’s this nature and creativity alongside my father’s love of antique shops at auctions that lead toward a passion for well made vintage products that were built to last.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, and I think that’s really interesting, isn’t it? So obviously, the sort of hand skills and the knowledge to mend but also, you have to have the care and empathy for that object to want to mend it. That makes a lot of sense.

Chris Miller 

I think that’s right. I think you can teach. I’m quite good with my hands, but you can teach those skills but you can’t necessarily teach empathy. That’s something that has to be inherent in someone I think.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, that’s a really interesting point and interesting for me, because I’m thinking about the mindsets that go along with some of this stuff at the moment. So that’s a lovely one to feed into that. Thank you.  You started your career as a liscenced design consultant working with the likes of Foster and Partners and Philippe Starck, as well as private clients. Now tell us about the Victorian house refurb in North London that first sparked the idea of Skinflint?

Well, my background has always been in design, and more specifically lighting. From probably the very first project I undertook at Wimbledon Art College, to a degree in product design at Sheffield, Hallam University. This then took me into working within both the manufacturing side of lighting as well as the lighting design consultancy side. It was whilst working on a lighting design on a property you mentioned in London that the seed was sown. Over the years I’d become I become disillusioned with the manufacturing side of the industry. This constant loop of production consumption, reinvention of the wheel, and I was also rapidly becoming disillusioned with producing lighting schemes for predominantly second homes both in London and Cornwall. However, the project in Primrose Hill which was back in 2007, offered a completely different perspective and was excusing the pun a light bulb moment. Sorry I had to get that in somewhere. The whole building fabric was to be designed around reusing existing materials, not just from an environmental perspective, but in order to create what they wanted was a well worn interior.

Katie Treggiden 

So literally, everything that was going to be sourced for this refurb had to be sort of second life as it were.

Yes. And I think, you know, we’re used to seeing that with floorboards, and this and the other,  but every single item in in the property, this is an extensive property had to be  in existence, and that was no different with the lighting. The same ethos had to lead into the feature lighting. So ultimately, that project actually lasted two years. It was one of those dream projects, there was no budget, it just had to be right.

Katie Treggiden 

No budget as in, there was no limit to the to the spend.

Yeah, so those projects, maybe once in a lifetime come along. That’s not to say that money was wasted, the end result was magnificent, simply was magnificent. However, over those two years, it became apparent that there were a number of respectable salvage companies throughout the UK selling lighting, but there weren’t any lighting companies selling salvage, if that makes sense. So we recognised the gap and a growing trend towards sustainability, more importantly, provenance, and a return to well made items being built to last or be repaired. And as such, we built the company from the product up, if that makes sense. So it’s all about the product. Fast forward 12 years, and we’ve salvaged and restored somewhere in the region of 50,000 vintage lights that would have otherwise been scrapped, or at least separated and recycled, but effectively, the history would have been lost. But yeah, the numbers have grown pretty rapidly and I’m really proud of those figures.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, that’s fantastic. That’s an incredible, what a wonderful thing to be able to claim that you’ve you’ve saved 50,000 of these incredible objects from landfill.. But before we get into that, I want to take you back a little bit because I know there was a holiday to Sri Lanka, which was another turning point, I guess. And also the move to Cornwall, how did those two kind of life events, shape your kind of wanting to set up this company and the way that you have?

They are inherently linked? And yeah, where do I start with that? I will start with Sri Lanka still, many many years ago, but it’s still very raw. I think we all experience signposts moments every day most we miss, some we don’t want to see, some we act upon and some like that just come and hit you smack in the face. I was actually in Sri Lanka over Christmas of 2004 on my honeymoon, when the tsunami hit the Eastern and Southern shores of the country. Ordinarily on holidays we make travel up as we went along, but due to the occasion, we booked various places along a vague route. And that’s ultimately what saved our lives. On December the 24th, we’d reluctantly left the beautiful waterside huts and bars and moved inland to a Jungle Lodge for Christmas Day, 48 hours later the tsunami hit and the accommodation in which we’ve been staying on a Southern coastline was completely destroyed. Half the people wed been sharing drinks and stories with literally a day or so before sadly lost their lives. The close and closest to the shock and proximity of those events still remains very much with me today. You might ask why we moved to Cornwall, which is surrounded by water, but I think there’s probably a psychological peace that I can see it and I’ve got a very healthy respect for it. But the events they did act as a major catalyst. I think it’s very easy in life to have ideas and not act upon them. I’m a real doer I get a lot of stuff done but I’m also very good at procrastinating. But that acted as a real catalyst to start living one’s dreams. So two years later, we’d left our jobs in London and moved to Cornwall with a three month baby and Skinflint was officially launched two years later. So I like to think of really negative experience has had a massive positive impact actually upon my life.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, it’s an incredible story. It must have been as you say shocking. What do you think? What do you think being in Cornwall rather than being in London what affect has s sort of culture and the personality and the landscape of this place have on Skinflint, do you think?

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love London and I returned regularly. I’m not one of those people that move away from from London and belittle it or make nasty comments about it, I love it. It’s the best capital in the world without a doubt. Everything has to offer, from art galleries, to theatres, to whatever it may be, the best. But I think we started to look at our what was important in our life, we just got married, Sophie was pregnant with our first child and I didn’t want to be living in Brixton anymore, where people were being shot outside my window. Nor did I want to raise a child in that environment. And also, your perspectives shift it was it was more about the family at that point, obviously, we just had our, you know, marriage having our first children and you can’t do all those things that London offer. And I, I kind of realised as well that I need space, I get very, I love London, but it’s I just when I go there, now I consume it, I literally consume it, and I can do three to four days and then I’m spent because I’ve literally drunk every single drop in and I literally want to retreat back to Cornwall, with a wide vistas to coastal walks and the perspective that gives me.

Katie Treggiden 

I think there is also a certain, my husband calls it lawlessness down here and I don’t know if that’s quite the right word. But I think it’s not super easy to make a living down here and so I think you’ve got all sorts of people doing all sorts of different things, and being very entrepreneurial. And I think combined with the amount of time we all spend in, you know, the natural world, I think everybody’s got sort of quite an environmental sense. And I think that’s quite an exciting sort of combination you’ve got all these people who really care about the planet, trying to make a living in their own way. And I think that makes it quite a fun place to do business.

Absolutely. I’m naturally more connected to the environment here, because it’s all around. You physically don’t get that perspective in central London. It’s not there. So yes, I agree that I think that’s where you see a lot of like minded businesses moving down here, I know our fraternity is not solely based on Cornish people. It’s very much a mix of people who have emigrated here is that the right saying  from all over the country. So yeah,

Katie Treggiden 

And as you mentioned, Skinflint has now restored 50,000 lights. You’re Europe’s leading vintage lighting website. And you specialise in sourcing lighting from the 1920s to the 1970s and usually from non residential settings. So things like hospitals, factories, RAF bases, o what’s special about industrial lighting from that specific moment in history?

Well I think there is a couple of pieces there. We are really well known for the industrial aesthetic, but as you say, we cover the period from the advent of electric lighting, really in the 1920s through to the advent of plastics in the 1970s.

Katie Treggiden 

that’s interesting. So that’s what bookends it.

That’s what bookends it yes. Enza. I mean, you can have an argument over who invented the light bulb through Swan or Edison, depending on whether you live in the UK or in in the US. But yes, that happened in 1896/97 around that time, but it didn’t really come into the mainstream until the 1920s, where you started to see, well, buildings such as churches were the first to be electrified, because the church had a lot of money at that point. They were the ones to convert from gas to electric. So it really was the 1920s. And we still, we still salvage lights from that period, predominantly from churches because they’ve had quite an easy life, you know, they’re only used once a week tend to be quite high up in the space, and they’re all being converted over to modern day technology. So we do still salvage light from that period, even though 100 years ago. And as you say, is bookended by the advent of plastics in the 1970s because you start to see documentation coming into the to the language there of planned obsolescence and value engineering and effectively engineers were handling a material they didn’t fully understand. Yes, it was seen as the be all and end all at that point plastic. I think we know where we’ve gone with that now but effectively we can’t refurbish products from that period because we can’t do anything with the plastic. So yes, it is does end there, but I like to think that yes, we’ve  restored as you say, somewhere in the region of 50,000 products, we have around about 5,000 products in stock at any one time. But I like to think we can kind of cover any of those styles from antique to art deco through industrial right up to this sort of retro period of sort of early 70s. In fact, many of the pieces, especially the early ones, they’ve massively over engineered rather than value engineered.  I liken it to the Victorian railway bridges that you see there. They’re still be there in another 100 years  without any problem, and they’re pretty indestructible. So they’re a pleasure to refurbish and to handle,  the materials  are magnificent.

Katie Treggiden 

It’s interesting as this series of the podcast is all about repair, obviously and I think in many ways, you’ve got to start with something that is repairable, that you can take apart and put back together and,  I think one of the things that contemporary designers need to think about is how to make things in a way that means they can be repaired, and can be adapted, and sort of thinking about the materiality and the way things go together. So that’s really important to understand what bookends those two time periods.

And just picked up on that I think that’s really important, I mean, I studied product design decades ago now. But it was very much or it had very much moved from engineering, to styling and that was what was seen as more important, rather than getting back to the basics of well engineered products, which in many ways I kind of feel we’ve lost our way with, especially, you know, we handle these products daily and you can see  the the engineering that goes into these pieces and the skill involved in that. It wasn’t just about what the product looked like that was secondary to it’s function and to how it was engineered.

Katie Treggiden 

Yes. And interestingly, the rise of the sort of industrial product designer, sort of came about the 1950s /60s. So that sort of towards the end of the period that you’re looking at so almost the majority of those lights wouldn’t have been created by someone who called themselves “a designer”  it would have been created by engineers or, you know, lighting engineers, or whatever it was. So yeah, that’s a that’s an interesting thing for the design industry to reflect upon. I think,

Chris Miller 

Well that’s it the engineer has his brown jacket on, doesn’t he? The designer, like me today, has his black roll neck on.

Katie Treggiden 

It says a lot. So tell us about some of your favourite finds. What are some of the real gems where you just go into a building and thought, Oh, my God, what have we got here?

I could talk all day on that one. Well, I think I think there are the two parts of that question. I think Part A is probably based around favourite products, but Part B is probably more to do wiht favourite locations. So where the products have been salvaged from because part of what we do, obviously, we’re not just selling commodities here, it’s not just selling a light fitting, we are trying to sell the whole story behind the product. So where it’s come from, the era it was produced in, who manufactured it, etc, etc. is tricky, because we do have so many products in stock. I’ve got quite an eclectic taste and this might sound strange, I don’t actually like a lot of what we retail, because it’s not my cup of tea for one want of a better phrase, but I I’m quite influenced by the clean line products. I think if there was a narrative that ran through our collection, not just now but over the years, it would be the clean line, timeless products. I think there’s a piece there about fashion, which we can maybe talk a little bit more about later on, fashion and trends, but we are influenced by the fashion houses. I think in addition to the fortnightly product releases, we also launch two key collections each year. So these tend to be more focused about the story rather than the lights themselves and they may be themed around topics such as transport or location such as light salvage from key historical buildings such as the Rolls Royce factory in Derby. I’m kind of weirdly now becoming more interested in the locations of the products.

Katie Treggiden 

Well it’s sort of the story that the products bring with them, isn’t it? And that’s what I’ve thoughtt so exciting about vintage pieces.

It is and I’m very fortunate that I get to go to the majority of these sites. And I think we’re all different, but I really feel resonance in spaces and walking into these cathedrals of manufacturing that are now empty, there’s a history there that you can, it’s tangible. You can feel it, you can touch it. But I’m, I’m waffling. I think in answer to your question, I think the two favourite sites, probably World War II bomb propulsion MOD site on the England/Wales border. Which is a huge site that was developed all sorts of propulsion units there from grappling hooks to Polaris, but half of this site, a huge site, half of this site was literally mothballed straight after the Second World War. And so 60 years later, you’re going into these buildings, and it’s like, I’m pulling up a time capsule, it was proper wow moment. But I think also some of the some of the sites we go to the history is actually quite dark and we have to be quite sensitive with how we market those products. We take a lot of products out of the old Victorian lunatic asylums, as they were then known as they were there. We’ve had a lot of dialogue around that word before, but that that is as they were known at that time. Invariably, because they were often placed on the edges of towns, which then became greenbelt areas. So they get stuck in this kind of limbo of not being able to  be developed because they’re in  greenbelt. But I think the day probably be spent at St. Lawrence’s on Bodmin Moore was probably one that remains in my memory the most.  It’s a huge site, I think, capable of holding 20,000 people, it was was vast, but they were like mini prisons. They really were like mini prisons and doors everywhere, but obviously now those doors are unlocked. So it was very eerie. Every time you would open a door somewhere another door would slam shop somewhere else in the building because a vacuum was formed, and  your mind starts to wander.

Katie Treggiden 

I guess you sort of mentioned getting the sense of history being palatable and often when you’re going into these buildings, it’s because they’re about to be demolished or repurposed, or, you know, so you’re, you’re often sort of salvaging almost the last bits if that makes sense.

Yes, I wish they were the first bits, because for every project, we were able to salvage lights on we lose 99 others. And even if an agreement has been made, they simply have a certain amount of time to get the building, flattened, and they will o take the roof off with the lights attached and it’s it’s crushing. But it’s not like it used to be I think every industry and sector has had to change and adapt over the last 20 or 30 years and gone are the days where you would attend a site and there would be a crane there with a wrecking ball. They are they are meticulously taking the slates off of roofs often these sites have because they’ve been abandoned for so long, they are nature reserves so they have to they have to rehouse the bats, for instance. So yes, I kind of like what that side is, it’s not maybe how one would imagine.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, that’s good to hear. So we’re talking, obviously, on a podcast that’s about the circular economy. And the second part of the circular economy, as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is to keep materials and objects in use. And that’s very much what you’re doing. Why is that important from a sustainability point of view? Why does it matter that the slates are rescued off those roofs and that you get to rescue the lighting before that will goes to landfill?

I think the answer to that is quite straightforward we can’t go on in the way that we have over the last 100 years, we simply can’t have the resources are just they’re not there. So from the environmental perspective, that’s the key driver, you can layer anything else over the top of provenance and this and the other but the key driver is the environment. We start business from a really good fitting because I think we’re all aware of the the linear model of consumption, if we will refer to it as that.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah. So for listeners, that would be a take, make waste, model, right? The idea that we pull virgin resources out the earth, we make stuff out of them and then when we’re done with them, we throw them away.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah. So I like I like take, make, use, lose because it’s got a it’s got a quite

Katie Treggiden 

I haven’t had that one before I like that. Make, take, use, lose. So that effectively it’s been in existence for over 250 yearsa nd we’re all aware of that that model where raw materials are taken out of the ground, they’re refined, they’re manufactured into products, they’re sold, used and then discarded. The circular models of consumption, I think, again, we’re all aware of to a lesser or greater extent, they work in a same way, but the flow is effectively broken between the items being used and then discarded. So at the end of use, not the end of life, but the end of use the items are then either designed to be maintained in the first place, there redistributed, or there re manufactured or recycled. I think realistic, I mean, circular consumption bit again, they’ve been in for decades, but generally, and this is a generalisation, they are based around the latter part of items being designed to be recycled. We’ve gone away from it annoyingly with things like iPhones and such like, but that element of recycling where composite glass can be separated from metal, etc, etc. That’s how that works.

Katie Treggiden 

I’m trying a few different ways of supporting the podcast this time around. So we’ll be back after a short break. And thank you so much to everybody who helped make this season happen.

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Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, well, I mean, what I think is quite interesting as this idea, you know, we’ve all been taught to reduce, reuse, and recycle, haven’t we, and we’ve sort of forgotten about the reduce and reuse. And then we diligently put our bits in the recycling bin every week, and only about 9% of that actually gets recycled. And what does get recycled often actually gets down cycled. Whereas what you’re doing I think is more akin to upcycling, which I think is why it’s so valuable, you’re nearer taking items that would have been bought in the tens, if not the hundreds to these big buildings and turning them into sort of beautiful, very high end one off objects that are going to be cherished for generations. So once you’ve found these lights, what do you do with them. Now restoration can be a really sensitive issue in terms of how much you return something to, you know, looking as new looking if it would have done when it was made, or how much of its story you sort of keep in tact. And I’d love to know a bit about your approach and the rationality of your approach in terms of restoration.

It’s often a real bone of contention amongst the team it’s very subjective. I think, in an ideal world, we probably have as little visual, if you want to refer to that, visual intervention as possible. We’d keep the items as they are, but of course, this is not possible. In many instances, these items are, as I say, nearly 100 years old, and the original surface treatments have failed so they have to be removed and restored. It would be very rare for us though to maybe re enamel, if we’re going back to the industrial fixtures, they tend to have had or have experienced a much harder life in industrial environments so they will have dings and dongs. But we’re never interested in removing those or taking the enamel off and re enamelling them because that for me that takes it too close to a new product. We trying to present those dings and dongs as part of the product, but as I say where caused by history is sensitive and as a result is very subjective. Some clients find our products too new, they look too new they think and they question their age, they actually get to the question

Katie Treggiden 

And that’s not necessarily  you’ve restored them to look that way that’s just because you’ve managed to get them in such good condition. You know, you were saying for example, in the churches, those lights are high up and not used very often.

yes, I remember we did a trade show three or four years ago. We had a bank of sort of 30 lights from the 1920s and a lot of people came onto the stand and questioned the authenticity because they were, they firstly they weren’t willing to believe that we could salvage life from that period and secondly, I think there’s another piece on this, they’re used to seeing faked items and that kind of goes back to that piece I was saying about the fashion houses and about items going into fashion. So I’m very much aware, well, we haven’t obviously single handedly created a fashion, but we’ve contributed towards a fashion and it was, it was really, really heavy heart last year, I went into a motorway services and saw a very recognised coffee brand with industrial products that were new, but they had been purposely aged to make them look old and I was so disappointed with that, because it was, yeah, for all the obvious reasons it was.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, so I guess let’s just unpack those reasons, because I think this is quite interesting. That’s about taking something which is done out of a desire, firstly, to preserve the story of an object .and secondly, to sort of contribute to a better planet and just taking the aesthetic bit of that and faking it. So you’ve got none of the story of the original product, none of their kind of good environmental contributions, you’ve just got the look,

You’ve just got the look and this goes back to the to the same dialogue between engineering and styling. It’s just about the look and there’s no product passport there as to where it was manufactured the environmental impact of that production. Yeah, so I, I really struggled with that to be honest.

Katie Treggiden 

It’s difficult, though, isn’t it because you know, in the same way, we kind of have to make, you know, I was talking to somebody about the difference between the sort of the shock of the new and the patina of age, and I think we live, the 20th century has been this, there’s been this veneration of newness. So we have these unboxing videos on YouTube, we have, you know, people wearing baseball caps with a sizing sticker still on them, you know, the idea of box fresh trainers, there’s this sort of cultural belief that the moment you buy something and take it out of its packaging, its value starts to deteriorate. And I think if this stuff is going to work, you know, if we’re going to bring about genuine shift towards a circular economy, we have to embrace the patina of age, and the idea that products become more layered and more storied, as they get older, and therefore more valuable and so “that look”, has to be in Vogue, you know, it’s really difficult to differentiate between a trend and a movement I suppose that’s probably the the differentiation, isn’t it?

It is, and trend come and go. I think, as that’s why we try and keep our product lines timeless, so they don’t necessarily drift in and out of fashion. Yes, for some years, we may hold stock of a certain aesthetic, and then that may diminish and then we’re more focused on sourcing products from another period is, we drive a trend maybe on that. But for me, it all comes down to authenticity. I think if I had to use one word to sum up our business, it would be  authenticity, I think that’s, that’s at the heart of everything and I think, I do think we have lost in a developed Western world, I think we live in a world of mass produced junk, but I also believe we’ve lost contact with what the word value represents in regards to goods,

Katie Treggiden 

I’m thinking Tesco value that’s immediately whats popped into my brain,

Chris Miller 

I’m thinking Tesco value, and this isn’t

Katie Treggiden 

Cheap is what you think of don’t you?

Chris Miller 

This isn’t whether someone can afford something or not, this is that a T shirt should not cost one pound, a cotton t shirt should not cost one pound, a whole chicken in a supermarket should not cost two pounds. It is not a representative of the life in relation to the chicken, or the production in relation to the T shirt.

Katie Treggiden 

And the lives that are bound up in that production.

Chris Miller 

Exactly that we live in that we live in the fortunate .2% of the world or whatever it is. it negates the other 99.99999% of the world and something has to shift fundamentally there. It has to change.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, I mean it’s difficult, isn’t it? Because the environmental movement gets a lot of criticism for being a middle class and not being accessible to people on lower incomes. But I think, you know, we have as a people, regardless of your income, we have more material wealth than we’ve ever had before. Before the Industrial Revolution, a man’s shirt cost a month’s wages, and it would be mended and kept for his whole life. You know, I’m not suggesting we necessarily need to go quite back to that but I think there’s definitely a sense of valuing the things that have gone into the production of those objects and the people who have picked that cotton and processed it, you know, cut those garments. And we can’t have sort of fair and safe working environments for those people at the prices that are being expected now, I think that’s the point, isn’t it?

Chris Miller 

Sorry, I was just gonna say one other thing on that. I sat on a panel today, last year with regards to the circular economy and one of the panellists was playing slightly devil’s advocate with us, which we were having good banter with, but he said, in a way, so it’s okay for your company, Chris, because you’re picking the low lying fruit from the tree. Which, in a way, he had a point, you know, everything we retail, they are aesthetically very beautiful, but I cannot see why our model cannot roll out across all types of lighting, be your very standard lighting, maybe in supermarkets, there’s a place there for everything and that’s what I want to see develop. And I’ve learned that big doesn’t lead small, small leads big and it needs to smaller companies such as ourselves and our peers to drive the  bigger companies. And we are starting to see, I know, I know. john Lewis,  they’ve just launched a new model with Fat Llama with regard to renting furniture, I think you have the option to rent it for six months and buy at a reduced rate afterwards. And this is good this is good progress.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, I think you’re right. I think small business owners shouldn’t underestimate the amount of power that they have to bring about change, not only with within their own businesses, but also by sort of inspiring and motivating other people to do the same. Now we’ve talked a little bit about production, sort of in global supply chains. You’ve got your own team within your waterside warehouse in Penryn, and you also work with metal polishers, people who do your rewiring, testers and small engineering companies that make missing components for you and those people are all within a 10 kilometre radius, which is incredible. Firstly, how did you find them? And secondly, why is it important to keep your team so local?

Chris Miller 

Could I just say I like waterside warehouse that sounds very poetic I’m going to use that. Though you’re right, it is a great location. It’s a great space.

Katie Treggiden 

I mean, I believe you’ve seen dolphins out of your window that’s up there in terms of office locations.

Chris Miller 

It was, it nearly caused Instagram and Twitter to fall over. We post a picture of one of our lights and it gets X amount of comments,  post a video of a pod of dolphins moving out the Penryn river and yeah,

Chris Miller 

I think Yeah, the company’s success is founded on a great product but it’s also based on a great team and that’s a great internal team and a great external team. We have a very tight internal team of quite small numbers theres only around 10 of us, we’ve grown slowly and steadily. So a bit like a line out of a John Grimshaw novel;  no one ever leaves the firm. So people leave to have babies or go on paternity leave. The external team have they are subcontractors but their refurbishes, effectively, it tends to about to about 20 companies, as you say they’re all within 10 kilometres of our  HQ. This is important on many levels. We can’t dictate who buys our product and whereabouts in the world they are based. This is sometimes a cause of conflict for ourselves. If I’m not just looking at the bottom line figures. If we’re exporting a product from the UK to New Zealand, there’s challenges,

Katie Treggiden 

there is a carbon footprint there is what you’re saying

Chris Miller 

There’s a  huge carbon footprint there, even if we put it on a boat and it takes three weeks. Yes, it’s less than flying it there in a day, but there’s still a huge footprint for the shipping as well. So that’s a that’s another conversation but we do have full control obviously over who we employ and where they are based. This does reduce the carbon footprint massively because the products aren’t, you know, they’re not moving around the country to have various specialist elements done to them but also and this is really important, we’re supporting the local economy. There’s a lot of talk around this but Cornwall is a very poor county is very deprived. And we do our bit there by employing as many people as we can. We’re blessed with a huge yacht industry for once of a better phrase in Cornwall especially in Falmouth. So the specialists we use are they’re fantastic, they’re almost too good sometimes and they it goes back to that piece about making things look to new.  But it did take a long time to find them. I think, again, as you touched on earlier on this podcast there, there are a lot of small creative businesses operating in Cornwall, and a lot of them are off the radar.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, it’s not a website and an Instagram account, it’s someone gives you a mobile number of someone who might be able to recommend someone isn’t it.

Chris Miller 

Exactly I think probably took about three years to put the the external team together, We went through a lot of companies, a lot of people live in Cornwall, for the lifestyle. They live here for the life life balance rather than a life work balance so that can be challenging. But the team we’ve got now brilliant, they’re really, really good.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, fantastic. And that’s great that they’re also close as well. Now, you’ve recently launched, I think, October of last year, your full circle buyback scheme, which I’m really excited about, because this sort of closes the loop for you in a way. How does it work? Why is it important? And how is it going down with your clients so far?

Chris Miller 

Well, I spoke earlier about the various models of consumption, the linear model and the circular models of consumption. Our  model is a variant on the existing circular models of consumption. Obviously, we’re starting with a product that is already in existence so we’re skipping a lot of the first steps. But alongside the lifetime guarantee that includes repairs, we had launched this scheme called full circle. This is our buyback scheme effectively, where anytime, so this is anytime after one year of use onwards, clients can trade in their skinflint lights in exchange for a 50% credit towards a future purchase. Returned lights are then repaired, restored, re-certified, and then placed back into the marketplace. In my opinion, this addresses a growing market trend where consumers are becoming increasingly more interested in access over ownership and I think that’s important is access over ownership. And it gives them flexibility, obviously, to swap the products out whenever they want. If I’m honest, we probably should have launched this 10 years ago.

Katie Treggiden 

Well, what did I say about the best time to plant a tree was 10 years ago, the second best time is now?

Chris Miller 

Well I know that that’s good, I’m gonna use that I reflect on Steve Jobs quote, which which is I quote, “you cannot connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something your gut destiny, life karma, or whatever”. So I guess yeah, as a company, we had to walk that path to see the emerging view. As a retailer, we’re a small company, we can’t change the way or rather we can’t change what people consume, but we can influence how and the way they consume and provide a platform for informed choice. This is just our current model I see this morphing over time. It’s a conversation there are a number of potential avenues we can go on this rental, leasing of products. I touched on John Lewis and Fat Llama doing the rental  model, weirdly full circle was actually conceived for the commercial market, we operate in both commercial and private sector. So turnover wise, maybe 70% of our trade is is commercial 30% private, of which 70% is in the UK maybe 30% overseas, but it was very much aimed at the commercial market, because they’re doing store refreshes every three to five years and at that point, historically, they have just been skipping everything, literally everything. And I witnessed our lights on a site from the 1930s being skipped, some glassware beads and I was no, no, no. I think it started out but you need you need a catalyst for these things. It’s all well and good for us to have these great ideas and say this is it we’re going to take this to market everyone’s going to drink it up. But you do need support and you do need forward thinking companies we were really great to work with Lush, via Michael Grubb Studio, Lush are very forward thinking, the skincare company is very forward thinking and this was a dialogue and a conversation they brought to us quite a few years ago now. What happens with your products when we finished with them? And it was a question that we had never been asked before and one I did not have an answer for that time. So I was really grateful for that conversation, because it did start to sow the seeds for this. And yeah, I’m really proud of it the pickups been immens, but it’s not just been the commercial market. It’s the private sector as well, that I think, I think they are, it gives them an assurance that they  can do something with these products if they need to, but I think it also weirdly and I hadn’t considered this naively before we launched it. It backs up the brand, because it’s  providing much more confidence in Skinflint as a brand, the longevity of the brand, and everything else that’s wrapped into that. So it’s, it’s a win win for everyone as well.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, I think there’s something really interesting in this model of, as you say access over ownership, because it means ultimately, you know, your products are going to come back to you at some point. And therefore you’re going to design them for longevity, because it’s in your interest, not just the consumers interest. And going back to that point about designers having to think more about designing for a pair or designing first disassembly, or whatever it is, if you think for so long, the designer and manufacturers responsibility has ended the moment that thing is bought whereas actually, if we’re now extending the responsibility of the designer, and the manufacturer for the whole life of that product, through many owners, you know, becomes a very different lens through which to design and manufacture. So yeah, and that’s really interesting. Now, on top of all this amazing stuff, you’re also planning to be carbon neutral by 2025. And the year 2025 fills my heart with joy because the amount of people I see pledging carbon neutrality by 2050 or 2060 and you just think it’s too late, too late. We’ve got five or 10 years max to address the climate crisis. So 2025 fills my heart with joy. But my question is, how?

Chris Miller 

That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? For everyone, I, the carbon neutral piece I struggle with a little bit because it’s for me, it’s become something that has been green washed by larger companies.  I don’t really care if Heathrow Airport is carbon neutral. That kind of ignores the elephant in the corner there.  The building may very well be carbon neutral, but from our perspective, we’re doing a lot of things right but there’s always areas to improve upon. Our company emissions for the calendar year 2018 were actually relatively low, are they there, they may not sound low, but they equated to 16 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which roughly translates to at that time is about two tonnes per employee. That is extremely low per capita footprint for a UK retail company. The embodied carbon of our products is very low because they’re being reused  into the circular economy rather than going for disposable recycling.  The bulk of our carbon footprint and this is the challenge because it’s about 70% from scope one is from diesel emissions used in transportation of goods in the operation. So although all of our contractors are obviously based in the southwest, we are bringing products predominantly from the UK, but from Europe and further afield. We’re trying to reduce this within the UK by switching over to electric vehicles , but again, it’s a challenge. It’s not, it’s not black and white. It’s not a simple matter of you swap your diesel vehicle for an electric vehicle. This doesn’t resolve the problem, especially when quite famous car manufacturer releases their new van and its range is 85 miles,  now we live 100 miles from the nearest motorway, so it’s not straightforward. I think one of the things for us is you did touch on the beautiful waterside warehouse, but it is a Victorian building. So there is only so much we can do with it, which we’ve already done in terms of energy efficiency and everything that goes with that. So I think the key drive for ourselves is to develop a new site, which is effectively built from the environment upwards. So they’re the key things but as I say, we’re in a we’re in a we’re in a good position. I won’t go into the whole scope one, scope two, scope three for because it’s, we could be here all day, scope three emissions for us are very difficult to determine. We have a product that goes to New York, this impacts everything,  as I say, I can’t determine who buys our products and we can only take responsibility for the areas that we can take responsibility for.

Katie Treggiden 

Yes I think it’s really admirable. And it’s a difficult thing, isn’t it? Because there’s the whole offsetting the whole offsetting piece. But of course, the trees we plant now are going to take their entire lifetimes to sort of reabsorb the carbon that we’re releasing today. So it’s absolutely, as you say, got to be about reducing carbon emissions before offsetting carbon emissions.

Chris Miller 

Again, yeah, it really angers me. There’s not much that angers me,I’m  generally quite a laid back guy,  we will plant a tree, but as you say, it’s not gonna make any difference.

Katie Treggiden 

I think we need to be reducing carbon and planting trees

Chris Miller 

I did almost cry when I had an airline saying that they were going to that was their carbon offsets.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, yeah. it’s difficult isn’t it.

Chris Miller 

This is separate, but it’s something that we’ve we’ve spoken about our side of this, we are currently in the process of becoming a B Corp certified. This is, again, this isn’t just looking at the environmental impact of the business, it’s looking at social performance. It’s public transparency, and its legal accountability. And the important bit for me in this piece is how, as a company, we balance profit with purpose. And I think everyone’s looking at those two things. We move forward.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, I think that’s really important. People talk about the triple bottom line as well, don’t they, which is people, planet and profit. And I think, you know, there’s sort of there’s, there’s almost a whole section of society, I think that think profit is a dirty word and none of us should be making any profit at all. But actually,  if you’re running a purpose driven business, the more profit you make, the more you can contribute towards that purpose. And I think as long as you’ve got those two things in balance, I think they can be they can be really successful at sort of feeding into each other. And actually, I think, you know, you mentioned earlier that the small companies are leading the way. I think there are a lot of companies showing that actually, purpose driven businesses are more successful and are more profitable. So it doesn’t have to be a trade off. I think those two things in both directions can feed into each other. And how do you feel that opinions towards mending and repair and restoration or fixing whatever we want to call it are changing? I think certainly, you know, I mentioned the veneration of newness that came in with the 20th century. And, you know, I came of age in the 80s and 90s, where it was all about new and shiny, and consumption and  all of that sort of things, do you think do you think that’s changing are people becoming more open to the pattern of age and mending and repair and that sort of thing?

Chris Miller 

I think it is, I think opinions and attitudes to so many things are changing at the moment. I don’t know if that’s just me looking at it through my glasses, but just feels like across the board. attitudes are changing towards everything. I think weirdly it’s almost becoming fashionable to, certainly read in the fashion industry to have clothing with visible mending on, it’s almost become a sort of badge.

Katie Treggiden 

Yes, we have. We have Tom of Holland, who actually coined the hashtag visible mending on Instagram, as one of the other guests on the podcast. So we’ll be digging into that and lots of depth.  Yeah, as we’ve talked about already, I think it’s just a question of whether that’s a trend or a long term movement, isn’t it? So what do you think the future holds? for repair and, and the circular economy?

Chris Miller 

I think as resources dwindle again, we discussed this earlier is going to become ever more important and everyone in time will have to confront this whether they like it or not. I think everything we do makes a difference, be it as an individual or as a collective. I’ve joked with you before about the loaded connotations of the terms mend and repair.  They still feel quite loaded to me an invoke visions of individuals tinkering away with things.

Katie Treggiden 

Interestingly, we’ve talked before, haven’t we about the fact that when you think of mending, you tend to think of women and textiles and when you think of repair, you tend to think of men and sheds.

Chris Miller 

Yes, I’m glad you said that, because I probably couldn’t have got away with saying that. But yes,

Katie Treggiden 

Again, in lots of detail on barrier sub proposals  of the podcast, so we will be exploring the gender implications of those two words in more depth

Chris Miller 

You know that that is fine, the individual repairing or mending something  that is totally fine. But for me, as a business owner, I’m interested in professionalising this process and totally upscaling it onto a much bigger scale not just one or two products, everything, hundreds, thousands of products.

Katie Treggiden 

And what’s the language we need to put around that? What are the words we need to be using instead of mending and repair?

Chris Miller 

I don’t know, Katie, but when I do know I might put a trademark on it.  I don’t know that mend and repair.

Katie Treggiden 

I mean, I guess restoration is perhaps a word that you would use it?

Chris Miller 

I think restoration again, takes us down into the antique road.

Katie Treggiden 

Yes classic cars

Chris Miller 

I don’t, you touched on upcycling earlier I hate that phrase.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah,  I think the 90s killed that phrase, didn’t it?

Chris Miller 

It did. I’m interested in creating a level playing field also, for what we do for remade or reused products, for argument’s sake, where all products and companies adhere to the same set of guidelines. So this is jit ust raises the professionalism if one is doing the same thing. We’re currently working with British Standards on this, to define a workable framework for actually a BS mark, which is really exciting. And they recognise it.

Katie Treggiden 

And that would be a British Standard mark that would define certain levels of quality within Second Life. products.

Chris Miller 

Yes,

Katie Treggiden 

Fantastic. That’s really interesting.

Chris Miller 

And the whole product passport piece I’m really interested in as well, we do this and I’ll be honest, we do this much more from a marketing perspective at the moment. But  I would like to see it driven from an environmental perspective, so you can see where the product has come from. You can see what materials it’s made from, etc, etc. And that passport can be rolled out to new products as well, that doesn’t have to just be on on reused products.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, sort of like there’s there’s environmental product declarations aren’t they EPD’s, which I think Vesta were the first company to put across all their product line.

Chris Miller 

I’d like to see the normal rather than the exception.

Katie Treggiden 

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s really important. So are you hopeful for the future?

Chris Miller 

I think you can’t can’t be anything but hopeful. I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I can’t, I haven’t got an S on my vest. I can’t save the planet on my own, but I can do what I can do and we can lead by example and we should just continue that conversation and if everyones doing that we are okay.

Katie Treggiden 

I think that’s a wonderful note to end on. Thank you, Chris, thank you so much for your insights and wisdom. I think there’s an awful lot of gems in there that people will get a lot from so thank you.

Katie Treggiden 

If you enjoyed this episode, can I ask you to leave a review, and perhaps even hit subscribe? I’ll be honest, I don’t really understand how the algorithm works. But I’m told those two actions really help other people to find the podcast. So that would be amazing. Thank you. You can find me on Instagram at Katietreggedin.1, you can subscribe to my email newsletter newsletter via a link in the show notes. And if you’re a designer maker, you should really join my free Facebook group Making Design Circular. See you there. This episode was produced by Sasha Huff so thank you to Sasha and to October Communications for marketing and moral support to Camera for their sponsorship. And to you for joining me. You’ve been listening to circular with Katie Treggiden.