Laura and Jack originally launched Paper Plane as a greetings card brand, but quickly saw a gap for bringing their humorous and design-led brand style to the world of sustainable skincare. We chat to the architects of the somewhat iconic 'bath noodles' about the challenges and rewards of creating sustainable products, as well as their observations on how consumer demand has shifted, and might continue to shift.
What is the story behind Paper Plane? How did you decide to collaborate together, and what made you take the leap to start Paper Plane?
We are Laura and Jack, we’re a couple who have been running a business together for the best part of a decade — and somehow we still like each other! We met at work when we both worked in magazines. Laura was a designer and Jack a sub editor. After running a small but successful furniture upcycling business on notonthehighstreet, we decided we needed to use our combined skills to create products with a broader appeal that weren’t just one-off pieces, as that was very time consuming. Greetings cards seemed a good enough place to start, so we designed a few punny alcohol-related Christmas cards in 2014 and it grew from there.
What is your working dynamic at Paper Plane? Who takes care of what? What does a typical day look like?
Laura is the company director and creative driving force, Jack takes care of more day-to-day operations, although we both do our fair share of product preparation and packing. On a typical day we get to our studio in a converted barn in Exton, Rutland, make a cup of tea and print out the orders that have come in overnight. Then it’s a case of prioritising, prepping and packing orders — both retail and wholesale. If there’s any time left we’ll get some admin done!
How do you decide what kinds of products to stock, and how did you go about designing products and expanding your range?
At first, our brand was all about slogans and surface design on cards, prints, mugs, coasters, clothing etc. We’d go to trade shows and see what machines and printers were out there and work out how we could apply our design-led humour to new products. Eventually, we saw a gap in the market for ethical bath and body products that were fun, bright and design-led. Laura was passionate about using natural skincare products but found they were either high-end and expensive or kind of earthy and wholesome. We thought there should be a middle ground, so we set out to find the best suppliers and created a whole new range.
Describe your customers to us. What kind of people buy your products, and who do you hope to reach with Paper Plane?
Our customers are mainly women, aged 25-45, who are looking to reduce their impact on the planet. Products like our Bath Noodles (a bath and shower body wash in the shape of noodles that come in a takeaway noodle carton) reach a younger audience and we’re hoping it can set them on the path of using natural, vegan and eco-friendly products. Our stockists vary from larger chains like Urban Outfitters to eco and refill stores, beauty salons and indie gift shops. We love working with small independents because they completely understand where we’re coming from.
How do you ensure your products and packaging are sustainably sourced and eco-friendly? Can you tell us a bit about some of your eco-initiatives?
Hours of research! We use UK suppliers who are trusted and accredited and use only natural and vegan ingredients. We have cut our plastic from our postal packaging in favour of paper and cardboard and have sourced biodegradable sugar-cane stickers to seal our paper soap and shampoo bar wraps. We reuse any boxes and packing we receive from suppliers — so when you receive a trade order from us you may notice a little bubble wrap or a reused outer box — but we figure it’s better to use things multiple times than just once. We also plant a tree for every order we receive at paperplanedesigns.co.uk.
Has the pandemic affected your processes?
Thankfully, not massively. We work alone and live together, so social distancing was never an issue for us at the studio and we were able to just test and sanitise regularly in order to keep on working throughout the lockdowns. Brexit has been a much bigger hurdle, with price rises and exporting to the EU becoming much more difficult.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
It’s great to know that everything we do is our own choice — we can work a Saturday and take Friday off if we need to, or have a morning off, or open a pop-up shop on a whim. We also love to find (and be found by) new stockists — we have a map of all our locations and love to see dots pop up in new towns. It’s great to know that products are being bought by actual humans in real shops when a few months earlier they only existed in our strange brains.
How has selling wholesale with CREOATE helped grow your business? What advice would you give to businesses looking to take the leap?
CREOATE has helped to open up a whole new side to our business. We had already dipped our toe in the wholesale market by attending trade shows, but these are a huge upfront investment for a small business like ours and, obviously, as soon as the pandemic hit they were all cancelled. We’ve always found that our stockists tend to be more proactive than the old school store owners and buyers who would trek around trade shows and hobnob with sales reps. The owners of indie boutique gifts shops want to seek out exciting new products on apps and sites like Instagram or Etsy. Having dedicated online wholesale sites featuring the best small creative businesses makes buying so much quicker and easier and showcases our products to buyers we would otherwise never have met. If you’re unsure about it, just make sure you can afford to sell your products at a wholesale price and then go for it! You don’t have to offer all your lines, just the ones that work for you. There’s no cost to you unless you make a sale and once you’re out there, you’ll be seen by more and more people.
What has been Paper Plane’s greatest achievement so far?
Genuinely, it’s probably just surviving the hardest couple of years imaginable with no business training or experience and just a make-it-up-as-we-go-along approach. We’ve been lucky to have been in a position where we could afford to have a few cards printed (I think we spent about £75 initially) which we were able to sell and then reinvest in more products. We’ve never taken out a loan, just reinvested.
Would you say that consumers now are more aware of the need for sustainable practices and products? Are customer habits and opinions shifting?
Definitely. The rise of eco shops, both online and bricks and mortar, shows that customers are making more conscious choices. It will be interesting to see how the cost of living crisis impacts that, as the eco choice isn’t always the lowest-priced choice.
What advice would you give to customers looking to shop more sustainably? Is there anything we should be looking out for when choosing homeware and lifestyle products?
Look for products that are 100% natural. Some will say ‘natural’ or ‘with natural extracts’ but still have chemical components that can dry out or damage hair and skin, or pollute our water. Single-use plastics are rare now, and biodegradable packaging is a much more common sight. I guess ‘buy once and buy well’ is a good mantra if you can afford it, but really, just one person doing one small thing can make a difference.