While shopping for her young daughter, Sharon Keilthy realised it was almost impossible to buy ethical toys. She tells ThinkBusiness how online retailer Jiminy became Ireland’s biggest eco-specialist distributor of crafts and toys.
Why did you set up Jiminy?
I was working for a multinational and I wanted to do something more personally meaningful. I handed in my notice with no plan in order to give myself space to see what I was drawn to. I found myself increasingly concerned about the environment. I noticed it was difficult to do the right thing as a consumer. You leave the house with good intentions, get to the shop and there’s nothing that’s not wrapped in plastic or made in China.
“I noticed it was difficult to do the right thing as a consumer. You leave the house with good intentions, get to the shop and there’s nothing that’s not wrapped in plastic or made in China”
I wanted to help people do the right thing by making it easier to make a choice that is kind to the environment. My daughter is five years old and I noticed that the same thing was true when it came to art and hobby shops or toy stores. It’s wall-to-wall Chinese-made plastic. It’s really hard to find anything that’s locally made or plastic-free or both. I realised it was a niche that no one was working in.
What makes Jiminy stand out?
There is no greenwashing. We’re very transparent. If there’s any plastic in a product, we highlight it in capital letters on our website because we’re not happy with that. All our products are predominantly entirely plastic free. There are one or two that have bits of Velcro or the Shadow Theatre that we sell has a lamp that is made in China because no one in Europe makes them.
“It’s really hard to find anything that’s locally made or plastic-free or both. I realised it was a niche that no one was working in”
We don’t just say we’re eco, we’re genuinely eco all the way through. We don’t tolerate plastic in our supply chain. There’s no hidden plastic in our business.
We don’t generate any waste. We generate cardboard boxes which we reuse for things we sell. If we have too many, we offer them on recycling websites. If we get any plastic in the packaging of our shipments, we read the supplier the riot act and we will not order from them again.
What was your background before you set up Jiminy?
I trained as a mechanical engineer. I started another business almost straight out of college, ironically helping Irish companies do business in China. I now think we need to source locally.
“As consumers, we need to keep on telling companies that we’re not happy with plastic”
We talk about food miles but what about toy miles. China is 22,000 km away, at least Eastern Europe, where a lot of our toys are sourced is only a maximum of 2,000 km away. I then joined a global management consultancy. I worked as a consultant for them, helping companies make their businesses more efficient. I quickly gravitated towards health care. Most of my consultant time was spent in the NHS in the UK.
How did you go about developing the brand?
A friend who’s an architect and designer helped generate a few name options. We liked Jiminy, after Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio’s conscience, as our toys are crafted with a conscience. I did some business coaching years ago and was advised to start off with small experiments that answer your question as quickly as possible.
“We’re very transparent. If there’s any plastic in a product, we highlight it in capital letters on our website because we’re not happy with that”
We very much followed that ethos – we got out there, we started in St. Anne’s Park in a tent selling toys and craft materials, to see what people wanted. Pretty quickly, it was clear that people were more interested in toys than craft materials. We put ourselves out there as much as possible. We did every event going last year – Bloom, the National Ploughing Championships and lots of markets.
We don’t have a permanent shop, but we did get offered a pop-up shop on Fade Street in Dublin for two months before Christmas. That was fabulous as people can really relate to physical shop, much more than they can to a temporary market.
Is there anything you would do differently?
I wish I had outsourced the warehouse earlier. I might have designed our range differently because an outsourced warehouse is like a machine – everything has to be barcoded and standardised. At the moment, they’re struggling a little bit with our rather boutique, not bar-coded products. Warehousing in-house was a draw on my time and attention that should have been spent on other things.
“We don’t just say we’re eco, we’re genuinely eco all the way through. We don’t tolerate plastic in our supply chain”
I would bring someone with me on this journey. A friend did come on as business partner early on but she left within two months. That was a big blow. Since then I’ve been on my own and while I do have fabulous people helping me, I feel like any business will never be its best with just one person making the decisions. I do somewhat regret not having a business partner, but then again it is also more streamlined with one person making decisions.
One of the things on my to-do list is to get an advisory board of more experienced people I could talk to once a month, to make sure I’m making the right choices.
What are you most proud of?
I find running an eco-activist business quite satisfying. As a single consumer, I can only impact one household but as a business, I can impact thousands of euro’s worth of products every time I place an order with a supplier and ensure that it comes entirely plastic-free. As consumers, we need to keep on telling companies that we’re not happy with plastic.
I’m very happy and proud of what we’ve done. Being at an event and having someone come up and play with a toy and telling them it is made entirely from plants, watching their jaw drop. They realise all the plastic in their life actually doesn’t need to be there, that there is a modern, feasible alternative.
The shop started a national discussion in the press in the run up to Christmas, about toys’ carbon footprint. We coined the phrase toy miles. Hearing people talking about toy miles and being aware of that is very satisfying.
What advice would you give someone starting a business in the eco sector?
Be ruthlessly true to your values and if you have to make compromises, be transparent about them. Try and take someone with you when you start the business. There is a growing percentage of consumers here who are actively looking for plastic-free, for eco. A recent Price Waterhouse Coopers survey showed over 50% of consumers actively avoid plastic when they shop, but that is mostly groceries.
Eco is a niche. Ireland is a very small market, so you need to think about what scale you can achieve. That’s why we’ve taken on the UK as well.
Main image at top: Sharon Keilthy and her daughter.
Interview by Olivia McGill
Published: 19 February, 2019