For Good: Making an Impact With Shelley Simpson of Mud Australia

Our ‘For Good’ series are a set of conversations with talented people behind some of our favourite environmentally conscious brands. As our team at IN BED continue to work towards our own goals around environmental and social impact we are continuously inspired by others re-thinking what it means to create through a more sustainable lens.

This week we speak to Shelley Simpson, the force behind one of Australia’s most loved ceramics brands, Mud. Known for its sleek design and ever-growing palette of earthy colours, Mud has established itself as a leader in sustainable production. We chatted to Shelley about Mud’s incredible journey from 1994 to today, the importance of bricks & mortar retail, and the joy of giving back.

Hi Shelley, Mud has always been one of our favourite makers and we’re thrilled to be talking to you about the process behind some of our most prized ceramics. Can you start by telling us a little bit about what the market was like when you first opened and how the business has grown to where it is today?

Hello and thanks for the nice words! That’s a really big question there. Abridged version follows! When I started Mud Australia in the mid 90s – we were initially Mud Ceramics – our range was earthernware and the market for dinnerware seemed to be very traditional. (I’m going to talk about Mud as “we” from here on because Mud is really a collaboration of many people who all contribute or have contributed  a lot to the journey and the business’ success.)

Our studio was in Surry Hills and I had a lot of conversations with local design stores and food industry people, such as Donna Hay, who all mentioned it was really hard to find dinnerware that allowed the food to be the hero. I designed the 1st iteration of the current range as very fine earthenware that came in a variety of matte glazed colours. Actually not that dissimilar to Rina Menardi, the Italian ceramicist, who I hadn’t been exposed to at that point. The range evolved out of my own personal needs with pieces and colours being added as we went along. Everything was, and still is, made in our studio and we were small enough to learn a lot without failing while the business grew.

We started making the range in porcelain in the early 2000s because of its superior durability and aesthetic qualities which became our sole range in the late 2000s. At the same time we opened our own store in Woollahra, Sydney. Having the store allowed us to focus on brand presentation and talk directly to our customers . We loved the experience and changed our direction from wholesale to our own retail which was probably the best decision we made and has since led to the 8 stores we currently have in Sydney, Melbourne, London, Los Angeles and NYC. We’ve now moved the business 8 times over the years and there are about 90 people working with us. We’re very much a journey driven business. Profit and glory aren’t the motivators but the opportunities to learn and experience as we go are what really excites us.

Mud have always been dedicated to minimising its impact on the environment, but we know you recently took an even bigger leap to become carbon neutral. What did that process entail?

Like a lot of people and businesses we’ve been appalled by the lack of direction and leadership on the environment from local and federal government. We’ve pretty much realised any change in Australia has to be led by individuals and businesses under our own steam. I think over the last 8 years we’ve seriously reviewed all our processes – production, packaging and freight – to minimise our impact. We wanted to metric our carbon usage and the only way to do this is to undergo an audit, which we did with the environmental consultancy South Pole.

The process was actually quite simple and involved a calculation tool that’s run across the business operations to quite a granular level, even a survey that reports the distances and methods our team use to get to work each day. At the end of the process we had a total carbon figure that we’re using as a benchmark for internal improvements and at the same time we’ve offset our carbon through a variety of blue chip certified carbon solutions, such as regenerative burning, reforestation and energy efficiency programs in 3rd world communities. We’ll be auditing the business annually going forward.

Can you tell us about your production process? Has it evolved over the years from a sustainability perspective or remained much the same? Are there any other impact-driven initiatives on the horizon for Mud that you can share with us?

We are a slow design business. Our products live outside seasonality although occasionally our colours do intersect with fashion and trend. We rarely discontinue a colour or profile which means you can buy one plate or bowl rather than a whole dinner set. The materials we use are chosen for quality and longevity. Because everything is made in our own studio we have 100 percent visibility on waste and seconds.

There was a lot of waste in our business when we started. Way too much plastic! It got to the point we were disgusted with ourselves and it had to change. Since then we’ve looked at our entire business. As of today, all our packaging is paper based and is either compostable, recyclable or both. We capture all the clay that hits the floor and from this “waste” are making a special hospitality range. We send all our broken ceramics to a company in Brisbane that uses the pieces as aggregate in upcycled concrete projects. We capture roof water in storage tanks to clean our production facilities (there’s a lot of cleaning with clay!). Heat from our kilns is channelled to our production area to dry the molds that make our product and provide environmental warmth to the team in winter. All food waste in the studio is composted. We have a 100kw solar panel on our Marrickville roof that provides about a third of our studio power needs. We’ve also pivoted from air to sea freight for large stock movements.

We are a slow design business. Our products live outside seasonality although occasionally our colours do intersect with fashion and trend.

Something we’re very much committed to here at IN BED is the idea of giving back. We know Mud does a lot of work in this space as well, in particular, the Shelley Simpson Ceramics Prize. Can you talk about how this came into being and what it represents?

The  visual arts are an integral part of our culture and overall social wellbeing. The sector has long been under-valued and poorly funded. With no change in sight it’s up to individuals and businesses with the foresight and capital to step up and do what they can to reverse the decline. This generation of ceramicists is really inspiring. Their work touches all  the right areas: environmental, social, visual and useful! After personally watching my daughter financially struggle with her investment in her final year of fine art studies, despite our support, I realised  others may not be so lucky. It is my hope that this award will nurture and support some of our brightest ceramicists in the years to come.” The winner receives a $10,000 cash prize to support their studies which can be used for tuition fees or however the student sees fit to complete their studies successfully.

The visual arts are an integral part of our culture and overall social wellbeing.

Finally, what are you most looking forward to for the rest of 2021?

We’re focused on increasing our production capabilities with new kilns which means more people and the opportunity to open some new stores. There’s also some new products that require a more challenging making process and collaboration with other designers. Providing our team with a continually improving work environment to make our beautiful products.

Photography by:
Petrina Tinslay (Lead image: A preview of Mud Australia’s soon to be launched zero waste terrazzo trivet collection)
Nick Tsindos (sculptural & studio)
Becca Crawford (food & portrait of Shelley)