Meet the former flight attendant who ‘dodges planes’ and makes vegan candles instead
As a former British Airways hostess, Jo Macfarlane capitalized on her relationship skills and first-class flair to start a luxury and sustainable candle making business. Now she wants to help others find greener ways to pursue their ambition.
When airline staff began to lose their jobs at the start of the pandemic, Jo realized that she was uniquely qualified to advise others who were in the same position as her.
Especially since she has also had to adapt to the “new normal”, pivoting her business to offer online courses in creative candle making and even publish her own book. Ask and act.
Jo taught candle making and pouring online to over 300 people around the world during the lockdown.
Below, we learn more about her business, her future plans, and how she is helping others be greener through her work.
Hi Jo, tell us more about your working time for British Airways and why did you get into candle making?
I used to work first class most of the time and left the industry when I was pregnant with my son so 13 years ago now. I didn’t know what was to come next, but I had always come from an artistic background.
I tried different things, but the candles really came into being because I wanted to do something that expressed my interest in the planet and the environment. I am not an eco-warrior as such, but I am very aware of what we are doing to the planet.
It was around Christmas and I was looking at those beautiful vases I had left of burnt candles, jars and other pieces. And that’s where it all started – I decided to make my own candle to fill the jar, rather than throwing it in the trash.
I remember going to a department store and buying wax and wicks, coming home and doing some research on how to make candles. I soon realized that what I had bought were inferior ingredients. I couldn’t even use it. So I went online and started looking for soy wax instead of paraffin wax. This is what I originally bought – paraffin and wicks with wire in them – I didn’t even know it was a thing!
It literally started around my kitchen table. I started selling them by word of mouth, and all of a sudden I had people come up and ask me how they could make their own candles too.
Was that when you started your workshops?
Yes – until then I had really done it, but I invited a few of my friends over and we all sat at my kitchen table and made candles together.
Once again, the word has spread. I started welcoming people from all over the country that I didn’t know, all into my kitchen.
After a few years, I found myself negotiating a deal with luxury hotels – like the Fairmont hotel here in Edinburgh. Businesses have been drawn to my sustainable USP [Unique Selling Point] and our range of fragrances. I was making plans for corporate gifts and candles for the hotel itself.
A studio was put up for rent shortly thereafter and I knew I was ready to take the business out of my house. The studio became this lovely, stress-free environment – I could set everything up the day before. It was my space.
It must have been a defining moment.
It was. I think as a flight attendant I had always been used to being around people, which is why workshops have become such an important part of my business. But even now, the people who come to my workshops know that there is no technical equipment. They are literally given a pot, a jug and a spoon.
It puts people in a comfort zone because they just think, I have all of these things in my kitchen. Even though they had never done anything in their life before, it became clear that this was a very accessible role model.
Containment must have had a huge impact on this format?
Yes, I had to largely pivot the business. We couldn’t accommodate anyone. So I took my filming equipment, which consisted of my iPhone, lighting and a stand. I was filming again from my kitchen.
Now people have taken my classes all over the world, which is more than I thought possible. It’s so nice to host international candlesticks in my kitchen, even virtually!
The past year and a half has given people more opportunities to think about their business strategy and the things they would like to change. Are there any upcoming changes for Jo MacFarlane candles?
In the short term, I switch to organic wax. It’s three times the price, but I think it’s the way to go. There is actually a shortage until July, so the process has been a bit slow.
I actually just put this on the website this morning, so it’s kind of an exclusive: I’ll be providing eucalyptus seeds with every order, so people can use their leftover pots to plant things.
Do you see yourself as a sustainable person?
My son and I are both vegetarians, but I border on veganism these days. All you have to do is watch shows like “Cowspiracy” and “Seaspiracy” and it makes you realize the damage done by the meat and fish industry.
The furniture in my house is usually things that I have found and recycled. In 2019, I actually made a year of buying only second-hand clothes. When I got to the end of the challenge, I realized I wanted to make it a lifestyle – everything I wear now is from charity stores or second-hand sellers online.
These are values that I try to instill in my son as well. The next generation is our future, so it’s important that we educate them now.
Do you think your airline career plays a role in how you choose to live your life now?
Absolutely. I am based in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in London. While a plane and a drive would be much faster and sometimes cheaper, I would always opt for the train. In fact, I really avoid planes whenever possible now – although of course sometimes it’s unavoidable!
What should people do if they want to live a greener life?
It is easy to get overwhelmed by the responsibility that we can feel today vis-à-vis the climate. But there are little things people can do – of course the biggest is plastic. Try to reduce your plastic consumption as much as possible and, when unavoidable, make sure it goes for recycling.
A few years ago I went to a edinburgh climate change festival and we walked away almost in tears thinking about what we had done and all the things we need to do now. I guess the other simple change people can make is diet – you don’t have to totally eradicate meat and cheese, but cutting back will do a lot for your footprint.
And what advice would you give to people who want to start their own business from their kitchen?
Just start. As with anything. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Do it now.
Thanks so much for chatting with us Jo! Be sure to check out Jo MacFarlane Candles on social media and the website.