Soon after learning about Organic Essence—organic beauty products for your face and body—it was rare to find an Oliver Russell employee who didn't use the product daily. The same rings true to this day. But Organic Essence isn't the only business venture that husband and wife team Ellery and Gail West have founded. Eco Vision Packaging is a plastic-free, biodegradable packaging company for beauty products. Bury your Eco Vision Packaging in the backyard, revisit it a week later and it'll be gone—now that's a product we love.
What life lessons did you learn from your parents?
Ellery: Be patient and careful when making things, such as food, cleaning the house, doing yard work, making things. Reputation is our human currency with other people—be true to your word. Do what you say and be real.
Gail: A basic metaphor for life: the seeds of the giant Sequoia tree need fire to germinate.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Ellery: In second grade, all the other boys wanted to be astronauts, policemen and doctors; I wanted to be an inventor. I forgot about it for many years and then realized I liked solving problems. It took Gail to put me to work on the important problems.
Gail: One with nature. Kind of a cross between a Swiss Family Robinson family member and John Muir, plus the added ability to "talk to the animals."
What was your inspiration for starting Organic Essence?
E: Chemical free—the avoidance of synthetic chemicals that raise health concerns. USDA Organic is the most meaningful cosmetics body care standard in the world (by far) so we committed to only making products that carry the USDA Organic seal.
G: Global health and well-being for the people and the planet.
And, Eco Vision Packaging?
E: Genuine, sustainable packaging that is tangibly a part of life and supports life. We are inspired to replace the sea of plastic that fills stores floor to ceiling with paper packaging that is convenient, protects products and is seriously sustainable.
G: Toxic chemical plastic packaging was a disconnect for our certified organic body care products. So, we invented garden compostable paper Eco Jars and Eco Tubes. We also sell our paper packages for private label brands.
Tell us more about both businesses.
E & G: Organic Essence and Eco Vision fit like a hand in a glove. What’s the point of spending more for organic if it has been contaminated by its packaging? Organic and sustainability are spiritually and physically aligned. Organic Essence is about great products that happen to showcase genuinely sustainable packaging. Eco Vision Packaging is paving the way towards reducing unnecessary plastic pollution and will have a positive effect by showing what is possible for many generations to come. Products and packaging that are a part of the life cycle help us interact with life better, and thus we become better humans.
What was the most challenging part of making environmentally friendly products?
E: Trailblazing. When you set out to make something that hasn’t been made before, everything seems to take ten times as much effort to do. You find yourself asking sharper, clearer questions, probing deeper. You end up doing a lot of steps and processes yourself. You must demonstrate that something is possible even though the ‘experts’ say it is impossible.
G: The actual process of inventing is almost effortless. Building out and scaling the inventions is more challenging.
You talk a lot about “natural” not being enough when referring to skincare products. Why?
E & G: Put a Koala Bear on the package and it’s deemed “safe.” Put a plastic bottle inside a cardboard box and market it as “green.” Green-washing is so displeasing. “Natural” has become an overused and meaningless marketing term. It is meant to induce confidence that a product doesn’t have chemicals, even though the unpronounceable ingredients are the same ones you find in ‘conventional’ products. The motivation to purchase ‘natural’ is the motivation to avoid unnecessary exposure to synthetic chemicals. But ‘natural’ products don’t deliver. USDA Organic delivers. It’s based on organic food. We don’t put detergents and poisons in organic food. We shouldn’t put them on our bodies either.
You're based out of Crescent City, CA. What’s the importance of being near nature when running your business?
E: Being near nature, being filled with life all around, makes us keenly aware of how life works and our place in the scheme of life. It’s visceral and it’s on our minds every day. It brought the awareness that sustainability is about life; if something harms life it is unsustainable. If something comes from life and feeds life, you can do it forever. Life on earth should be abundant. We should be helping life, not wiping it out. Supporting life is how we demonstrate our gratitude and respect for getting this life to live.
G: It’s essential. Grounding out and breathing in.
One word: plastic. Expand.
E: Plastic is one of the great developments of the synthetic chemical revolution, which is a key part of the Industrial Revolution. It has a place in our world but shouldn’t be abused as we do now. We need to respect toxicity better. It is against our self-interest to poison ourselves and our environment with this mildly toxic chemical we call plastic. A little toxicity is generally no big deal. A little toxicity everywhere touching everything constantly adds up big time. In the future, people will look back on our era like we look back on the Ancient Romans who unknowingly poisoned themselves with lead. It’s not too late to wake up. Wake up!
G: Stealing from the future. Short sighted. Wars. A by-product of gasoline and natural gas production. Deeply rooted as convenient and cheap. Zero accounting for end of life cycle. Toxic.
What’s one product you want to make but haven’t yet?
E: A superior functioning organic toothpaste in a genuinely sustainable package that is convenient and easy to use. It’s going to take a lot of heavy lifting. Paste tube packaging is the fastest growing packaging form because it’s so easy to use.
G: I like to serve where needed. I prefer to let the people and the industry provide direction according to their needs.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
E: Oatmeal, with walnuts and apples—all organic or homegrown.
G: Organic rice milk and organic cereal that boasts eco-friendly packaging, but it’s packaged in a plastic bag. Interesting how they justified their plastic bag as the paramount solution. A classic study in misdirection. It’s not digesting well on so many levels.
What is your secret vice?
E: You might say I’m boring, I don’t smoke, drink or gamble—but I really like to eat sweet things. I call it a vice because you've really got to watch it.
G: Day dreaming. I love to space out.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
E: Higher social IQ; I would like to understand and connect with people better.
G: Impulsive…. I need to space out more!
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
E: For everybody to make a greater effort to see other points of view. In this way, we might be able to cooperate better which is the hallmark of being human. Cooperation is humanity’s secret sauce and we need more. This is how we become more human.
G: Everything is probably going along perfectly. Personally, would I like to see other outcomes? Yes, but ultimately (and fortunately), it’s not my job.
What are you reading right now?
E: Current events from all sides to better get to the truth of things. And current science of all disciplines because it’s endlessly interesting.
G: I only read ‘How To’ books; tiling, knitting socks, horse care.
E: Psychill, chillgressive and ambient because it’s a great soundtrack to my personal movie. Lyrics can jar me off of my train of thought.
G: Alternative rock. Usually something with a good riff and a driving beat that doesn’t make sense.
E: My favorite story is transcendence, overcoming obstacles, becoming more, growing up. Dramas generally have more transcendent stories, but there’s also a lot to be said for good cooking shows and action-thrillers.
G: Absurd stunts performed by people who are not necessarily thinking through the entire process. BuzzFeed, too.
Rock, paper, or scissors?
E: Scissors can cut and the earth has a lot of rocks, but paper totally wins—it comes from life, is a part of life and feeds life. Life is the best because we are alive!
What’s one question you’d like to ask yourself—and answer?
E: How can we do the impossible? Concentrate, get creative and persist.
G: Why didn’t I meet Ellery earlier in life? Had to say, “no” to a lot of other things to clear the path.
How should people connect with you on social media?
E: LinkedIn is an electronic business card. There’s and old saying that you could read a person like a book. Now, with social media, each of us can become a thousand-watt radio station broadcasting all the time, but is it making us happier or better informed?
G: LinkedIn or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.