5 brands that take sustainability personally

Consultant Jennifer Walsh on how some brands are rethinking their role.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans — at that time, 10 percent of the country’s population — took part in coast-to-coast rallies for a healthy, sustainable environment. Earth Day has been celebrated on April 22 every year since, with support growing to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Earth Day is being celebrated this year as well, but with a difference: Due to the coronavirus crisis, rallies will be digital, rather than in-person. A schedule of global online video teach-ins, performances, conversations and other events, to be held across 24 hours in more than a dozen languages, can be found at earthday.org.

The basic assumption behind Earth Day is that people affect nature: We can make the environment better, or we can make it worse. Less commonly shared is a corollary assumption that the environment can make us better or worse, not just at the front-page news level (pandemics, hurricanes, etc.), but in our everyday lives.

The retail/wellness/nature connection

Viewed in that way, sustainability becomes a no-brainer. One reason it’s not more widely understood, says sustainability consultant Jennifer Walsh, is that people these days spend much of their lives indoors. “We’ve seen the largest migration from outdoors to indoors in our history,” she says, “and our health is suffering because of it.”

Walsh has spent a fair amount of time indoors herself, first as an on-screen celebrity makeup artist, then as founder and head of Beauty Bar, which became the first online beauty brand in the United States and led to a chain of bricks-and-mortar stores and a weekly TV show.

Walsh sold Beauty Bar to Amazon in 2010; after five years of consulting to beauty brands, in 2015 she started doing what she does now — walking and talking outside with clients and peers about the connections among personal health, environmental health and exposure to nature. Demand for her services is increasing as the coronavirus crisis worsens. Perhaps, she suggests, the pandemic is causing some people to rethink the whole idea of what being healthy is about.

Five leaders

To get a sense of what that rethinking might look like, NRF asked Walsh about a few of the more striking discussions she’s had with brand leaders and founders intensely interested in sustainability. Brands she singled out include:

  • Serenbe, a business/residential community based on connection to nature;
  • Outer Furniture, a producer of all-weather, 100-percent recyclable outdoor furniture;
  • Mother Dirt, a beauty products line based on the idea that some bacteria are good for you;
  • Interface, a producer of biophilic, carbon-negative carpeting and flooring; and
  • Naturally Danny Seo, a multitalented entrepreneur who was born on Earth Day 1977 and by age 18 had founded the country’s largest teen activist charity.

Videos of some of these conversations are available at www.walkwithwalsh.com

Serenbe

Steve Nygren, founder

“I’ve never seen a community as thoughtfully planned out as Serenbe. Steve Nygren bought the land to protect the Chattahoochee Hill Country just outside of Atlanta, and to educate others on how being more connected to nature can help us be more connected to one another. The neighborhoods are connected by walking paths, and the homes are built close together to encourage neighbors to get to know one another. They’re also built close to the road, so people speak to their neighbors as they walk down the street. Edible fruits like blueberries grow along the walking path.

“The town of Serenbe is focused on biophilic design. The community hosts a Biophilic Summit each year to teach others about the health benefits of nature, and of incorporating biophilia in homes and businesses.”

 

Terry Lin, Outdoor Furniture, and Jennifer Walsh

Outer Furniture

Terry Lin, co-founder

“Outer Furniture is a direct-to-consumer outdoor furniture brand. This company wants you to go outside, and to encourage you to do that, they want you to love your outdoor furniture, knowing that the product is good for you and the planet. Outer Furniture’s mission is to provide the most comfortable of all possible outdoor sofas: To have one product, designed for all weathers and of 100-percent recyclable materials, and make it great.”

Mother Dirt

Jasmina Aganovic, founder

“Jasmina is an MIT-trained engineer who fell in love with the beauty industry and brought her scientific expertise with her when she joined it. While the message of the beauty industry has always been that we should clean off dirt and scrub away bacteria, Mother Dirt has created a brand based on the health benefits of good bacteria. The cornerstone of the company is a patented ammonia-oxidizing bacteria found in rich soil — hence the name.

“Mother Dirt wanted to build a brand around the human component of getting people outdoors — of summoning the child within and going back to the days when we didn’t care about getting dirt on our skin. As I’ve said elsewhere, we spend too much time indoors. We’ve spent the past few decades stripping our skin of the good bacteria that our bodies need to thrive. Mother Dirt has stepped in to educate us — and put those good bacteria back.”

Interface

Kari Pei, VP of design

“Kari is a deep believer in our connection to nature and how it helps the planet heal. She is also extremely full of gratitude, and passionate about her role in creating a product that is not only beautiful, but something that can help the planet.

“Interface is a worldwide textile brand that truly incorporates biophilic design into all that it does. In launching its first carbon negative carpet/products, the company acted on its core belief that it is possible to reverse global warming through radical decarbonization — removing carbon from the atmosphere and protecting natural carbon sinks. In order to make an impact that other people could follow, understanding that it can create a ripple effect, it began by insisting that all its manufacturing plants be carbon neutral. Many of its products are made from recycled materials, and its carpeting is inspired by the colors and landscapes that are found in nature.”

Naturally Danny Seo

Danny Seo, founder

“Danny has spent his entire life trying to bring awareness to the importance of living sustainably. He is an author, the creator of a magazine and an NBC TV show, both called ‘Naturally, Danny Seo,’ as well as the developer of products that also bear his name.

“To say he is passionate about what he does would be an understatement and he is the consummate creator. He has an idea and just goes for it — a man after my own heart. Wildly charismatic, Danny sees the world through a very creative lens while staying true to the belief that if it isn’t good for nature/earth, it shouldn’t be done. He began his quest for helping the planet as a young teen, and he continues to build a world that is not only beautiful, but one that truly shines a light on how to do things with sustainability in mind.”

The same boat

Climate change was not a focus of the original Earth Day, because 50 years ago people didn’t realize it could happen. We realized we were making a mess, but not that we could melt the polar ice caps, raise sea levels, flood the coastal cities we like to live in, and bake farmland into desert.

Now we know.

The primary theme running through these conversations is sustainability: How to use and enjoy nature without damaging it. Another, however, is interdependence. This is something we’re seeing rather luridly demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it might be a good lesson for Earth Day 2020: We’re all in this together and there is no island to run away to. Whatever’s going to work has to work for everybody.

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