Susan Griffin-Black, purveyor of organic bath and body care products, answers Grist’s questions
What work do you do?
I am the co-CEO and co-founder of EO.
How does it relate to the environment?
EO is a certified organic, family-owned and -operated manufacturer of bath and body care products based on the traditional healing and therapeutic wisdom of plant-based essential oils. Not only are they safe, gentle, and effective, but they also awaken the senses to enhance natural beauty. Our intention is to bring aromatherapeutic pleasure to the everyday ritual of life.
Keeping the vision alive is my daily work (and passion!), including being the steward of our ingredient selection manifesto, which states:
- We use organic or wild-crafted essential oils whenever possible.
- We use active herbal infusions, which are micro-brewed fresh for every batch.
- We source the highest-quality ingredients from the regions where they thrive naturally.
- We support sustainable, organic agriculture and small family farms.
We also make sure that our raw materials are selected with many criteria in mind, including customer safety, organic availability, product efficacy, and environmental impact.
What are you working on at the moment? Any major projects?
I wear many hats: I develop new products and formulations, design new packaging, manage the finances and our wonderful 25-member team, ensure we have an open, collaborative, engaging work environment, talk to customers, attend trade shows … You get the idea.
When you run a small business, everything can be major depending on the moment. Recently we’ve been involved with Project PROM, working with a group of amazing Bay Area teens to create a perfume for their new “i-line” safe cosmetics to raise awareness of, and alternatives to, toxic ingredients used in daily products.
We created Michael’s Aloe & Lavender Hand Cream to raise funds for our dear and remarkable friend, Michael Keenan, who is in the intensive-care unit at San Francisco General Hospital suffering burns over 80 percent of his body. Truly dogs’ best friend, Michael was house and pet sitting when a fire broke out Feb. 6, 2007. Michael escaped, but returned into the burning apartment building to save Bobby, a Jack Russell terrier.
Whole Foods Market has been an amazing supporter, and recently asked us to create a high-quality all-purpose soap that they could offer their customers. They wanted it to be made from the best ingredients using sustainable agricultural and processing methods. We worked with them for about a year developing a line of three all-purpose soaps made with organic lavender, peppermint, and lemon essential oils. It’s the first time that Whole Foods has ever co-branded with someone else, so it’s very exciting for us.
We recently introduced the first organic hand sanitizer in America. Unlike mass-market sanitizers, which use factory-formulated chemicals to simulate natural smells, ours features organic lavender essential oil, which is naturally soothing and calming to both the skin and the senses and has a pleasant, natural aroma. Organic alcohol, which is made from 100 percent non-genetically modified corn without the use of any harsh chemical denaturants, effectively kills germs and sanitizes on contact. And, of course, our wipes are 100 percent biodegradable wood-pulp towelettes.
How do you get to work?
An eight-minute drive over back roads. It’s about three miles away from where I live.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
In college, I opened and ran a couple of clothing stores that focused on the hipper fashions of the day (I’m not going to say what time period — OK, it was the late ’70s). After school I decided to move to New York and try my hand at design and merchandising in the biggest fashion city in America. Fortunately, I made some good decisions, had some great people willing to guide me along, and was able to thrive in the city. In 1983, I decided to move to California. My first retail store, in the Castro [District], was called East Coast Girls, the last one was on Sutter Street and was called Susan Griffin, and my grand finale in the clothing trade was at Esprit around 1991.
In 1992, I started to import a small line of aromatherapy products from the U.K. In a weird twist of fate, we were being asked to make products for people here in the U.S. while the U.K. relationship became financially difficult. So we had a decision to make: stop and do something else, or transition into a different company. The decision to transform came rather quickly, and we were off on our own! We started making products for companies like Birkenstock and Rockport, and in 1995 we started making something for Bloomingdale’s. We called it EO. Soon thereafter, we made our own products with EO as the brand. Voila, EO was born.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Pittsburgh, Pa. Now I live in Marin County, Calif.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
I really don’t think that way. Every moment is a teaching moment. Whether I find the outcome unpleasant is not really relevant, because it’s only my view. There’s so much to learn, every day, that I just stay open-minded to new experience. I’ve been a Zen Buddhist student for 15 years, so that helps a lot. Seriously though, when you make it through bad cash flow, layoffs, etc. and stay in business, the stories disappear and gratitude and humility are left in their place with the real truth: all of life is incredibly precious.
What’s been the best?
They keep coming. I really find every day to be the best, because I get to open the doors to a world that I get to participate with on life’s terms. Business is about working with people, and our company is about healing and caring for people. So every day is a blessed moment.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
As a practicing Buddhist, I’m not one to become infuriated much. However, I see the complete lack of regulation around the beauty-care market to be almost criminal — including animal testing and the use of chemicals to create the myriad of products that are woefully unhealthy.
To that end, we created a list of ingredients that we will not use (it also lists the health issues that surround each of them):
- sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate — harsh surfactant that is a known irritant
- diazolidinyl urea — preservative that is considered carcinogenic
- propylene glycol — harsh solvent, synthetic petrochemical mix, and known allergen
- petrolatum — petroleum-derived, tends to interfere with the body’s own natural moisturizing mechanism, leading to dry skin and chapping
- stearalkonium chloride — toxic, carcinogenic chemical used in conditioners and creams
- phthalates — known to cause birth defects
- triethanolamine — toxic chemical, skin irritant
- synthetic fragrances — known irritants which can lead to chemical sensitivities
- synthetic colors — completely unnecessary and considered carcinogenic
Who is your environmental hero?
I have too many to list. But, I’d have to say that Rachel Carson is one of the most courageous people I’ve ever read. She’s amazing. I also find Paul Hawken‘s work to be illuminating and necessary to raise consciousness.
What’s your environmental vice?
Hmm, tough one. Popcorn at the movies? My best friend Margaret O’Leary’s cashmere sweaters? I still have a little of that clothing thing.
How do you spend your free time (if you have any)? Read any good books lately?
I spend a lot of time with my amazing young daughter, and am totally awed by seeing my older son perform his original music with his band The Transfer. I’m on the board of San Francisco Zen Center and spend time practicing and studying Buddhism at Green Gulch. I’m currently reading Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken.
What’s your favorite meal?
An organic one that I don’t have to shop for and cook.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I’m a Marin mom, baby boomer, Volvo driver, and I get involved in local environmental issues.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
My favorite place is Earth. It’s the only ecosystem we have. After that, I love the coast of California: Green Gulch near Muir Beach, Tassajara in the Carmel Valley, and Big Sur. And let’s not leave out Paris, France, the most beautiful city on the planet.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I would like to see the cosmetics and beauty industry come clean on the ingredients they use.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
When I was 18, my favorite was Jackson Browne. Now, it’s my son Marc and his band, The Transfer.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
Ali MacGraw, circa 1975.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Try to live close to your work. Less driving frees your life up for other pursuits. Be kind to everyone and everything.