18 Questions with Ellery West…

by Rachel Collins

1. What is your name?

Ellery West

2.  What is your occupation?

CEO, Organic Essence Inc., I spend a lot of time on office work which involves a lot of emails, I develop paper packaging and patents, and I formulate organic body care products, which is a lot like cooking food. 

3.   What was your favorite green ( Eco ) memory growing up?

I can’t pick a favorite; my mind goes over all the tromping through forests, deserts, sailing on the ocean, exploring tiny islands. I love the Earth. I’m an Earthling. 

4.   What did you do before Organic Essence?

In grade school, when all the other boys wanted to grow up and become astronauts, doctors and policemen, I wanted to become an inventor. As the years went by, I forgot about that and focused on making 3-D stained glass sculpture, then jewelry, then magnetic earrings. Everything I have done involves a lot of problem solving. One night at a tradeshow in Chicago, I woke up with a premonition that I was going to invent something important. Days, months and years went by – it must have been wishful thinking. Years later, I met my future wife, Gail, who was making soap and she invited me into her business. It was a perfect fit because there are so many opportunities to be creative. Then a whale washed up on our local beach. She had starved with a stomach full of plastic. It was Gail who brought our focus to sustainable packaging. She is the one who gave us this direction and together we began inventing and developing paper packaging. 

5.   How is Organic Essence increasing sustainable awareness ?

Organic Essence is increasing sustainable awareness by reminding people that consumer products don’t have to be packaged in plastic. Ubiquitous plastic has been here for over a generation and the assumption is plastic first. When people solve packaging problems, they reach for plastic and assume that sustainable is impossible or too expensive. I hope to demonstrate that paper and other products of life are sustainable, affordable, and more important, can convey products to consumers conveniently and with excellent product protection. 

6.   What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of your job?

The most rewarding part of my work is when I can help people solve a problem; it can be by introducing a person to an organic moisturizer which solves a skin problem, or it can be by making a custom package for a brand owner that helps them sell a sustainable product rather than selling a product that becomes pollution. The most challenging part of my work is the constant trailblazing. It’s great when you forge a path for others to follow, but it takes ten times as long to cover the same ground. 

7.   What is one environmental/sustainable change you vow to make this year?

My vow this year is to spread the word that plastic recycling is a red herring. It puts us to sleep thinking that we’re doing something good for the environment. So, it’s ok that we buy more throw-away plastic since we spend so much time and effort sorting our trash. Yet, for some reason, they’re ramping up plastic production all over the world. It’s crazy. We’ve been turned against our own self-interest. Don’t recycle plastic. De-cycle plastic. Don’t buy it. Tell brands that you don’t want to buy pollution. 

8.   Can you tell us what inspired you to start Organic Essence?

My wife and I made bar soaps and ‘natural’ moisturizer lotions and creams for years. We had become increasingly uncomfortable with synthetic fragrances and colorants. But one day, we got a new fragrance with a safety data sheet that was a shocker. Along with the usual warnings it said that women who are pregnant, or ever plan to become pregnantshould not come into physical contact with it. How can anybody sell something that dangerous meant to be put on people’s skin? That’s when we realized that people are on their own when it comes to chemical exposure. We shouldn’t be playing Russian Roulette with skin care products! The FDA protects us from food borne diseases so we assume it protects us against hazardous chemicals. Nay, nay, they don’t. That’s why a strict organic certification is so important to consumers who want to avoid unnecessary chemical exposure. When the USDA Organic program expanded their certification to non-food products, we were one of the first skin care companies to certify to it. And we’re still one of the only skin care companies that only makes products that are certified organic. Putting “organic” in a brand name that isn’t selling genuine organic products is shameful and obvious. Selling one or two organic products with a bunch of conventional products and plastering the organic logo everywhere is deceptive and it fools a lot of consumers into thinking all the offerings are chemical-free. 

9.  If there was one industry/product that you could make more eco-friendly, what would it be?

I would like to help make consumer goods packaging genuinely sustainable. I would like to show people that far from impossible, sustainable packaging can be affordable – and is easy. I’m asking a question: Why is yogurt sold in plastic cups? Every supermarket has a refrigerated wall of plastic packaged yogurt – what’s wrong with wax coated paper cups that worked so well for generations? Why is a so-called “Eco Pac” cereal using plastic? Paper boxes are not pollution. Plastic bags are. How does this deceptive adver-speak work so well? It’s like we want to be deceived. 

10. What’s next for you and Organic Essence?

We’re developing new product categories that can be packaged in paper, such as perfume. Our packaging brand, Eco Vision Packaging, is solving packaging challenges for non-cosmetic products. Far beyond my business, I want to inspire other businesses to become environmentally sustainable – physically. Using wind turban power is good, having a green roof on your factory is fine, but if your product is packaged in plastic, its pollution.  

11. What’s your favorite book?

Jarred Diamond’s ‘Collapse’. It brings home the connection civilizations have with the environment and how many civilizations have collapsed in the past due to environmental degradation. It also shows a way that some people are demonstrating a sustainable way of living. 

12. Where do you turn for your news?

Just about everywhere except Facebook. I look for balance, such as when a reporter tries to show both sides of an issue. I want to see a little ambiguity, because the truth isn’t always so clear-cut. We have two eyes so we can develop perspective

13. Where on the green scale do you fall?

I’m not living off the grid like a wild-man, so I’m not romantically extremely green. I am mindful though. Also, I define ‘green’ as environmentally sustainable. I don’t feel comfortable conflating environmentalism with social justice and other issues. They’re separate and require different approaches. Environmentalism shouldn’t be political, surviving, maybe even living well, into the future should engage everyone.  

14. Do you lead a vegan lifestyle?

Absolutely not, when it comes to buying many ‘vegan’ products.  Why do so many vegan products and solutions depend on spreading even more synthetic chemicals and plastic into the environment? For instance, plastic shoes are sold as ‘vegan’. Really? That’s not even wrong. I am encouraging the Vegan community to mature a little and consider all life as precious. We have to move from simple black and white thinking and take on the hard work of judging shades of grey. Life is a cannibal and we need to work it out. We need to dedicate ourselves to learning how life on this planet works, and how we can better fit into it, how we can support it.

15. Who would you want to have a conversation with past or present?

Al Gore, Michael Pollan, Richard Feinman and Jarred Diamond for starters.

16. What is one thing we can all do to make a difference in the world?

Become more human. By this I mean to be true to ourselves and grow intellectually, grow in our relationships with other people and strengthen our ties with Mother Earth.

17. How does Organic Essence positively impact the environment?

Physically by making effective products that have a vanishingly small footprint. But more important, by showing that life can exist and even thrive after plastic. 

18. What do you want your personal legacy to be?

To be forgotten. To not leave a physical record of plastic pollution for countless generations to deal with. I want to leave the Earth in better condition than when I was brought in.

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