In Brands, Exclusives, Insight, People

Holly McWhorter and Bjarke Ballisager are the co-founders and masterminds behind the organic- and plant-derived skincare line PLANT Apothecary. Based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the husband-and-wife team founded the botanical brand in 2012 with the goal to create products infused with social and environmental responsibility and healthy ingredients by way of trendy and recyclable packaging. I had the opportunity to speak with the dynamic duo (who have backgrounds in architecture, journalism, and music) about the details of their green business.

Tell us a bit about why you started PLANT Apothecary. How did you bring this vision to life?

Holly: I had been making all-natural skincare products for myself and friends for a number of years before we started PLANT, because I have insanely sensitive skin and wanted to learn how to make products without the synthetic preservatives and fragrances that give me eczema. So I dove in deep and started studying not just formulation, but classical functional aromatherapy and even some basic herbalism. Then Bjarke and I met, and he has even more sensitive skin than I do, so I started making even more. That base of knowledge about natural products formulation was enough for us to create a few products to start with, and we started very small—initially only making products as we got orders for them. We got our first wholesale order from a great little green living shop in Fort Greene called Green in BKLYN, and things took off from there.

Social activism, environmental friendliness, and healthy ingredients appear to be PLANT Apothecary’s key pillars. What inspired these three pillars and how do you convey them to your consumers?

These are all values that were important to both of us long before we started the company, so we’ve both always tried to incorporate them into our creative work to whatever extent we can. We both come from families that place a big emphasis on using our privilege and education to do good in the world, and there was no justification for not building those ideals into the PLANT brand and products. It’s possible, so why not? At heart, we’re pretty much hippies (in disguise).

Snowballing off of the above question—your brand works in partnership with a nonprofit workshop for adults with mental and physical disabilities called BKLYN UNLTD, for various production and distribution projects. What motivated this partnership?

We started working with BKLYN UNLTD (and other workshops for disabled adults before that) because we realized that there was no reason this underemployed population couldn’t do the kind of assembly and light manufacturing work we needed done, and we wanted to give them the opportunity to do it if they wanted it. I had been working with similar workshops for another product line before PLANT, and the way I’d come across that opportunity was by simply searching for an assembly workshop in general—which, to my surprise, turned up a number of ones for disabled adults, mixed in among the usual facilities for fully abled workers. 

Learning about the existence of that kind of workshop really resonated with me, personally, because my mom was mentally disabled for the last decades of her life. She, a former tenured university professor, suffered a brain aneurysm that left her unable to form any new memories—which of course ended her career completely. But she never got over the loss of her opportunity to work: To earn her own money, to be of service to others, to work alongside others, and to have somewhere to go each day. People with disabilities need these things just as much as anyone else, and workshops like BKLYN UNLTD provide that.  

As we’ve gotten bigger and have needed to produce more and more product, the workshop’s role has changed from doing all of our manufacturing to helping us with packaging, shipping, and sample manufacturing. Their role may change again in the future, but as a company, we’re committed to keeping them involved in our production and distribution processes. It’s been a great experience so far, and we’re looking forward to more work with them as we move forward!

Denmark is without a doubt light years ahead of the US in terms of green living.  Bjarke, did your Danish roots play a role in the brand’s positioning and eco-conscious packaging?

Bjarke: I grew up in a family where we placed a big emphasis on natural living, but before we launched PLANT, like most people I didn’t know a huge amount about how personal care products in particular—and their packaging—affected health and the environment. That was more something that Holly had been studying. She and I grew up in very similarly nature-focused environments, despite having done so in different countries, but she had focused on green design in architecture school and had been cultivating that interest. That said, though, the concern immediately resonated with me, and I was happy to learn more about it—and make it a brand focus from day one. As I’ve learned more about it, I’ve been horrified at what so many people are putting in skincare products, and how many toxic chemicals leak from their packaging into both the products and into the natural environment. In Denmark and the rest of the EU, there are definitely stronger regulations than there are in the US regarding what can be put into personal care products. But there is definitely more work to be done there, as well.

My Danish heritage comes more into play with our package design. It definitely shows some Scandinavian modern influences, and that’s a look that I love and grew up surrounded by. As did Holly, coincidentally.

All PLANT products have catchy names such as Wake Up, Be Gentle, Get Happy, and Calm Down that are printed in sharp black block lettering set against a white background. Can you explain the thought process behind the naming convention of your products and the unique typography treatment?

Holly: Bjarke and I are both contemporary design junkies—both by nature and training (we’re both trained as architects). So the idea behind PLANT’s brand design was simplicity and directness, in the language of contemporary, minimal, Scandinavian-influenced design. At the time we launched the brand, there were very few, if any, certified organic bath and skincare products on the market that featured minimal, utilitarian package design as a luxury feature, and I, in particular, as a longtime natural products consumer, was missing that.

And an equal concern of mine was that so many skincare products were in packaging that was all about selling not the product and its effects, but a certain lifestyle image. I wanted to see products that simply told me what they would do for me, clearly and in a simple way, and which actually would do the things they said. So we took the opportunity to combine that kind of clean, clear, simple packaging with products that were clean, simple and—importantly—effective, by natural means, at doing what that boldface name said!

What is one of the biggest challenges you have overcome in starting your own botanical skincare line?

Figuring out how to scale up quickly. Growth is always good, but it’s not always easy to figure out how to accommodate fast growth on a small budget.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs attempting to break into the green beauty space?  

Holly: My advice would be the same as people give for any industry: Look for a hole in the market, and fill it. Think about what you would like to see become available. Chances are, you’re not the only one who wants that.

The skincare industry is constantly evolving. What is your current perception of it?

Holly: I’m optimistic. I think it’s slowly changing for the better. More and more people are paying attention to the ingredients in the products they put on their skin, and seeking out safer, more natural ones. This hasn’t stopped most companies from continuing to make products with toxic ingredients that are damaging to the environment, but even those companies are starting to respond to consumer demand for better options. So we’re not seeing a sea change exactly, yet, but the wave has definitely started growing.

What is your current distribution strategy for the brand?

We sell to large and small retailers all over the world, and plan to continue to do so.

And finally, what is next for PLANT Apothecary?

More products! We’re launching a few more facial skin care products later this year, and also something we’ve been working on for a really long time: hair products. Including ones meant for curly, coily, and otherwise textured hair—as well as ones for straight hair. We’re really excited about it!

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