Careers & Ed: Branching out

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Paul Donald, the founder of sustainable online retailer Branch Homes, agrees to meet me at Mission Beach Cafe. He arrives dressed in a black turtleneck sweater and smart bluish purple rimmed glasses and takes a seat at the wooden table where I’m sitting. At one point during our conversation I accidentally make a big black ink smudge on the tabletop.

"It’s heavily varnished, and we’ve got some toxic industrial cleaners that will take care of that," he says dryly.

This is clearly a joke, as everything about Branch — and Donald — is the polar opposite of varnished and toxic. In fact, the San Francisco company only carries ecofriendly, fair trade, and organic objects, clothing, and furniture, with an emphasis on local and national designers (though it has products from all over the world).

But Donald didn’t start out as a retailer, or even a sustainability advocate. His background is in design. In fact, he spent 12 years in New York and San Francisco helping craft the identities of magazines like Spy, Wired, and Sunset before founding Branch Home in 2005. Which is probably why he describes his current job this way:

"I’d like to tell people that I’m the creative director for this cool company that’s at the nexus of design and sustainability — and it just happens to be a retail store," he says, sounding slightly apologetic when he gets to the retail part. After all, when you’re used to being a hip graphic designer, perhaps the title of shopkeeper just doesn’t hold the same mystique.

So how did he get from one to the other?

SMART SHOPPING


Donald said there wasn’t a singular "aha!" moment behind Branch. Instead, the idea percolated over time. It could’ve started with his childhood in small-town Iowa, where working in cornfields during the summers inspired his love for the land and a curiosity about where food comes from. This curiosity expanded to include other everyday products when, years later, he read William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle (North Point Press, 2002).

Then, while in his often stressful role as creative director for Sunset magazine, Donald frequently found himself shopping to relax — although he says his motives were more entertainment driven than consumption driven. But he openly celebrates the role of shopping in our lives — as a form of exploration, education, connection, and, of course, therapy.

"It’s an opportunity to discover what’s new and interesting and beautiful in the world," he says.

He also acknowledges shopping’s darker side, including the toxic materials, processes, and packaging that put our objects of desire on the shelf and our purchases’ not-so-pretty by-products: deforestation, global warming, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (or GPGP, a plastic floe of trash floating in the ocean that’s twice the size of Texas), unfair wages, and poor working conditions.

This duality pointed toward the creation of Branch, which represents a greener, happier alternative to our society’s often blind and copious consumption. "No one wakes up and thinks, ‘I want to contribute to deforestation today,’<0x2009>" Donald says. "We’re just not brought up to think about the life cycle of the things we consume." Instead of flat-out asking people to abandon their consumptive ways (an improbability as far as Donald is concerned), Branch encourages design-savvy shoppers to get curious about whence and from what things come. "We can’t consume our way to a better world, but we can be more considerate about what we buy," he says.

That’s why each item Branch sells, from stuffed animals to kitchenware, comes with its own story — what it’s made from, how and where it’s made, and who made it — on the Web site and on printed cards that are included in each package. This helps to create another point of connection between object and buyer and furthers Branch’s goal of educating consumers about sustainability, something that’s close to Donald’s heart.

But even people who don’t read all the stories that come with the products can rest assured that Donald, in his dual role as Branch’s curator and art director, has already made a lot of the hard choices for them. Branch offers a well-edited collection of products that are also manufactured and brought to market in such a way that its customers don’t have to feel guilty about buying — or, eventually, disposing of — them.

In addition to the Web site, Donald’s original plan involved opening a physical store with an adjacent café that would serve locally and sustainably grown foods. After a few bids fell through right around Thanksgiving of 2005, it dawned on Donald that he had a bunch of inventory on the way and no place to display it. He decided to launch the site first and deal with the rest after the holidays. At the time there were no other stores like Branch, and it found popularity online through blogs and word of mouth. When sustainable design hit the mainstream a little over a year later, Branch had an advantage over new competition as an already established brand. Plus, more exposure and increased visibility meant increased sales.

With zero retail or customer service experience (Branch is his first job that involves interacting directly with the public) and no formal business background, Donald says he was lucky to learn the ropes online, without the albatross of a physical retail space — not to mention a café, something with which he has even less experience. With just a single focus, Donald found he was less in the spotlight, and the growing pains weren’t so extreme. He likens his role at Branch to being a single parent and admits he’ll always choose thinking about branding and design above burying himself in a spreadsheet.

He still longs for a storefront in San Francisco, and if all goes according to plan, there may be a Los Angeles and a New York Branch in the not-so-distant future.

BEAUTIFUL AND SUSTAINABLE


A self-described design snob, Donald says he’s only interested in working with objects that are both beautiful and sustainable. "To make any kind of real impact we need to reach a broad audience," he says. "Tie-dye and hemp sandals aren’t going to do this." Branch is successful largely because it caters to anyone who appreciates good design — green or not. It educates unsuspecting browsers when their guards are down — when they’re relaxed and curious. Donald avoids loaded labels like environmentalist and opts instead for the more friendly moniker of thoughtful citizen to describe himself and the people he’s targeting. "In the same way I try not to be preachy about Branch, I try not to use preachy words," he says.

Ultimately, he would like to see more designers take the green road. (He’s currently on the lookout for affordable, everyday, sustainable tableware, which so far has proved difficult to source.) Donald is also working to expand Branch’s offerings to include things that make it easier for people to live a more sustainable lifestyle, such as power strips with easy-to-reach on-off switches and reusable shopping bags.

In fall 2006, Branch partnered with the California College of the Arts and became a client for its wood furniture class, which required students to neither create furniture nor use wood as a material. "Leave it to an art school," Donald says. The assignment was to design a sustainable product for Branch. The final designs were exhibited in a show at the end of the semester — and a few have been earmarked for possible future production for Branch. Each student was forced to grapple with the challenges of sustainability, but even more significant for Donald, many commented that their involvement in the Branch project had already begun to influence their approach to their other work. "Designers have so much power," Donald says. "And the best way to solve a problem is to not create one in the first place."

Donald is keen on helping designers establish more sustainable practices, which sometimes results in an exclusive product line for Branch. For example, designer Derrick Chen of Urbana Design modified his popular resin-coated bent-plywood tray by creating a cork-topped version — an item that has proved hugely popular in its sustainable iteration.

But for all of its cool, Earth-friendly appeal, Branch is still competing in a price-driven world dominated by the cheap and clever designs of Target and IKEA. "There’s a big difference between getting the message and shelling out an additional 10 to 20 percent more for a sustainable product," Donald says. To his mind, it’s going to be a long time before the Target shopper starts asking the tough questions. "We’re like dogs," he says. "We need to have our noses rubbed in it before we’ll change."
Visit Branch at www.branchhome.com.