Boulder-based Pangea Organics is on a mission to create a more sustainable future through its organic, responsible skin care line. The award-winning company has experienced tremendous growth, largely as a result of its commitment to operating as a holistically sustainable brand. We spoke with Founder and Chief Product Officer Joshua Onysko about everything from his company’s responsible sourcing practices to selling “Rolexes” in a red light district.
Tell us about the moment when you decided to start Pangea Organics and what that decision looked like for you.
Joshua Onysko: So, as you guys have found out - you’re among the few and the proud who have figured out that fear is your biggest ally when you allow it to be your motivator, right? So, you guys took off, and most people just let fear push them down. Congratulations, first of all. You won.
JO: In 1999, I woke up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and I decided to move to India to ride the trains. I called my mom in Rhode Island - my poor mom - and I was like, “Mom, I’m moving to Bombay in two months to ride the trains.” And she’s like, “Do you watch the news? You’re going to get killed! Blah, blah, blah.” And I said, “Don’t worry, I’m coming home in two weeks to visit you.”
I went home and we were making dinner and I saw this little coffee table book, How to Make Natural Soap. I thought, “Oh, making soap, this is interesting,” and I started reading it and thought, “You can go to Whole Foods in Providence and buy all these ingredients. This is the perfect bonding project to do with my mom before I go get killed in India!” [Laughter]
I went to Whole Foods and I smelled essential oils for the very first time. I picked oils out and bought olive oil and vegetable oil and then I went to the hardware store and bought lye and some goggles. I came home and I surprised my mom with everything and she got all excited because she had never made soap.
We made a batch of soap and the next morning we cut it up and we gave it away. I threw some bars in my backpack and I took off to India. I ended up traveling for almost two years through India, Nepal, Tibet, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Tokyo, Thailand, and Cambodia and hitchhiked up to Alaska, then went back to Asia.
I was sitting in Cambodia in the Angkor Wat temples with my best friend in the world, Tom, who I’d been traveling with on and off. And I was just burnt out - emotionally and physically. I’d run out of money so many times and had done weird things like sold “Rolexes” in a red light district and sold peaches on the side of the Ganges. I was just done. I was verging on depression and I knew I wanted to come back to America and start something. I decided I was going to start a soap company and Tom, literally right off the bat, said, “You should call it Pangea.” And I felt it.
I was on a flight three days later, went back to Jackson, packed up my stuff into a footlocker, told all my friends I was moving to Boulder to start a soap company and eleven people ended up coming down with me. We rented a house and I turned the garage into a soap factory with beer kegs with the top cut off and burners and handmade soap molds. I sold soap on the Pearl Street Mall. I’d go to the Red Rocks [Amphitheater] parking lot during concerts and to farmers’ markets and church bazaars – anywhere there were people, I was selling soap. Then we got our first retail account and then our second. Our seventh was ABC Carpet & Home in New York, a pretty famous five-story super high-end home décor store, which gave us a big push. Then I started getting deep into alchemy and realized that everything in body care was just crap, both from the way it actually worked to how it was being marketed and what was really in it. Even if you read the ingredients, it would leave you confused.
One of our biggest manufacturers told me in confidence once that 70 percent of the products he makes for brands that sell in the natural products industry omit ingredients from the ingredient label in order to be able to make it through the standards. 70 percent! And he said, “It makes me sick, but I can’t do anything.”
Is that illegal?
"Everyone thinks the cosmetics industry is regulated by somebody...It’s regulated by you.”
JO: No, and who’s checking? Nobody. Everyone thinks the cosmetics industry is regulated by somebody. I’m like, “It’s regulated by you.” From the very beginning, I’ve always said, “No matter what, we’re going to list all of our ingredients. We’re going to be constantly innovating to make the cleanest, most effective skin and body care products in the world.” We’ll always be organic, but I always tell people that that comes second to me because it’s always going to be there.
It’s not just about being organic though - it’s about being organic and making products work. If you put out a product that’s sub-par and it’s organic, you’re just hurting the industry because people are having a bad experience with an organic product. We pride ourselves on being on the fringe of innovation constantly when it comes to preservation, efficacy, and emulsification.
Our products have to work and they have to outperform anything that you can buy in Sephora or at a cosmetics counter at Whole Foods. Unless we can do that, we’re not going to win over the global market. So we’ve always set out to exceed people’s expectations when it comes to efficacy.
To see the full story on Pangea Organics, including insights on facing challenges, quality leadership, and Joshua’s best advice for building a successful company, purchase a print or digital copy of Issue 2 of Conscious Company Magazine online.