Pangea Organics

Restricted to a shoestring budget, IDEO had to choose “off-the-shelf” materials for Pangea Organics’ packaging. But the design result looks anything but off-the-shelf.

Budget constraints, environmental concern, and skincare products so organic that the ingredients list reads like a food label were all factors in Pangea Organics’ choice of packaging design. Not only is the product 100% natural, the packaging is made entirely from post-consumer waste materials and is 100% recyclable or biodegradable.

Joshua Onysko, the 30-year-old founder and CEO of Pangea Organics, would not have it any other way. A man who believes in treading lightly on the earth, Onysko had earlier lived on the beach in Costa Rica, armed with a machete, to chase poachers away from the eggs of endangered green sea turtles. In 1999, at age 21, he bought a one-way ticket to Bombay, first stopping in Rhode Island to spend time with his family. While there, he spotted his mother’s book on making hand-made soap and suggested to her that they give it a try. They created a soap they called “Oatmeal Love,” which he gave to friends and took with him on his travels through India, Nepal, Tibet, Kashmir, and Southeast Asia. He came back to the States two years later determined to disseminate information on sustainable business and living practices by forming an institute he called Pangea, after the super continent that existed before a tectonic cataclysm broke it apart. To generate funds for his nonprofit cause, he began making soap in beer kegs in his garage and selling the cakes at various farmers’ markets.

Onysko made sure that every ingredient came from organically grown plants known for specific medicinal attributes-no petroleum-based ingredients, no synthetic preservatives, and no artificial colors and fragrances. One hundred percent of the ingredients inside were active, unlike many other skincare products that may have just 5% active ingredients.

The public appreciated what they got. With very little marketing, Pangea Organics took in about $100,000 in annual sales. While contemplating how to make Pangea Organics into a brand that would appeal to major stores, Onysko happened to catch a “Nightline” segment featuring IDEO. Afterwards, Onysko recalls, “I went on IDEO’s website and thought, ‘Oh, they are too big.'” Indeed. One of the world’s premier industrial design firms, IDEO is known for designing the Apple computer mouse and Palm V pda, among other groundbreaking innovations.

Onysko phoned IDEO anyway, several times in fact, hoping, at least, to arrange a studio tour. He succeeded and managed to tell them about Pangea Organics. As it happened, IDEO was giving more attention to integrating sustainable concepts into their design, and Onysko’s products sparked their interest. IDEO’s graphic designer Ian Groulx and writer Amy Leventhal were assigned to come up with a sustainable packaging design on Pangea’s very limited budget.

Groulx recalls, “Joshua said that his main goal was to get into every Whole Foods in the country. To do this, he knew that he needed to improve his packaging.” The original containers had a decidedly farmers’ market look. “Before the soap was in a chipboard box that had holes in it, but more like bubbles. The label was wrapped around the box,” Groulx says. “The liquids were in plastic bottles, frosted but not opaque.”

On the other hand, Groulx admits, “There weren’t a whole lot of options. In a perfect world, it would be ideal to have someone come in and design the box.” But given the minuscule budget and relatively small quantities needed, “we had to find something that we could get off the shelf.”

Nevertheless, Onysko had a few specific requests. One, the bottle for liquids had to be dark to protect light-sensitive ingredients. Two, the packaging had to be made from post-consumer waste materials and be biodegradable or recyclable later. Three, in keeping with Pangea Organics’ desire to fully disclose ingredients and educate consumers about ecocentric skincare, the packaging surface had to accommodate lots of information.

“We knew what our size was. We knew our target cost. We sort of went from there,” says Groulx. Aware that custom-shaped bottles were not affordable, Groulx gathered plastic bottle samples from different suppliers. “Joshua was very clear that he wanted us to use No. 1 or No. 2 plastic because those were the only grades that could be recycled into bottles.” Of the samples viewed, the team decided they liked the contoured shape of “Boston Round” the best. “Boston Round is totally common in the world of bottle people,” says Groulx. To personalize it for Pangea Organics, IDEO selected a distinctive color-a rich chocolate brown. There, too, they chose from the Pantone palette rather than formulating a custom color. Groulx admits they also wanted the screw cap to be a matching brown rather than translucent white, but cost and quantity minimums ruled that out.

To get away from the generic shape and color of the bottles and give the brand its own unique identity, IDEO silkscreened or printed the product labels in bright contrasting colors like tangerine, fuchsia, baby blue and teal. “The use of contrasting colors was purposeful,” says Groulx. “We explored different colors. Some were too earthy. We wanted to project a sense of fun. We didn’t want it to feel too serious, but serious enough.” The visual effect was instantly contemporary, elegant and in the tradition of natural cosmetic products.

The springlike shades not only helped to soften the masculine impression of brown, but suggest the cosmetic content. The different shades also helped to color-code products by the key ingredients inside.

The box to house glass containers for facial masks and cleansers presented its own challenges. Groulx happened upon the solution when he noticed a picture of packing material made from recycled molded pulp in a packaging catalog. Typically this unbleached newsprint pulp is used for egg cartons or for protective forms inside shipping crates. Its rough surface and mottled gray color never appealed to package designers, but to Groulx it felt “reused-that was one of the big things that I was trying to get across. It needed to feel like it was repurposed.”

Although the request was unusual, the manufacturer, UFP Technologies, loved the idea, and worked closely with IDEO to produce this novel molded pulp packaging. IDEO initially explored the idea of coloring the boxes chocolate brown, but again quantity and price made it infeasible. In the end, the box was kept undyed and unbleached, with a paper belly band in Pangea Organics’ signature colors used to convey product information and give the box a colorful shelf presence. The printing, of course, was done by an FSC-certified printer, with soy-based inks.

Using the packaging to educate consumers about ecocentric skincare was as important to Pangea Organics as the way the design looked. Groulx and writer Amy Leventhal worked closely on developing text that complemented the packaging. In reviewing other organic products, they found the “preachy” tone of the copy off-putting. “We came up with the motto: Teach don’t preach,” Groulx says. “We wanted language that was approachable; we didn’t want to make people feel guilty and alienated. Amy did an amazing job telling the right story.”

The finished box is made completely from post-consumer waste fibers and assembled origami-style without glue. And it is 100% compostable and biodegradable. To drive home that point, the box fiber is even embedded with basil seeds, so consumers can soak the box in water and plant it. Onysko explains, “If you aren’t planting your packaging, it is going to landfill, and there’s just too much stuff out there.”

“Thinking outside the landfill” is essential to Onysko. The company aims to extend the useful life of everything it possibly can. Styrofoam and packing peanuts that come in with other shipments are reused. Unused paper from printing operations is purchased from a local printer for repurpose. Pangea Organics’ manufacturing and office facility in Boulder, Colorado, is 100% wind-powered, and the interior is decorated with non-VOC paint and with carpets made from recycled soda bottles.

This ecocentric operating strategy has not hampered growth. Today Pangea Organics produces 41 skincare products, sold in 21 countries, and can be found in such upscale stores as Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and Anthropologie as well as in spas and fitness centers. Its packaging is winning consumers as well as design awards and proving that good design can result even from off-the-shelf materials.