booni doon on creating a zero-waste brand

I chat with my client Pooja Ganesan, founder of booni doon, on how she's building a plastic-free business.

Pooja Ganesan started her career on Wall Street before launching the sustainable skincare brand booni doon. She commissioned me in 2020 to design the brand identity and e-commerce packaging for her new venture – a business that develops products that are refillable, reusable, recyclable, or compostable. We discuss what it’s like to build a plastic-free brand.

Hello Pooja, what were your motivations for starting booni doon?

booni doon was inspired by my personal sustainability journey. I previously worked on Wall Street and found myself constantly traveling and working long hours. The only time I had for myself were a few hours every Sunday when I would do my self-care routine. One day, I happened to look around my bathroom and noticed packaging everywhere! That is what moved me to make meaningful changes to my consumption habits. I sought out natural and sustainable skincare, but could not find products that I liked. I did not want to forego the science and innovation in skincare just to reduce my environmental impact and struggling to find such an alternative is what ultimately led me to leave my career in finance and start booni doon.

Your first product is a cleanser in a capsule, something I’d not come across before booni doon… can you tell us more?

The goal was to create a cleanser that had a minimal impact on the environment but did not compromise on efficacy or the consumer experience. The result is a facial cleansing powder, which is held in a tapioca starch-derived capsule. Upon adding a few drops of water, our cleansing powder transforms into a gentle foam and the capsule shell simply dissolves when you drop it on the bottom of your sink or shower. This unique capsule delivery system and water-free formulation: 1) ensures ingredient potency; 2) eliminates the need for harmful preservatives, and 3) limits product waste. We did not set out to encapsulate our cleansing powder, but consumers preferred the powder in single-use portions and the tapioca capsule ended up solving that pain point for them.

booni doon’s packaging is 100% plastic-free which is such a great achievement for a small brand when plastic is so cheap and accessible. How did you find the process and balancing beautiful materials vs affordability?

Sourcing our packaging was one of the more challenging aspects of launching booni doon, if only because there are so many materials and options to choose from when selecting your packaging. It helped me to narrow down the choices by focusing on the consumer experience. How frequently would our consumers want to purchase a face cleanser? Do they wash their face in the shower or at the sink? Do they like to display their products on their vanity? All these types of questions helped me determine that a minimal glass jar would be the best primary packing for our CALM cleansing capsules.

While it seems counter-intuitive, using less packaging always ends up being more expensive. To try and keep our costs as low as possible, we decided to work directly with the manufacturers when possible. This also allowed us to customize certain components to meet our sustainability standards. For example, our bamboo lids are custom carved to eliminate the plastic liner often found in jar lids, and our glass jars are acid-etched so that the frosting paint does not contaminate the recycling process. Cutting out distributors was a bit tedious since you must manage the project, shipping, and logistics yourself, but it ended up with packaging we are thrilled with and saved us thousands of dollars!

plastic free skincare packaging
As an online brand, e-commerce packaging plays a crucial part in the customer experience. The new ‘unboxing’ trend sees social media influencers often diving through layers of unnecessary plastic and waste. We worked together to create an eco-friendly mailing box for booni doon, has the design helped your customer experience?

Absolutely! As a direct-to-consumer brand, booni doon’s first in-person interaction with our customers is when they open their order. Especially during the past year when people were not able to go out and treat themselves, we wanted the unboxing experience to make people feel like they had purchased a gift for themselves.

As you mentioned the unboxing trend can be very wasteful, so one way we have tried to mitigate that is by using as much post-consumer recycled (PCR) content as possible. Our thank you cards and marketing inserts are made from recycled cotton t-shirts. We also use PCR paper materials whenever possible in our tissue paper and cardboard mailer. While not perfect from a sustainability perspective, the unboxing experience is necessary as it helps us connect with our customers and establish brand awareness.

In recent years there has been a rise in independent eco-conscious brands producing sustainable alternatives for many everyday products. But plastic has always been the backbone of the beauty and skincare industry, and it tends to be just a handful of large corporations that dominate this market with a shocking 95% of products being single-use. With heightened awareness and pressure on big brands to do better… can you see them changing anytime soon?

I hope so! There has been a shift in the personal care space as seen by larger corporations such as L’Oréal committing to becoming fully recyclable or refillable by 2025. I doubt radical change is feasible, but I do believe there is momentum behind this incremental change we are seeing as the result of consumer pressure.

As well as plastics in packaging, we hear a lot about harmful plastic particles in cosmetics too. Neal’s Yard successfully fought for the ban on microbeads alongside Greenpeace and has been a certified ‘Zero plastic inside’ brand since 2016. booni doon is committed to the ‘Truth in labeling pledge’ and is also EWG Verified. How important are recognized accreditations to the brand?

When starting booni doon, I knew that these accreditations were important given the ‘green-washing’ that occurs all too often within the skincare industry. Being EWG Verified™ and PETA Cruelty-free and Vegan gives our customers the confidence that our claims have been certified.

That being said, recognized accreditations can be costly, especially when a brand is just starting out. Prior to committing to a recognized accreditation, I think it’s best to evaluate their authority within your industry and whether the accreditations will significantly improve the product itself or help convert people into customers.

So many beauty and skincare products are made from mostly water meaning we’re shipping tons of water around the world in plastic. Lush was one of the first brands to create a shampoo bar, omitting that need for a bottle. booni doon has done the same with the cleansing capsule. Are we going to be seeing more products reimagined in the future?

Water-free products will certainly play a larger role in the personal care space. From a sustainability perspective, it seems like the clear choice given how it decreases a product’s carbon footprint. However, consumers have been a bit slow to choose water-free products and I think it’s because of their unfamiliarity or discomfort with having to deal with adding water and whether they are doing it properly.

I think brands just need to do more consumer education on how these products allow for more customizable experiences and preserve the potency of ingredients. Once the experiential and potency benefits of anhydrous formulations are more clearly communicated, I think the shift towards water-free products will become more meaningful.

I love that on your website there are clear instructions for what to do with your packaging after it’s used. I know as a consumer myself, I’ve often been confused on what to do with various materials and components of a product. Do you think it’s the brands’ responsibility to be communicating these messages more clearly?

Within sustainability, there is the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility. It suggests that producers should be responsible for the product even after it reaches the hands of the consumer. Too often brands push the burden of sustainability onto consumers—consumers must search for the most sustainable option; consumers must pay more to carbon offset their shipping; consumers must recycle their products themselves, etc. It’s hard to imagine what our world looks like if brands accepted full responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products, but I really feel the least we can do is provide instructions on how to properly dispose of our products.

What has been your biggest challenge with creating a zero-waste brand?

Since starting booni doon, I have received countless messages and emails on how being sustainable or zero waste is ‘unattainable’. One of my biggest challenges is to make zero waste more accessible. At booni doon we always strive to communicate the importance of making sustainable choices, but not shame or intimidate people who are not able to be zero waste. We recently launched an interview series (#ImperfectlySustainable) on our Instagram and website that highlights members of our community and shows how sustainability can be incorporated in smaller ways.

Do you have any recommendations for other brands that are looking to ditch the plastic?

It never hurts to ask! I would have never been able to launch a plastic-free brand if I simply selected product packaging from the stock catalogue. Be open to asking manufacturers if they have alternatives to plastic componentry and don’t be shy about suggesting new materials for them to incorporate.

booni doon e-commerce packaging and logo

This interview was first posted on Founding Notes – a collection of conversations with female founders on the business of branding.