Sustainability and fair trade at the core of Planet Botanicals
Michele Gilfoil’s ambition is to make a long-term sustainable impact in Maine and beyond. She attributes her eco-conscious mission and business acumen to growing up in South Portland in an entrepreneurial family in an environment that allowed her to “be outside all the time and appreciate the natural world.”
That foundation helped her launch Planet Botanicals in 2003. The sustainable fair trade business is located in the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook, where Gilfoil makes environmentally conscious and natural skin care products with the help of one employee. “I believe that every action or change, even small ones, are a step toward creating a better society, a higher level of well-being and protecting our environment,” says Gilfoil, who splits her time between Portland and New York City.
Gilfoil’s vision to create natural, sustainably harvested skin care products was driven in part by her own struggle to find products without synthetic and harmful ingredients. “I became suspect of the potential dangers of applying these products to my skin and was very interested in developing a natural plant-based solution to a more healthy approach for skin care,” she says.
In the first several years, she learned the chemistry of making skin care products, researched ingredients, tested prototypes and located organic ingredient suppliers that matched up with her ethical and quality standards, all while working full-time in banking in New York City. In 2008, she launched three face products at a Henri Bendel trunk show and secured distribution in 40 Whole Foods stores.
Planet Botanicals’ first line of products were sustainably harvested from women’s shea butter cooperatives in Uganda and Ghana. “We source directly from organic growers and producers around the world, so they can receive their fair share of their harvesting efforts,” Gilfoil says. Being an ethical and sustainable fair trade business is part of her mission. Planet Botanicals also sources from a family-operated organic essential oil farm in South Africa, a Namibian women-owned company harvesting Kalahari Melon oil and a small South African Baobab oil farm. “We take care in researching and selecting our partners based on their commitment to organic growing and harvesting methods, as well as their concern for a sustainable environment and commitment to supporting women’s economic well being. That is why we especially like to work with women-owned businesses whenever possible.”
In June 2016, Gilfoil launched a new skin care line, the Maine Seaweed Collection, a series of products including soap, body wash and a “Dream Cream” all made with sustainably harvested Maine seaweed. A fast-growing plant and a sustainable resource, seaweed contains over 50 minerals and vitamins that she says aid in anti-aging and moisturizing the skin. Seaweed also helps the environment by decreasing ocean acidification caused by excessive carbon dioxide. Prices for the Maine Seaweed Collection range from $6.50 for the soap bar to $21 for the Dream Cream. The Maine Seaweed Voyager Gift Bag, with soap bar, body wash and Dream Cream, costs $18.
“I appreciate and am inspired by the wonderful natural environment and resources that we have in Maine,” Gilfoil says. “We source our seaweed from local Maine seaweed harvesters and see firsthand their process and the impact that sustainable harvesting has on our environment.” Gilfoil is also a member of the Maine Seaweed Council, a group formed in 1993 to address sustainability concerns in the seaweed industry in Maine. “By sustainably harvesting this resource, it ensures that it will be there for future generations.”
One challenge Gilfoil has faced has been educating people about the benefits of using seaweed in skin care products, although she says the market is starting to become more aware. She’s also had to learn the chemistry and science behind her products. “My college courses in chemistry were helpful in designing the most effective formulations for our products and extracting the vitamins and antioxidants from seaweed. For example, I created a proprietary blend of five types of seaweed called SeaFusion that we use in all of our seaweed skincare products that improves the skin’s balance and radiance.”
Gilfoil is currently focused on developing online and retail sales partnerships with local, national and international retailers and growers, in an effort to become the “premier seaweed skin care company in the U.S. and promote the benefits of Maine seaweed throughout the world.” And while Planet Botanical sales grew through Whole Foods Market, it required a lot of support for store demos, training and sampling, so Gilfoil opted to pull out of those store and focus her sales online. Amazon.com is currently Planet Botanicals largest online sales channel, and the Maine Seaweed Collection is also sold on Planet Botanical’s website and at the gift shop at Two Lights State Park. Gilfoil is reaching out to other retailers to expand the product line.
“I am inspired knowing that our products support a healthy environment and entrepreneurs around the world who grow and harvest our ingredients. I believe that together we can make the world a better place, even if it’s a small impact,” Gilfoil says of her lofty aspirations. “Though we are a small company located in a restored mill in Westbrook, Maine, we do have the capacity to make a positive improvement in our lives and the lives of our neighbors.”
Mercedes Grandin is a freelance writer, editor, English teacher and tutor. She lives in Brunswick with her husband Erik and their chocolate Labrador Fozzie.