Monday marked the 49th annual celebration of Earth Day—have you considered the sustainability of your lifestyle? If you’re like most of us, your carbon footprint may currently be falling low on the list of your many concerns—you know, behind family, work, relationships, politics, etc., etc., etc...
And where does health and self-care rank on that list? For Dr. Kristian Henderson, founder of all-natural, all black-owned personal care marketplace BLK + GRN, embarking on a personal wellness journey became the path to a major professional shift—with a seriously sustainable mission.
“I was one of these typical black women working a stressful job, making good money, but I hated it,” Dr. Henderson told The Glow Up. “I thought there was something about doing something you hate, like there was some pride in that. … One day, I just woke up, and I said, ‘What am I doing? I need to find something better.’”
“Something better” began with changing the way she treated her body—including joining #TeamNatural, watching what she ate, upping her activity and attempting to reduce the overall toxicity in her life. Add to that Dr. Henderson’s years of experience and interest in public health—the Yale alum earned her medical degree from Johns Hopkins, followed by a six-year stint at its famed research hospital. In the process, she became interested in health disparities, specifically trying to understand why black women across socioeconomic demographics continue to experience worse health outcomes than everyone else. It’s a disparity that became even more obvious as Henderson entered the wellness space.
“I found this world of wellness, and I found that this world of wellness did not look very black at all,” she recalled. “There were very few black women in this world, and so, that concerned me.”
Furthering Henderson’s concern was the marginalization of black women within the professional wellness space. As she explained, it impacts more than just our physical health.
“[T]here was this whole emotional, psychological piece, where I just kept running into and talking with so many black women who kind of felt like, ‘I have to be superwoman, there’s no place for me to make mistakes, I’m driving myself into a hole, I’m having breakdowns, I’m holding onto stress,’” she recounted. “There was this whole mental aspect of it, too. The way we’ve been conditioned to live our lives isn’t wellness.”
At the same time, Henderson was reading Maggie Anderson’s “Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy,” which reinforced the importance of where and with whom we spend our dollars, and reinvesting them back into the community.
“So, I’m doing all of these things at the same time,” she explained. “I’m living in this wellness world. I’m trying to do things that are better for my body, I’m trying to be more mindful about the products that I’m using, and I’m also going to be a conscientious shopper and a conscientious consumer. I’m thinking about minimalism and how my dollars impact certain communities. And I wanted to be able to buy black-owned products that were also good for me, because what I realized as I started doing more research on this is that black women spend twice as much on personal care products than anyone else [some reports estimate as much as nine times more] … Yet, 75 percent of the products that are specifically targeted to black women are toxic.
“And a light bulb went off in my head that black women are so loyal to the products that we’re using that the bioaccumulation of these products in our systems over time has to be toxic in ways we don’t even understand yet, because the studies haven’t been done,” she continued. “And if we could start to change the products that we’re using and change our exposure to these toxic chemicals over time, then we could kind of start taking our health back—and not only could we start taking our health back, but now we could specifically invest in other black businesses to be successful. So now, we’re also investing in our communities. It just seemed like a no-brainer and a win-win; that we needed a marketplace to pull it all together.”
That revelation became the inspiration behind BLK +GRN, an idea that grew from a spreadsheet of black-owned, all-natural products to an online platform that caters to our desire for quality, conscious products paired with the convenience of one-stop shopping.
“BLK + GRN was born trying to solve a lot of problems,” Dr. Henderson explained. “Making it easier for people to buy black-owned products; changing the narrative around black-owned products—that they’re not high quality or have bad customer service; encouraging people that the products we’re selling actually work, and that they’ve been tested and are going to be just as effective as what they’re used to buying; and at the same time, putting that dollar back into black women-owned businesses.”
Based in Washington D.C., BLK + GRN is now just over a year old, with 70 black-owned businesses currently selling via their online marketplace. Strikingly, all but one are also women-owned.
“So, that’s 70 black women that we’re supporting, helping them find customers that they wouldn’t have found otherwise,” Henderson notes. And like many of the products BLK + GRN sells, the site’s growth has been organic.
“We’re proving that this market exists, so that’s been really phenomenal to see,” she says. “What we’re learning is that BLK + GRN, while we’re selling products, we’re really building this community of wellness-minded black women who are looking for support and are looking for other women who think like them. ... And I think that’s what they’re so excited to have found; this base of other black women who have previously been unable to find a space that holds all their concurrent identities and talents.”
BLK + GRN is also attracting a wide swath of black beauty entrepreneurs. But with a commitment to keeping both a health and quality-conscious space, the vetting process is extensive. In fact, Henderson says approximately 70 percent of applications are declined because they don’t meet the site’s standards for ingredients and packaging. After making it past the application phase, samples of prospective products are tested by a team of experts; for instance, BLK + GRN’s aesthetician may take as many as 30-60 days to determine the effectiveness of a skincare product.
And then, there’s the issue of redundancy—one we’ve admittedly also run into as we continue to review and support black-owned products. In her own efforts to continue supporting black businesses, Henderson provides applicants with both feedback and resources (designers, chemists, etc.) to get themselves to BLK + GRN’s compliance level.
“To be honest, people keep creating the same type of product,” she says. “And so, we’ll give feedback, like ‘We already have seven of this. We can only sell so much shea butter and body scrubs.’ At some point, [people] have to start to create some new products. And so, we tell people, ‘If you create something unique, and you’re filling a niche, then we’re more likely to carry you. And if you’re going to sell shea butter, then it has to be the most beautifully packaged shea butter I’ve ever seen, to compete with what I’m already selling on the platform.’”
It’s worthwhile advice for any entrepreneur. But at its heart, Blk + Grn is in the business of fostering black women’s growth—from our insides to entrepreneurship, which Henderson sees as a vehicle, noting that she sees more and more black women artisans entering the marketplace.
“The typical fashion in public health is you kind of implement programs to solve public health problems, and I was really interested in an entrepreneurial solution to solving the public health problem,” she says. “And that’s how Black + Green was born; I wanted to figure out how do we solve this public health problem of black women not having access to high quality products and not doing it through policy, and not doing it through a program, [but] making sure they have access to these products.”
Of course, access comes at a cost, which is customary in almost every departure from mass market, processed goods. Answering the question of why natural products cost more, Dr. Henderson outlined a few major obstacles to an equitable marketplace:
- In big box stores, the biggest concern is shelf life, which means using preservatives, most of which are not plant-based. Plant-based preservatives typically cost four times as much as traditional, harsh and chemically-based options. “Preservatives are typically where you find the most toxicity and danger in products, in the process of trying to get something that is not shelf-stable to become shelf-stable,” Henderson noted.
- Due to the lack of shelf stability, there is a higher turnover for natural products.
- Small businesses typically can’t buy in bulk, which means they pay far more per ounce of ingredient than huge corporations who plan to ship thousands of units per day.
So yes, the cost of a BLK + GRN product may be a few dollars more than its mass market competitor, but as Henderson artfully explains, buying black isn’t just a purchase; it’s an investment.
“The way I like to think about it, to keep it practical, is that every time I get paid, I become an investor,” she says. “However much money I made for that month, I’m an investor, and I get to make choices about what companies survive and what companies don’t, because the brands that I consistently purchase, the brands that I write the good reviews for, the brands that I tell my friends about, those are the brands that get to thrive, and I get to make that choice on an individual level every single month. And I think that people have to understand that their purchasing habits directly connect to what companies thrive, and then what companies thrive is directly connected to what communities thrive.”
And as multiple studies have indicated, the success of black women, who are often the primary earners of their households, is often directly tied to the success of our communities, at large.
“We know that black women-owned businesses are more likely to hire black women,” says Dr. Henderson. “So, as she grows, now she’s hiring more people in that community, and now, that community’s thriving. So, if I can spend two more dollars on a face cleanser in order to invest it in. A black woman’s business, and if I say one of my values is supporting black women entrepreneurs, then to me, that’s a no-brainer. I think if people want their purchasing habits and their behaviors in general to align with their values—if you say that you value black women entrepreneurs; if you say that you value people getting paid a fair wage; if you say that you value sustainably produced ingredients—then you have to purchase products from companies that value those same things.”
Henderson realizes that for many, the cost of buying green and black is an obstacle that may be as cultural as financial. She also assures us that the investment is widespread—and ultimately worth it.
“It’s cultural; I was raised learning that the way you shop is by buying the cheapest thing,” she says. “It’s not easy—I don’t want to oversimplify it, because I think that people are very much tied to the products they purchase, and it’s cultural, and it’s identity, and it’s historical. So, I think it takes time to change that narrative, but from a community-building standpoint, I think it’s a no-brainer, and from your health standpoint, it’s a no-brainer. These products are possibly killing us, so we have to change if we want to continue to thrive.”