I went to Stephen Buchanan’s salon in Maoming Lu in to get my colour sorted and a decent cut, as my hair had gone all a bit shaggy and brassy, and refused any attempt at a style. Really, I was just going to get my hair done; I didn’t expect I’d find myself a short time later spending an hour sitting in a coffee shop talking about soap. But, that’s what happened. Because I met this really nice guy named Joe. And he makes really nice soap. And he’s passionate about it.
Originally hailing from Seattle, Joe Samaga came to Shanghai about two and half years ago, when his then-partner was offered a job. Armed with a degree in fine arts from Washington State University and a background in merchandising with the American department store giant Nordstrom, he settled into life here in Shanghai, securing work with a well regarded interior design firm in Minhang.
Life in China was pretty good – for a while. But then in 2010, “some stuff happened”. You know, the way it does, in life. Joe’s relationship with his partner ended. There was a bit of a family crisis back home in the US. The work he was doing was not satisfying and didn’t seem to be moving him forward, in terms of his career. “I came to a point where I needed a ‘life reinvention’, to decide what I was going to do next, and where I was going to do it,” Joe explained. “Do I stay in Shanghai and try to get decent work here? Do I go back to Seattle and use my network there to find a job? Or something else altogether?”
Joe had known Stephen Buchanan socially for a while, and had shared with him his situation and his indecision about his next move. This led to a serious discussion in which Stephen told Joe about the desire he had had for some time to “upscale” the salon, and that with over 20 years experience in the beauty industry, he had been thinking for years about creating his own line of hair and skin care products. As Joe has sensitive skin himself, he completely understood Stephen’s frustration at the lack of certifiably safe, natural or organic options available in Shanghai. They began to discuss how they could combine their expertise. Out of this conversation, with what Joe described as “a natural merging of talents,” the PURE range of soaps was born – and the answer to Joe’s question of ‘what to do next’ started to take shape.
First he went back to the US for a short while and dived into research, and then returned to Shanghai and began to investigate different suppliers. There was, quite literally, a lot of experimenting over the kitchen sink, figuring out what combinations worked best, and what suppliers of raw ingredients were really offering the best quality. I brought up the question of ‘the trust factor’ within China, one I know that I wrestle with all the time, especially as a parent – how much can I trust that any product here which claims to be ‘natural’ and/or ‘organic’, actually is? Joe nodded in agreement: “This is huge for us, and honestly, this is specifically why we don’t label our soaps as ‘organic’ overall. There are individual ingredients that we use that we can verify; for example, we use organic milk imported from Germany for our milk soap. We know what the process is for organic certification is in Germany, we trust that. We buy organic soybean oil from CityShop, and we are comfortable with the provenance of this product. Soon we will be using herbs from BioFarm, and because we can actually go there and see it for ourselves, we’re willing to put our faith there. But yes generally it is much more of a question with our locally sourced ingredients.” And local sourcing is an important part of Joe’s and Stephen’s philosophy for PURE products, so the answer isn’t buying lots of imported products that are more verifiable, but have been flown or trucked in from thousands of miles away. For now, after much experimenting to see how the samples of various raw ingredients behaved in early testing phases, Joe and Stephen have chosen products from particular suppliers that they believe are high quality and meet their own standard for PURE.
There are currently ten soaps in the product line, as well as a hand butter (which is also great for elbows, heels, lips…) All start with a base of olive, coconut, palm and vitamin E oils, and as such are naturally moisturizing. “We are not reinventing the wheel here,” Joe said candidly. “We are using time tested recipes, very traditional ingredients – there is no team of scientists in lab coats behind the scenes measuring up micrograms of polybenzowhatever.” Not that there’s anything wrong with scientists in lab coats, for products that require those sort of things, but “This is just soap. It’s actually pretty easy to make, and it’s kind of fun to make too, and it doesn’t need to be complicated – it just needs to be done right and using the best raw materials we can get our hands on.”
Starting the product range with soaps and keeping things simple, he explained, has allowed them to be more versatile. For example, they have recently entered into a one-year agreement with Roots & Shoots to support Roots & Shoots’ Million Tree Project. “We created for them their own soap variety. Originally the idea was to try to use some type of indigenous Mongolian plant extract, and R&S made some suggestions, but unfortunately the sourcing didn’t work out. In the end, after some experimenting, we came up with our MTP soap, which is made of our four base ingredients, plus also lemon oil and baby dandelion.” For my own curiosity, I asked him which part of the baby dandelion. “The whole thing,” he smiled, “it’s a great exfoliant.” The sale of every bar of the MTP soap equals one tree planted, and Joe and Stephen have set a goal of 2000 trees.
I asked him if there are any varieties in particular her recommends for children. “We’ve got four soaps that are made for sensitive skin in particular, and I’m comfortable saying that any of those would be good for kids,” he said, ticking them off on his fingers: avocado, organic milk, wheat germ & almond, and honey & oat. What about babies – any thought about possibly doing a baby care range in the future? I inquired, thinking about the questions that often come up amongst ShanghaiMamas looking for safe, natural infant products. Joe held his hand up and shook his head a bit, “I don’t think we can go there. Making products specifically for babies, you know, that’s a lot of responsibility, a lot more… I don’t think I’m qualified to do that. I don’t say ‘never’, but it’s not something I foresee. Right now we’re concentrating our energies on shampoo, trying to get the right recipe, the right sources for ingredients.” He mentions also that they are starting to think about the development of other basic body care items such as a facial toner or liquid soap and bodywash, as in his research, he discovered “a lot of people just don’t use bar soap. I had no idea!”
“You know Dr. Bronner’s soaps?” he asked me as we sipped our coffee. I replied that indeed I did, confessing my love for their zingy peppermint liquid soap and sharing a story about how I used to lead outdoor science workshops with kids about bubbles, and that we always used the Dr. Bronner’s soap because it didn’t kill the grass underneath the work station. It’s a strong and effective soap, but completely gentle. “Exactly,” he nodded, “that’s a product line that is basically a ‘mentor piece’ for me, something that embodies our aspirations and is an inspiration, both in the purity of their product and the simple but instantly identifiable packaging design.”
Does that mean he’s hoping to see PURE soaps sold worldwide? He’s not so sure. He said he’s had conversations with people who tell him how well PURE products would be received in Taiwan, or in Beijing, and even other Chinese cities with an up-and-coming middle class and high expat presence, but that kind of expansion is not currently on his mind. “I really, strongly want to continue as what is very much a ‘cottage industry’, keeping the emphasis on quality control and a low carbon footprint,” he said thoughtfully. “I don’t want to move our operations into a factory. I’m enormously proud of the fact that right now, every single product we make literally comes though my hands at some point in production, that I personally have seen with my own eyes what is going into every batch.” For now, he said , he’d prefer to concentrate his efforts on securing sustainable packaging options (surprisingly difficult, apparently.) What he does envision is, perhaps, a bigger kitchen sink. At present, everything is produced in a room of his home converted for this use (“No one can visit me – the guest room is now the soap room”), so he has his eyes open to the possibility of someday moving into a place that is more purpose built. Joe mused on the image of someday watching a small staff trotting from counter to counter with trays of soap, maybe others at a big table putting finishing touches on handmade labels or making up gift baskets.
“It’s only been five months we’ve been doing this after all,” he said. I asked him if there was anything he was afraid of in doing this, if after he’d made the choice that this was the direction his life reinvention’ was going to take, he’d ever worried that it wouldn’t work out. “No, not really,” he shook his head, “I guess my only fear initially was that, if I couldn’t find the right recipes and the right sources for ingredients, I’d let Stephen down, because financially and emotionally, he’s invested so much and put so much trust in me. But I have total confidence that we’re offering a really good product.” Like I said at the beginning – Joe’s a really nice guy. He makes really nice soap. And he’s really passionate about it.
PURE soaps are available at PUREStudio, House 11, 30 Maoming Nan Lu and at NUZI, Shop 30, 248 Taikang Lu . For more information, please visit www.mypure.com.hk
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