Careers & Ed: Branching out - Page 2

How Paul Donald went from graphic designer to green retailer extraordinaire
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Photo by Neil Motteram

"We can't consume our way to a better world, but we can be more considerate about what we buy," he says.

That's why each item Branch sells, from stuffed animals to kitchenware, comes with its own story — what it's made from, how and where it's made, and who made it — on the Web site and on printed cards that are included in each package. This helps to create another point of connection between object and buyer and furthers Branch's goal of educating consumers about sustainability, something that's close to Donald's heart.

But even people who don't read all the stories that come with the products can rest assured that Donald, in his dual role as Branch's curator and art director, has already made a lot of the hard choices for them. Branch offers a well-edited collection of products that are also manufactured and brought to market in such a way that its customers don't have to feel guilty about buying — or, eventually, disposing of — them.

In addition to the Web site, Donald's original plan involved opening a physical store with an adjacent café that would serve locally and sustainably grown foods. After a few bids fell through right around Thanksgiving of 2005, it dawned on Donald that he had a bunch of inventory on the way and no place to display it. He decided to launch the site first and deal with the rest after the holidays. At the time there were no other stores like Branch, and it found popularity online through blogs and word of mouth. When sustainable design hit the mainstream a little over a year later, Branch had an advantage over new competition as an already established brand. Plus, more exposure and increased visibility meant increased sales.

With zero retail or customer service experience (Branch is his first job that involves interacting directly with the public) and no formal business background, Donald says he was lucky to learn the ropes online, without the albatross of a physical retail space — not to mention a café, something with which he has even less experience. With just a single focus, Donald found he was less in the spotlight, and the growing pains weren't so extreme. He likens his role at Branch to being a single parent and admits he'll always choose thinking about branding and design above burying himself in a spreadsheet.

He still longs for a storefront in San Francisco, and if all goes according to plan, there may be a Los Angeles and a New York Branch in the not-so-distant future.

BEAUTIFUL AND SUSTAINABLE

A self-described design snob, Donald says he's only interested in working with objects that are both beautiful and sustainable. "To make any kind of real impact we need to reach a broad audience," he says. "Tie-dye and hemp sandals aren't going to do this." Branch is successful largely because it caters to anyone who appreciates good design — green or not. It educates unsuspecting browsers when their guards are down — when they're relaxed and curious. Donald avoids loaded labels like environmentalist and opts instead for the more friendly moniker of thoughtful citizen to describe himself and the people he's targeting. "In the same way I try not to be preachy about Branch, I try not to use preachy words," he says.

Ultimately, he would like to see more designers take the green road. (He's currently on the lookout for affordable, everyday, sustainable tableware, which so far has proved difficult to source.) Donald is also working to expand Branch's offerings to include things that make it easier for people to live a more sustainable lifestyle, such as power strips with easy-to-reach on-off switches and reusable shopping bags.

In fall 2006, Branch partnered with the California College of the Arts and became a client for its wood furniture class, which required students to neither create furniture nor use wood as a material. "Leave it to an art school," Donald says.

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