At Home with PlantPAPER
Wednesday evening. We find ourselves venturing into a new neighborhood on a windy hillside bordering Highland Park and Mount Washington.. The back streets are quiet as people settle in for the night and there’s nothing but parked cars and streetlights for a few blocks. I have to remind myself that I’m still in Los Angeles. A gap in the bushes leads us to a cozy home unsuspectingly tucked away, minding its own business. There we are greeted by Rachel Eubanks and Scott Barry: two of the core members of PlantPAPER, and our hosts for the night.
Immediately you can feel the glow of their home, fine-tuned over time by the love that its owners have consistently poured into it. Scott was in the kitchen adding the final touches to a well-prepared and thoughtful meal, while Rachel gave us the brief tour. Some furniture by Waka Waka, a bookshelf full of design, recipes, and everything in between, and some Latin-folk music playing in the background. It was all there, setting the stage for a conversation regarding the intersection of ethical design and business.
For context, PlantPAPER is a tree-free, toxin-free toilet paper — A solution to an industry that has been stagnant for decades despite rapid improvements in technology and efficiency. The numbers are staggering: 27,000 trees are flushed down toilets every day. It takes roughly a gallon of chemicals to make a single roll of toilet paper. We could go on. Rachel and Scott are some of the few who have taken it upon themselves to disrupt a system that we interact with on a daily basis.
“What’s been keeping you guys busy recently?”
“This stuff for PlantPAPER really consumes most of my day” Rachel explains. “We still haven’t gotten funding yet, but we’ve found ourselves rapidly growing, so trying to strike a balance in there and keeping things moving along. I recently found us some new fulfillment partners, which is incredibly important because it allows us to make sure our level of quality is maintained.”
I notice Scott working away in the kitchen, managing four different parts of our meal all at once, while still contributing to the conversation. I can’t help but think what a great team the two of them make together.
“We just placed our next order, which was three times as large as the previous one”, Rachel continues. “That kind of growth is great, and what we strive for, but we’re still navigating the systems in place and it’s very easy to get tripped up in it all.”
She makes a really important point. The toilet paper industry has effectively been around for more than a century. Despite rapid industrialization and improvements in technology, these systems are virtually the same as they were 100 years ago, devoid of any ecological improvement for the sake of profit and efficiency.
“It can be pretty scary, but we have a clear advantage over our competitors in the fact that none of them are designers—” Scott’s voice ringing from the kitchen. An important thought cut-off by the timer of the oven. No matter though.
As Rachel goes to help Scott in the kitchen, we’re left with what’s in front of us: A mix-and-match array of cups, each holding the same natural wine, and the remains of a charcuterie tray displayed on a cutting board by Spiritual Objects. Each object in their home has its own character, serves its own purpose. You can tell they come from a design background. Everything was curated, but didn’t try too hard.
Before we knew it we were being served dinner. Scott was in charge of plating while Rachel was educating us on what we were about to eat: Cod with a mix of carrots and chickpeas, topped with a light sauce, as well as a salad served with a Tahini dressing.
Scott is a Partner and Creative Director at Sqirl, so it comes as no surprise that both him and Rachel know their way around the kitchen. Abraham mentions ‘Everything I Want to Eat’, Sqirl’s first cookbook. “It’s crazy how many different places I’ve seen that book. I mean, really rural, unsuspecting places. How does that happen?”
“I have no idea.” Scott is quick to mention. Rachel follows up: “It’s been really amazing to see how well-received it’s become. Personally, we don’t use it that often. It’s just too involved for us.”
“A big part of that book was just for people to know. To know how much time and energy and love and care go into the things we make there.” Scott explains.
We were all very curious as to how they both had enough time in the day to make it all happen. “Do you have a hard time saying no to people?” I posed.
A brief moment of silence gathered. “I have a hard time saying no.” Scott comes out. “I’m always so honored. I try to be pretty selective about what I get into now though. I got pretty burnt out of freelancing and was tired of being a level below the decision-making.” A sentiment that was felt throughout the room.
Conversations came in and out, person to person. A soft jazz filled the back of the room, just barely there, but enough to notice the notes. “Why should people care about the toilet paper you guys are making?” I asked, shifting the energy back into a single conversation.
Rachel starts: “We have to communicate a lot of different information that will hopefully draw people in. Connecting the right message to the right people has been one of our biggest challenges. Some people don’t want to fund the Koch Brothers, others don’t want their children being exposed to chemicals. It’s kind of endless.”
“We’re trying to transition more towards this idea that we just really believe our toilet paper is better than all the others.” Scott chimes in. He continues: “Performance-wise, feeling-wise. It’s stronger, softer. We just really believe in it as a product. That’s our new base-level.” “Is it a quality product? And also does it hit these other marks?” Rachel finishes his thought.
You can feel the passion they have for this. The innate desire to communicate a better solution to an obvious problem.
“The cool thing is that the people who have adopted us so far are tastemakers, and actually give a shit.” Rachel goes on. “They see our message and see our use of design as a mode of communication and want to support that. And they are the types of places you would go to, or people you would ask, to inform your own product purchases. They have a valued opinion. So I believe that’ll really help us in the long-run.”
“Have you heard of the 1000 true fans?” Alex inquires. “Essentially, if you can get 1000 people to buy something with your name on it, you’re winning. Eventually you’ll reach a mass-market and hopefully that never dilutes the original product.”
“I think it also takes time. We often forget how important time is in the equation.” Scott adds.
And he’s right. Scott and Rachel are talking about disrupting a system that has been very well-placed for an entire century. That’s not something you just enter into, let alone change, overnight.
“It feels worth it though.” Rachel states confidently. “We’re here for it and we don’t have plans to go anywhere anytime soon.”
At this point we all feel energized, ready to learn more. It’s hard not to when you’re around these two. You can feel them brimming with potential energy, waiting for the slightest push in any direction. “How are you guys looking forward?” Abraham poses the often-asked, but never-obvious question.
They look at each other for a second to decide who takes the lead. “I’d really like to have time to walk in the mornings, and somehow find a more healthy relationship with what we do.” Rachel begins to explain. “I feel like half my job is making sure I’m taking care of myself despite it all, and I want to continue to prioritize that. With PlantPAPER, the obvious answer is to continue to make a better product for the environment and making it the easiest choice for consumers. The less obvious answer is making a team and making something that can sustain other’s lives and make them feel heard and important.”
“I agree.” Scott follows. “I’m bad at long term plans. But I have two answers to your question. The first is developing a sense of culture within each of the projects I’m working on. Creating a community of people to share this work with feels important to me. But that’s a more general answer. Specifically, and the second answer to your question, is to get into more positions where change can be made. Tapping into and sticking it to these industries and getting some of the money they make to redirect it to be put to a better use. It seems really imperative to me that that should be a focus as a designer or an author of work.
My former professor Lorraine Wild told me: “You’re only ever as good a designer as you are interested in the world.” And that still rings true for me.”
And with that, our evening concluded. It never ceases to amaze us how open and generous people can be. We left feeling light and hopeful for the things to come, a gift that not many can give. Look into what Rachel and Scott are up to with PlantPAPER here. They really are trying to change the world, and we’re more than happy to be cheering them on and supporting them. This won’t be the last that you hear from them, so keep your eyes open and ears to the ground.