Careers & Ed: Branching out

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

culture@sfbg.com

Paul Donald, the founder of sustainable online retailer Branch Homes, agrees to meet me at Mission Beach Cafe. He arrives dressed in a black turtleneck sweater and smart bluish purple rimmed glasses and takes a seat at the wooden table where I'm sitting. At one point during our conversation I accidentally make a big black ink smudge on the tabletop.

"It's heavily varnished, and we've got some toxic industrial cleaners that will take care of that," he says dryly.

This is clearly a joke, as everything about Branch — and Donald — is the polar opposite of varnished and toxic. In fact, the San Francisco company only carries ecofriendly, fair trade, and organic objects, clothing, and furniture, with an emphasis on local and national designers (though it has products from all over the world).

But Donald didn't start out as a retailer, or even a sustainability advocate. His background is in design. In fact, he spent 12 years in New York and San Francisco helping craft the identities of magazines like Spy, Wired, and Sunset before founding Branch Home in 2005. Which is probably why he describes his current job this way:

"I'd like to tell people that I'm the creative director for this cool company that's at the nexus of design and sustainability — and it just happens to be a retail store," he says, sounding slightly apologetic when he gets to the retail part. After all, when you're used to being a hip graphic designer, perhaps the title of shopkeeper just doesn't hold the same mystique.

So how did he get from one to the other?

SMART SHOPPING

Donald said there wasn't a singular "aha!" moment behind Branch. Instead, the idea percolated over time. It could've started with his childhood in small-town Iowa, where working in cornfields during the summers inspired his love for the land and a curiosity about where food comes from. This curiosity expanded to include other everyday products when, years later, he read William McDonough and Michael Braungart's Cradle to Cradle (North Point Press, 2002).

Then, while in his often stressful role as creative director for Sunset magazine, Donald frequently found himself shopping to relax — although he says his motives were more entertainment driven than consumption driven. But he openly celebrates the role of shopping in our lives — as a form of exploration, education, connection, and, of course, therapy.

"It's an opportunity to discover what's new and interesting and beautiful in the world," he says.

He also acknowledges shopping's darker side, including the toxic materials, processes, and packaging that put our objects of desire on the shelf and our purchases' not-so-pretty by-products: deforestation, global warming, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (or GPGP, a plastic floe of trash floating in the ocean that's twice the size of Texas), unfair wages, and poor working conditions.

This duality pointed toward the creation of Branch, which represents a greener, happier alternative to our society's often blind and copious consumption. "No one wakes up and thinks, 'I want to contribute to deforestation today,'<0x2009>" Donald says. "We're just not brought up to think about the life cycle of the things we consume." Instead of flat-out asking people to abandon their consumptive ways (an improbability as far as Donald is concerned), Branch encourages design-savvy shoppers to get curious about whence and from what things come.

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