Karen Kerk wants you to buy less stuff, even if she’s selling it

Bare Organics founder Karen Kerk with Ben, and baby Liam, in 2007 …

Karen Kerk’s business model is a little, well, different. The founder of Bare Organics started making natural and organic skin-care products as a way to get people to buy less stuff.

“There are lots of marketers who work very hard to make us think we need all these different products to care for our skin,” says Karen, 42. “So people — and women in particular — have been conditioned to think we need separate cleansers and moisturizers for our hands, faces, legs, hair. But we don’t. Your hands, your face, your hair — they’re all part of your body. You just need soap to clean them.”

So it’s not surprising the Thunder Bay, Ontario–based Bare Organics, as its name suggests, provides a highly targeted range of organic products: bar and liquid soap, balms and moisturizers, natural deodorant, environmentally friendly sunscreen, and, more recently, some makeup.

Even so, in an ideal world, Karen would market even fewer products: it’s an open secret that many Bare Organics items are the same formula, targeted to different audiences. Take her healing balm, a blend of shea butter, beeswax, and other oils: “New parents won’t use something if it doesn’t have the word ‘baby’ on the label, because they’ve been told that they need to get the ‘right’ stuff for their kids. Adults won’t use something that’s labelled as a baby item. Men won’t buy something labelled for women. So I have to package it as two separate items, Baby Balm and Healing Balm, for it to reach everyone.”

Karen began Bare Organics after her first son, Ben, was born in 2004.

“I definitely fell into that ‘new mom’ trap of anxiety and pressure and judgment, where I felt like I was doing something wrong as a parent if he didn’t have absolutely the best and purest of everything, like I might break him otherwise,” she recalls. She saw a lot of “greenwashing” in the baby products on store shelves: “The label would have a blade of grass on it and say something about ‘eco,’ and I would read the ingredients and find a dozen chemicals. So I started doing research on how to make my own.”

Guided in part by the United States’ Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetics Database, Karen began to make products she felt comfortable using on Ben’s baby skin. It was important to her to use food-grade organic ingredients. “Ninety percent of what you put on your skin can be absorbed right into your bloodstream, with very little filtering,” she says. As a result, Bare products are made with many ingredients — like coconut, olive, or avocado oils, shea butter, arrowroot, baking soda, and essential oils — that you could eat.

Karen never intended to start a business, though. “What I wanted to do was educate people so that they had better choices,” she says. “And people kept asking me to make the products for them.”

Today, Karen sells Bare Organics online, via a small network of vendors (“I’m not super attracted to it being on store shelves everywhere. I want it to be sold at spaces where the retailers understand what it is and how it can really benefit people, as opposed to it being just another product to move.”), and at the Thunder Bay Country Market, where she enjoys building long-term connections with local growers and her customers, many of whom bring their empty containers for her to refill (at a discount).

“I often talk people out of buying things,” she says, with a laugh. “A woman will tell me that she really likes using coconut oil on her face as a moisturizer, but thinks she ought to buy my serum instead, and I’ll tell her to stick to the coconut oil if it’s working. Or someone will ask me for an exfoliant, and I’ll give them a 25-cent recipe that they can make out of things they already have. I don’t benefit financially, but people use less stuff and the Earth benefits. And I’m okay with that.”

… and today.

Along the way, Karen had another son, Liam, and has — by her own estimation — mellowed since her early days of new-mom anxiety. “Look, I dye my hair. We don’t eat all organic — I’d love to, but we simply can’t afford it. My kids eat sugar and junk just like everybody else’s. And you know? Everyone’s fine. I wish that new parents could go a bit easier on themselves.”

SUSAN GOLDBERG is a writer based in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines,and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families.


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