"Save a Face, Save the World," Critical Shopper March 15th 2007 New York Times
you can read the article with its nice photos here.
HOW I had forgotten the ’90s: that optimistic decade when I walked around
with my sticky mat and precious new cellphone, as obsessively yogic and
introspective as Madonna. I attended Ashtanga classes and imagined peace
while in pigeon pose, thinking it was an effective way to contribute to
Now firmly in the post-you-know-what age, I had only vague memories of that
serene decade until I walked into Origins, the quintessentially ’90s
organic body-care brand. Stepping into the narrow, embracing store at the
base of the Flatiron Building, I remembered how easy it was to feel good
More anxious now and disgusted with my own consumption, I didn’t know what
to do with myself there. So I decided to buy an exfoliating scrub for my
dumb American face, which, like my country, often seems to be greedily
I explained this to my Origins “guide” (that’s what they call salesclerks
here), and a stripe of concern passed over her pretty natural face. She
suggested I try Modern Friction ($36), which uses “skin refining rice
starch cushioned in cream to rub away dead skin cells.” Swept Clean
($18.50) seemed more my style, because it had that fine-grain granular
texture you look for in a scrub, and it was darkened with “activated
charcoal,” which apparently will “break through oil, purge pores and sweep
Charcoal suddenly seemed the answer to all my problems, so I went a little
coal-crazy at the Origins for Men section and bought the Skin Diver scrub
($17.50), Skin Diver body wash ($16.50) and a bar of Skin Diver body soap
I was given a little wooden apple basket to put my products in. While I
perused the well-lighted items on the blond wood shelves, a guide was
applying a cleanser to a woman sitting at one of the little islands
outfitted with a sink. I tried to settle into the Origins aura, but that
was hard for me now that I’ve replaced my Ray of Light-style inner life
with a constant fear of apocalypse and personal carbon emissions and a
concern that everything I do or buy is killing furry animals or enslaving
children in Africa in some blood-diamond capitalist way.
But that is what stores like Origins are for: to provide products that
purport to use environmentally friendly natural remedies and ancient
healing traditions so that Western consumers like me can feel they are
guiltlessly moisturizing without destroying the planet like a human SUV.
The arrival of Origins, one of the first botanical-based brands from a
major company, in the early ’90s was a turning point in the cosmetics
industry. The green spawn of Estée Lauder, it was committed to preservation
of earth, animals and environment a habitual mission for most beauty
products now, but more of a challenge 17 years ago, when recycling was not
mandatory and many brands were using animal collagen and placenta in their
But Origins pressed on, eschewing animal products and testing, using that
yellowy 20 percent recycled paper (now replaced with a better-looking 50
percent blend), creating an Origins Empties recycling program and finding a
manufacturer willing to turn its leftover plastic caps into lawn chairs and
a beekeeper who wouldn’t gas the insects at the end of the season.
The first Origins store opened in Cambridge, Mass., in 1991 with a shocking
200 products. Marking the end of the snooty ’80s and the onset of the
warmer ’90s, it was, it says, the first major brand to use an “open sell”
approach allowing customers to touch and test a product before buying it
including its signature product, Peace of Mind ($10), an aromatherapy
cream that delivers a lingering peppermint-patty zing when rubbed on the
temples or earlobes. (Big white Peace of Mind gumballs are also available
for 25 cents.)
WHILE its tie to a major corporation may breed suspicion among the
ecoconscious consumers it courts, being a rich daughter brand does give
Origins the financial advantage to stay committed to its mission to pay
for trips to far-flung countries to retrieve ingredients (like charred
bamboo from Japan) and research indigenous healing traditions with shamans
in Belize. It’s impressive that the brand still holds up in a time when
even Cameron Diaz is environmentally aware.
Over the next few months, the company will be redoing its stores in an
“eco-chic” design: more plants, terra-cotta accents, sustainable woods. But
its familiar tree silhouette logo and clean font, which looks both dynamic
and soothing, will remain.
And there is still satisfaction in reading the chummy product names and
arcane label descriptions, learning, for example, that the skin-firming
cream Youthtopia contains rhodiola, a “legendary” golden root that flowers
in Siberia’s polar mountains.
Sometimes the ingredient combos appear contrived, as in Calm to Your Senses
Lavender and Vanilla Body Souffle, which, upon opening, looked like a
dessert from Gramercy Tavern down the street and made me crave a spoon.
My guide tried to persuade me to get a tonic, explaining it would return my
face to a pH balance after I scrub it raw. But I just can’t get into
toners. In our shared fantasy of “healing traditions,” I can imagine a
wrinkle-free Japanese elder or Hopi medicine woman cleaning themselves with
charcoal, moisturizing with rice starch and exfoliating with jojoba beads,
but I can’t see them applying toner with a cotton ball.
Before leaving, I noticed green placards depicting another icon of the
’90s, the smiling bearded face of the cute, squeezable Dr. Andrew Weil. Dr.
Weil has collaborated with Origins to create a line of mushroom-based
products (which are supposed to reduce redness and inflammation), including
Plantidote Mega-Mushroom Face Serum ($65), face cream ($60) and
Nite-trition Restful Sleep Supplement, a liquid you squirt into your mouth
At home I scrubbed and serumed and moisturized, daubed some Peace of Mind
on my temples, took a dropper ful of Dr. Weil’s sleep supplement and lay in
my bed all smooth-faced and redolent in botanical clouds of fragrance. I
slept really well, too, but that may have been because of another healing
ingredient I use called shiraz.