• Ariel Green

Clean Body and Home with founders of Butter + Lye and The Green Laundress

Updated: Jan 27


Have you ever looked at the ingredients on the leading beauty or cleaning products? It's a long list of chemicals that most of us struggle to pronounce. Ingredients like parabens, sulfates, and phthalates are commonly found in these products, and although they're approved by the FDA, they are known to disrupt hormones, harm fertility and reproductive organs, and increase the risk of cancer. The US has a long way to go regarding the safety of ingredients included in our beauty products, cleaning products, and food, but that's a topic for another day.


Today we're chatting with two small business owners, Monique Garraud Kofsky of Butter + Lye and Erica Ahmed of The Green Laundress, who are creating non-toxic products to clean our bodies and homes.


Shop Butter + Lye

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Shop The Green Laundress

Follow Butter + Lye on IG



LISTEN HERE: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Play | Watch on YouTube


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TRANSCRIPTION:


Ariel:

Hello and welcome back to The Sustainable Brown Girl Podcast. This show exists to connect black, brown and indigenous women who are interested in sustainability. Our goal is to inspire, encourage and educate each other; from gardening to thrifting, to minimalism, to veganism and everywhere in between. We're all on a journey to taking care of our bodies and our planet. I'm your host, Ariel Green.


Butter + Lye

Have you ever looked at the ingredients on the leading soap or body wash brands? It's a long list of chemicals that most of us struggle to pronounce. Ingredients like parabens, sulfates and phthalates are commonly found in beauty products. And although they're approved by the FDA, they are known to disrupt hormones, harm fertility and reproductive organs and increase the risk of cancer. The US has a long way to go regarding the safety of ingredients included in our beauty products, cleaning products and food but that's a topic for another day. Today we're chatting with two small business owners who are creating non-toxic products to clean our bodies and homes. Before we get started, don't forget to check out Sustainable Brown Girl on YouTube to watch the full video interviews with today's guests. Now onto the show.


Today's, Sustainable Brown Girl is Monique. She is the founder of Butter + Lye, an eco-friendly soap company based in Brooklyn, New York. She strives to provide high-quality products while ensuring environmentally friendly business practices such as compostable packaging, carbon-neutral shipping and making products with organic ingredients. Butter + Lye's mission is to show you how easy it is to incorporate good for you, skin and earth-friendly products into your everyday routine. Thank you so much for joining us today, Monique.


Monique:

Not a problem. Thank you so much for having me today.


Ariel:

Yes. So, let's just jump right into it from the very beginning. How did you become interested in sustainability?


Monique:

It probably goes back to when I was in college. I took a course on sustainability and the course talked a lot about what we're doing to the environment with a lot of practices that I didn't think were a big deal. At the time I was eating meat; factory farming and just the devastation that causes to the environment. At the time I was using a lot of plastic bottles, they're available everywhere. I didn't think that they were so terrible for the environment. And so, just hearing how something as innocuous as a plastic bottle could destroy habitats made me realize, okay, I want to start doing something about it. So, I made changes, I started bringing around my water bottle, I became a vegetarian, so I didn't support the feedlots that are wreaking havoc on the environment. And so, I started doing little things because I was educated on it, but if I never learned these things, I don't know if I would be in the sustainable field right now.


Ariel:

Learning about that type of stuff really opens your eyes and it feels like once you learn about it, it's hard to turn back.


Monique:

Yeah. Oh yeah. Definitely. I agree 100% with that. I wouldn't be able to, because I… now that I know, I would feel like I'm doing the earth a disservice, by going back. Definitely.


Ariel:

Yeah. So about how long did it take you, once you started learning about it to start making those changes?


Monique:

It was fairly gradual; I didn't do everything right away. Growing up as someone who ate meat, not too much meat, but I did eat meat growing up. I didn't want to give it up right away. I just slowly started going to meatless Mondays and removing another day of the week and eventually, I just lost the taste for it. And so, I just became a full-fledged vegetarian soon after. With the plastic bottles, sometimes it's really difficult. Sometimes you forget your bottle at home and you have to go to the store and that's the only option. And so, even now, I'm not perfect right now, but I try my best and I try to make every little decision as I go along.


Ariel:

Yeah. That's great. So then what led you to create Butter + Lye?


Monique:

There were a few reasons.


Ariel:

Okay.


Monique:

I would say the main reason is, I had a pretty ugly bat with adult-onset acne and I tried everything to get rid of it. Little bit of an embarrassing story; I was dating a guy who's now my husband so I guess it didn't really matter. But, we were together a few years and I remember one time I was laying on his pillow and when I got up, his pillow was all bleached because of all of this stuff I put on my face. I was mortified and I was like, I can't do this anymore. I don't want to use all of these chemicals on my face just to try to clear up this acne. I need to find something different. And so, I started using handmade soaps and I had never really used it before I was using commercial brands, number one, because they were cheaper and I was fresh out of college with student loan debt all of that, but that's a whole other conversation.


Ariel:

Right.


Monique:

I was trying to just get the cheapest products, but the cheapest products have the cheapest ingredients and it didn't agree with my sensitive skin. When I found this, I was walking around the block in Brooklyn and there was this brother and sister selling soap. And I was just like oh, let me try this because it wasn't too expensive. And so, I bought it and my acne just started clearing up. My skin got healthier, it was night and day. I noticed that, all the things that I use on my face, yeah, they worked but they only worked if I continued using them on my face. But when I started using their soap, my skin was just getting healthier and I didn't have to constantly put creams and ointments on my face to make the acne go away.


I bought a bunch of bars from them for a month or so and then, I didn't see them anymore. And I was like, oh no, I need you, you're the reason why my skin is glowing. I'm a biochemist by training and since I couldn't find them, I just read the ingredients and I reverse engineered it and tried all these different formulas to try to create my own bar. And then, I made some, then I made it my own and I started giving it to my husband to try, my sister, my family, they all loved it. And so that's how Butter + Lye was born because they kept asking me for more so I was like may as well make a buck off of it.


Ariel:

Seriously. That's awesome. So, you said you're a biochemist by training. What was that transition like from…? I saw on your website that you did cancer immunotherapy. What was that transition like from doing that to starting to create your own products? How long did that take?


Monique:

I worked in the biotechnology industry for 10 years and it was while I was working in the lab that I started Butter + Lye and it wasn't quite Butter + Lye yet because it wasn't really a fully thought-out brand at that point, but I was making soap and I was selling it to family and friends. Something happened where my company just ran out of money and everyone was let go.


Ariel:

Oh wow!


Monique:

It was almost serendipitous in a way because I had this fall back, I had this company that I was able to just pick up and build up. And so, I guess I'm lucky because it was easy for me. And I'm not lucky because I got laid off from my dream job essentially. But it was a nice transition because I've always had an entrepreneurial spirit and so, it was nice to go into something and challenge myself a different way.


Ariel:

Wow! Yeah. That sounds like it worked out. Sometimes bad things happen so that something better happen. So that's really what it sounds like happened with you.


Monique:

Yeah. I agree with that. Definitely.


Ariel:

So now what types of products do you make?


Monique:

Okay, so right now, I have a face and body line; it's my unscented line. They're great for your face and your body, hence, face and body line. I also have a shampoo bar and I have a solid dish soap and all the things that come with it. I have, a pot brush and dish brush that's made using a bamboo handle and coconut husk bristles on the pot brush and sisal bristles on the bamboo brush. I was trying just for a completely plastic free experience. And then I have some new products that are coming out for the holidays.


Ariel:

Oh, that's exciting.


Monique:

It is.


Ariel:

I have tried your face and body soaps. I have the sage, rosehip and the pink clay and I've tried a lot of natural soaps and one thing that I can say that sets yours apart is that it suds up really nicely. A lot of the other soaps I've tried… I mean, they're okay but yours is really sudsy. And I didn't realize until I tried yours, was that that was something that I kind of missed from other soaps that I had used in the past. So, I like it.


Monique:

Thank you. The secret ingredient is castor oil. Castor oil makes the soap bubbles really big and they last a long time.


Ariel:

So, you said you're coming out with some Christmas or holiday products. Can you tell us more about that?


Monique:

Sure, I have a gift set that's coming out and the gift set is going to have three face and body bars, with a new fragrance. I don't have any fragrances in my bars right now, but the new one that's coming out is called winter spice and it's scented with cinnamon and clove. It's not scented with any fragrance oils or even essential oils. It's just scented with the cinnamon and clove itself. And so, it's a very gentle scent. It's really nice. I've been using it myself and it feels like winter in the bathroom when I'm taking a shower except it's warm. It's quite wonderful.


Ariel:

That sounds amazing.


Monique:

So that's going to be coming out. I also have a new concrete soap dish. That's going to be coming out because, with natural soaps, you really want to keep them as dry as possible, or they tend to melt. And so that's coming out. And I also…I'm most excited about this washcloth that's coming up. It's an exfoliating washcloth that's made with agave fibers. And so, it's made by women artisans in Mexico and it's a completely hand done process. They scrape all of the meat off of the agave leaves, they hand spin the thread, they hand weave it. They don't use any bleach in the process, they sun bleach everything, so it's a completely chemical free process and it's completely fair trade. These women are paid fair wages. The company that I buy from, they run the lunch program for the school for the children and they also run a recycling program to teach the children, sustainable techniques. And so, I'm really excited, number one, to support them and number two, to introduce this new product to the world.


Ariel:

So cool. Oh my gosh. I can't wait to see all of that and try it out.


Monique:

Friday, tomorrow. Tomorrow's Friday isn't it?


Ariel:

Really? Yeah. So, what's that, November 20th it’ll be available.


Monique:

It will, yes.


Ariel:

Perfect, go check that out. You obviously are a sustainable company. Have you faced any challenges while trying to be sustainable?


Monique:

It's really time consuming because every single decision…I take sustainability very seriously, so every decision that I make, sustainability is the first question that I ask myself. And so, something as small as labels for my mailers, I wanted to make sure… because a lot of the times those labels come on a backing that's not recyclable. And so just researching different label types and finding something that's recyclable, researching different types of tape even, that I'm going to use to tape the boxes. I got really lucky to find a tape that's made of paper and the adhesive is just a natural rubber. Little like things that, I'm always striving to be a little bit better. And so, just taking the time… I think that the time is probably the hardest part because I have to think about everything.


Ariel:

Yeah, definitely. That makes sense. Have you faced any challenges while being a black woman owned company?


Monique:

That's a really good question. I would say that a challenge that I maybe am starting to see is just, I'm afraid that sometimes black women are like commodities and we're not taken as seriously. I feel like when everything first happened, especially with the George Floyd, all of the protests that were happening, I was being hit up all the time girl. My inboxes were full, but now it's like crickets, I almost never hear anything. And so, I was excited because I felt like black women, black people were being seen, but now I'm starting to think maybe that was just for PR. And so, I think that's probably the biggest challenge that I'm facing right now. Just trying to make a name for myself as a black woman, without being the black woman, without being reached out just because I'm black. Yeah. Other than that, I love being a black woman. There are challenges in society for sure, but I also think that there are benefits. I'm just trying to do my best, work hard, be an example for all of the young black girls out there. You could do it too.


Ariel:

Yeah, definitely. You 100% are an inspiration, especially… I mean, I just find it to be amazing that you are a biochemist and now you're using your training to create sustainable products that are good for your body and good for the environment and that's very inspiring.


Monique:

Thank you so much. I really appreciate that.


Ariel:

So, we talked about what's new coming to Butter + Lye. Do you have any big dreams for your company?


Monique:

My big dreams aren't really associated with selling more or profits. I mean, we're so interested in people being sustainable and having that be their first choice. Having them think about what they're buying, the impact that it has, not just on the world, but also the people, the communities and making that the reason why they buy. Just being an inspiration to people and having them buy my product, because they learned a little something about the negative effects of plastic in the world, the negative effects of, just certain chemicals, especially… Sorry I'm going on a tangent but, I read an article last year that talked about, I believe there were hair care products that were specifically for black women. And the article found that a lot of these haircare products have a lot of nasty toxins and endocrine inhibitors and all of these things in them that aren't even listed on the labels.


Ariel:

Wow!


Monique:

Yeah. I really want to just bring awareness to people that you can't really trust everyone or all of these companies, especially the companies that are very profit driven and so just do your research. It's okay to have something simple and made with fresh ingredients that you could understand and you know where they come from, they're organic. I think that's a lot better than, getting something that smells really good or something that you see a bunch of commercials for. I think that it's really important for me to educate first and then offer my products as a result of that education.


Ariel:

I love that. That's amazing. You’re on it girl.


Monique:

Thank you.


Ariel:

You're so Welcome. What is one thing that anyone can do to be more sustainable?


Monique:

Anything. I mean… I guess this goes full circle from the beginning of our conversation. I started off just by doing meatless Mondays. And one thing that I like to say to people is, if I do everything right, every single day for the rest of my life, it still won't have as much of an impact as a billion people. There are seven plus billion people on the planet, 2 billion people doing one thing right, one day of their life. And so, I always encourage people just to try something. Support a sustainable brand just once, go meatless for a month, challenge yourself. Buy a bottle instead of plastic bottles and use that for a few years. And just those small little changes, no one has to be… It's almost impossible in our society to be zero waste, 100% of the time. It's really difficult. And so, if you just try something small, you are making a difference.


Ariel:

Absolutely. 100% agree. All right, Monique, thank you so much for joining us. How can everyone find you?


Monique:

Yeah. You could find me at Butter + Lye on Instagram, we're pretty active there. You can also visit our website butterandlye.com. We have a lot of fun things coming out for the holiday season. So please check us out.


Ariel:

Yeah. Really looking forward to it. I cannot wait to go and buy some more of your things. Please do check Monique and Butter + Lye out. Thank you again for joining us. It was so great talking to you.


Monique:

Thank you so much for having me.



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The Green Laundress


Ariel:

The average household uses cleaning products that contain about 62 toxic chemicals, according to environmental experts. These ingredients have been linked to asthma cancer, reproductive disorders and hormone disruption. Of course, we want our homes to be clean, but we don't want to sacrifice our health to do so. Which brings us to our next guest.


Today's featured Sustainable Brown Girl is Ms. Erica Ahmed. A senior public health consultant and the owner of The Green Laundress, a Maryland based eco and people-friendly company that manufacturers healthy and green cleaning products. The Green Laundress’ mission is to educate consumers about the importance of using cleaning products that are good for the environment and their health. Ms. Ahmed currently serves on the sustainability and climate change committee at Bowie State University and the national board of the league of minority voters. Thanks so much for joining us today, Erica.


Erica:

Thank you for having me.


Ariel:

Let's just jump right into it. Tell us what inspired you to start The Green Laundress.


Erica:

Well, it was my daughter. My daughter was born with very sensitive skin years ago. I knew nothing about, eco-friendly cleaning products. I don't think people were even saying that back then. And so, I just didn't know what to do and so at the time, my ex-husband's not from this country. So, what does your mom use? Maybe that'll help out. He was like, she uses pine sol and tides. I was like, okay. So, I'm thinking from different countries, things are a little bit more, organic and that sort of thing, but that was not the case. And so, then I started thinking, what did people use a hundred years ago? And so, I started just working with different raw materials and products, but with a sense of urgency, because when you have a crying baby or baby with irritated skin that will really sort of propel you to get busy with it.


Ariel:

Right.


Erica:

It wasn't The Green Laundress then. I didn't incorporate, become a business until over 10 years later. I had no intention of becoming a business, that was not the intent at all.


Ariel:

Wow! What year was that?


Erica:

That was 15 years ago. She's 15 now. And so, I just incorporated almost five years ago, but that was not the intent. The accidental entrepreneurs is what I call myself.


Ariel:

That's awesome. So how…? Did you just start experimenting with different products?


Erica:

Yeah. Doing some research and looking at again, what did people use a 100 years ago? What did they use that was nontoxic? Because, something is natural doesn't mean it's not non-toxic necessarily, so yeah. And just trying to look at different products, putting them together, seeing what was effective, seeing what didn't cause any like bodily harm and also what actually smelled good. It can't be stinky and work cause that doesn't work either.


Ariel:

So true. So about how long did it take you to come up with a good formula?


Erica:

Well, I would say, for the laundry soap and the cleaning product and for our multi-purpose spray, not very long because at a certain point, I literally was washing her clothes just in hot water, that's it, nothing. I wasn't using any bar soap or anything. Because I just didn't know how her skin was going to react. And I don't have skin issues so it was just something that was sort of not on my radar and out of my purview.


Ariel:

One thing that I hear a lot of people in the natural community talking about is Castile soap. Is that something that worked for you?


Erica:

Yes. Absolutely. Yeah. And different in different forms. Yeah, absolutely. I love Castile soap. Absolutely. Yes.


Ariel:

Also, too. I hear a lot about, what is it, tree nuts? No, some type of.


Erica:

Soap nuts?


Ariel:

Soap nuts, thank you.


Erica:

Yeah. I haven't used them much, but yeah. I like soap nuts as well. Absolutely. Yes.


Ariel:

Okay. What types of ingredients are used in your products now?



Erica:

Well, like I said, they're natural, their raw. I can't give everything, but like baking soda is definitely a staple in our laundry soap and then 100% essential oils, no synthetics, we use those in the multi-purpose spray, the tub scrub and laundry soap, all of them.


Ariel:

Oh, okay. That's awesome.


Erica:

Yeah.


Ariel:

We've talked about your laundry soap. You mentioned something a little bit about the tub scrub. What products do you offer?


Erica:

We have three signature products and that's the laundry soap, the tub scrub and the multi-purpose spray. And the multi-purpose spray comes in different sets, but those are our three signature products.


Ariel:

What made you want to start selling them?


Erica:

Well, after like a decade, people were just like, “Why don't you start a business? Why don't you…?” Generally, I would just give it away to people. I was like, “Oh, I made a batch, do you want?” Or people would say to me, “I thought you said your daughter had really sensitive skin?” and I was like, “She does.” They're were like, “Well, her skin looks better.” I was like, “Yeah, this is what I'm using.” So it was that kind of thing. Just giving it away to family, friends, parents at daycare or after-school programs or whatever. And I just said, “You know what, maybe I should go ahead and sort of formalize this process and turn it into business and just see how it goes.” And then, so I really didn't get serious about it until probably around mid 2018.


Ariel:

Oh, wow!


Erica:

Yeah.


Ariel:

That's awesome. What was your process with starting? Did you find it to be difficult or was it easy starting your own green business?


Erica:

No, it was difficult every step of the way, because I don't have a background in business or being an entrepreneur, I don't come from entrepreneurs. So, everything, I literally had to research to get it right or make huge mistakes and redo it three, four times. So no, there was nothing easy about this, but I mean, there's a passion there for it and there's a need for it, but no, it ain't easy.


Ariel:

In your bio, it says that you're a senior public health consultant. How has that helped you with, The Green Laundress?


Erica:

I guess in the sense that I understand public health and public health is about prevention and getting upstream as opposed to healthcare, that's about treatment and it's about looking at the individual. In public health, we look at how to prevent things and how to prevent things among populations. In that sense, that's the framework that I use. How do you not just make your child better, but how do you make your community or communities of children better or communities of adults grappling with rosacea better? How do you do that? Yeah.


Ariel:

So, speaking of communities, do you feel like it's more important for people in the black and brown community to use natural products?


Erica:

I think it's important for everybody, but in particular, in black and brown communities, I'm really just holding for a second on the black community because that's my community, I can speak to that data a little bit more personally, as well as professionally. Absolutely, because we carry the burden of chronic illnesses. And so, when you're already starting from a deficit like that, you don't need to exacerbate it or make it worse by using chemicals that are toxic to clean with. You know what I mean? I've dealt with parents who have children that are asthmatics, who want to clean home, but really, they're actually making their asthma worse for them that are asthmatic and for their children. But you know what, you know.


Ariel:

Right. I've heard a lot about how a lot of these mainstream products are marketed to black and brown communities. And how, of course, like you just said, we suffer a lot from these, illnesses. So, what do you think that we can do to kind of prevent that?


Erica:

Well, I think one of the things we can do is really and I don't put the onus on the community per se. I mean, there is personal responsibility, but then also from a public health standpoint, I think it is incumbent upon local state and federal government officials to do campaigns, let people know about the importance of taking care of their health and what they clean with really can impact their health. There's a disconnect there so those are conversations we don't have. We really just started talking about how good quality food could impact your health the last 20 to 30 years, we have some catching up to do.


Ariel:

Yeah. So true. So, tell us about your role on the sustainability and climate change committee.


Erica:

Yeah, so I graduated from Bowie State actually graduated there, started at Norfolk, graduated from Bowie State and went there for graduate school went on to Columbia as well, but I'm sort of tied to the Bowie State community and what I do there. I just provide insight in terms of like, when they're developing documents when they're developing new policies and protocols, they'll ask me to review along with other faculty and professors that are on staff there to review documents, to lend insight into things that are greener ways of doing things or recycling or upcycling, that sort of thing. There will be... I mean, it's a smaller university, smaller HBCU, but they're very progressive and they're very committed to making their campus as green as possible.


Ariel:

So, with you starting The Green Laundress with the natural products and your interest in sustainability and climate change, would you say that they were interconnected or did they kind of happen at different times?


Erica:

I didn't have much interest in sustainability and climate change. I really didn't. Again, it was like, let's be eco-friendly, but it wasn't really on my radar until a couple years ago. And I started, doing more stuff and researching and we're still in the process of trying to get our packaging so that all of our packaging is much more sustainable and eco-friendly. But this thing with Bowie came up a few years ago and I got excited about the work they were doing. Nothing has been linear, there is no trajectory. Oh, I see why… No. It's so not neat and nice, no.


Ariel:

Yeah, that makes sense. On your website, I saw that your laundry soap is different from laundry detergent. What is the difference between the two?


Erica:

Yeah. There are a lot of differences, one just being language, but I make that distinction because our laundry… generally, laundry soap there, we have less toxic chemicals. So obviously you're reducing the risk of use for relative to human consumption and also soap is generally biodegradable and then friendlier to the environment.


Ariel:

Okay. That makes sense. In addition to changing the type of laundry soap that you're using, are there other ways to greenify your laundry routine?

Erica:

Yeah. I mean, people that have access and this is how I grew up telling my age. If you had the laundry line, my grandmother had a laundry line in her backyard and so she had a dryer, but she rarely used it. Unless it was freezing cold, that clothing was hung up on the line. And so that's a great way to be a little bit greener and a little bit healthier too.



Ariel:

Well and if also too, if someone isn't ready to greenify their entire cleaning routine, where would you suggest that they start?


Erica:

I would say, just start with a general cleaner or multipurpose cleaner, take baby steps to getting greener. Don't try to do it all because you'll be overwhelmed. And it's not necessary. People are like, “Well, I just bought all this Clorox.” Well, use it. You know what I mean? But just start to integrate some other greener products, it doesn't have to all happen tonight.


Ariel:

So true. What is one way that you think anyone can be more sustainable?


Erica:

I would say for us, in the last few months we started using glass for our multipurpose spray. And we do still have plastic because I have parents that say, “My kids use your products, but I'm not comfortable with them using glass in the bathroom.”


Ariel:

Okay.


Erica:

But we have glass and we have a lot of people and shout out to the West coast people because they were the ones who really pushed for the whole glass thing. So, we do have glass because glass is recyclable, you can upcycle with it. Glass literally can be back on the shelf in 30 days.


Ariel:

Wow! Are there any other products that you're looking to add to The Green Laundress anytime soon?


Erica:

We are. This year, we were hoping that we were going to add some dryer sheets. That still may happen maybe more Q1 of next year and we're also probably going to be adding a mopping solution.


Ariel:

Oh, cool! Where can everyone buy The Green Laundress?


Erica:

Oh yeah, absolutely. They can find us at www.thegreenlaundress.com. They can also find us on BLK + GRN, which is a great platform for black artisans that are working in the green space and for the people that are local in the DMV, Washington DC area, we will now be available at the Hunny Bunny Boutique on Capitol Hill starting next week.


Ariel:

Perfect. Thank you so much for joining us, Ms. Ahmed.


Erica:

Thank you. Thanks for having me. It's been fun.


Ariel:

Thank you so much for listening to The Sustainable Brown Girl Podcast. Be sure to subscribe and share it if you loved it and leave a review. You can find us on Instagram @sustainablebrowngirl and check out our Facebook community, we would love to have you there. Until next time, let's continue to make healthy choices for the health of our planet and the health of our bodies. Thanks for listening.