How North Coast Organics turned a stinky date into a business
Nathan Morin once went 12 years without wearing deodorant. An energetic 33-year-old with silvering black hair, the founder and CEO of North Coast Organics practices a muscular form of veganism, avoiding the artificial chemicals lurking in most antiperspirants. He says he did fine without them until a muggy summer night two years ago, when he biked to a dinner date from his apartment in Logan Square. “I showed up,” he says, “and realized I did not smell too fresh.”
Morin went looking for a natural deodorant he liked, but couldn’t find one that was USDA-certified organic. So he started making his own, mixing cold-pressed coconut oil with essential oils like lavender. Initially, Morin never considered selling his concoction, but when he offered to hand over the recipe to an organic soap company, they suggested he turn it into a business.
North Coast Organics was born, and the timing was good. In 2012, U.S. sales of natural deodorant jumped 8 percent, to more than $250 million. Analysts predict strong continued growth, pointing to rising consumer unease over chemical antiperspirants’ perceived health risks, and recent calls for stricter oversight. In March, big reforms to the FDA’s regulation of personal care products were introduced in Congress. They’d be the first significant change to deodorant regulations since 1938.
The rising tide has lifted North Coast’s all-natural boat. After less than a year on the market, Morin wholesales to 14 boutique retailers in five states. He sold 660 sticks of deodorant in the first quarter of 2013, a 250 percent increase over the quarter before. That kind of growth, which has forced him to lease a new production facility, would put him on pace to top $145,000 in sales this year. But the growing market may be attracting some formidable competition, as consumer-product giants eye organics.
“Brands are looking to get in on the nontoxic personal care space to stay ahead of legislation,” says Jessica Rubino, Deputy Editor at market-research firm New Hope Natural Media. In August, Johnson & Johnson announced plans to remove several potentially harmful chemicals, including formaldehyde, from its product lines. “Even if updated cosmetics safety legislation does not pass, companies are starting to think more about their safety and sustainability practices and adjusting their businesses,” Rubino says.
But so far, no major brand offers deodorant that’s certified organic. “Unfortunately, companies can put the word ‘natural’ on nearly anything. It’s just PR,” says Margie Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. The tightly-regulated USDA Organic seal is the industry’s “gold standard,” she says; it requires the use of ingredients on a federally approved list. North Coast is racing to get that certification before other brands beat them to the punch.
“I’m fearful every day that I’m going to walk into the store and see a major brand with an organic certification on it,” Morin says, predicting that he’ll finish the certification process in May. “The longer we have the only USDA certification on the shelf, the more hands this is going to get into.”
Even with the certification, Morin will still have to prove his products stop the stench. “Consumers won’t buy a product — regardless of how natural it is — if it doesn’t work,” says Rubino. “Consumers are very skeptical and need to be assured when it comes to this product type especially.”
Morin takes the challenge seriously. He did seven months of product testing, distributing test batches and pestering his subjects to return detailed feedback surveys. After finding a winning formula, he scrutinized competitors’ branding. “It stuck out how uniform everything was — lots of pink flowers,” he says. “So I decided to put a skull on my product.”
His first deodorant line, Death By Lavender, remains North Coast’s top seller, accounting for more than half of total sales. Morin has poured the profits, along with over $10,000 of his own money, into expanding the business. He’s rolled out a men’s deodorant, Revolver, and two lip balms. Since North Coast’s first sale to Logan Square’s Dill Pickle Co-op in June, they’ve expanded wholesales to nine Chicago retailers, and five others across the country.
At the Dill Pickle, Morin’s products have built a cult following. “We have about 20 lines of organic deodorant, but his does by far the best,” says Jennifer Lynne Le Vine, the co-op’s health and wellness associate, who says she orders 75 to 95 percent more units from North Coast than any other distributor.
North Coast’s online sales, which account for about 60 percent of revenue, often come from organic converts who’ve long searched for an effective natural deodorant. “I’ve tried other ones — quite a few — but this one’s the best,” says Lisa Sedita, a youth services librarian in Montclair, NJ, who discovered Death By Lavender on a vegan blog.
As North Coast grows, Morin is adamant that he won’t compromise on his strictly vegan, organic ingredients — he uses extra-virgin cold-pressed coconut oil as a base, while several big natural brands use propanediol, a corn-derived chemical that’s also used as an engine coolant base. But on the business side, he’s not afraid of moving beyond boutique retailers.
“It’s all about getting this into the hands of customers,” Morin says. “I’d love it if you walked down the aisle at Target and saw a big, beautiful display for North Coast Organics.”
Photo by Sara Mays