Ware's Gillie Roberts on Retail, Sustainability, and the Uselessness of Coconut Oil.

Interview by Jefferson Ellison, done in Partnership w/ AVLtoday.

Modern retail is a tough business. A quick google search would show that even the brightest amongst brick-and-mortar stores are shutting their doors in the face of COVID-19. However, one of the businesses that continue to fight the good fight is Ware. Gillian Roberts known to her friends as “Gillie” is an NC native with a background in sustainability and a firm belief that saving the world can be easy and beautiful.

I first met Gillie a few months after she opened Ware and my first thought? “Wow, this place is way too cute to be in Asheville”. The colors, the branding, and of course the product was upscale without being pretentious and the host, Ms. Roberts, was informative and persuasive. I left with a new deodorant, a candle, and my eyes on a very nice kettle the next time my budget allowed. Ware is an intentional brand that advocates for better choices in how you shop and how you live. Ms. Roberts convinces me to make better choices on a daily basis, here’s hoping she does the same for you.

How long has Ware been open? Two years. I unlocked the doors and flipped the "come on in" sign on July 11th, 2018 around 1 PM.

Why did you decide to open such a large retail space? The timing was the most critical deciding factor. I definitely wanted something smaller, but more importantly, I wanted something in the heart of Downtown Asheville. 51 College St is what I came upon first that met those criteria. I won't say it was all that was available. I was a 26-year-old searching for commercial real estate without seeking out much guidance, there were probably better options to be had at the time. I would go about that process differently if I were to do it again.

Would you say that Ware is more of a retail/beauty/home passion or a sustainability passion?

Sustainability. I don't feel particularly passionate about aesthetics. I appreciate their utility and the ways in which they make my life more pleasant, but I'm not one to stand around talking about how something looks for long. Sustainability, on the other hand... you probably don't want to get me started.

How do you define sustainability? What is the ethical standard you and your brands are advocating for? I have a degree in sustainable development, so I use the international development understanding of the word. So for Ware, sustainability is at the intersection of environmental health, ethical treatment of people, and economic prosperity. In other words, products should do no harm to the planet or the people who make them while also making everyone money (equitably) every step of the way.

You recently told me that you’re getting rid of clothing. Why? For a number of related reasons. One could absolutely make the argument that the most sustainable lifestyle is one without new clothes at all, but if I subscribed to that as a feasible blanket approach, I wouldn't be attempting to sell anyone new products of any kind. There are *so* many cool companies working in the sustainable fashion arena. Because of the rise in popularity of sustainability as a concept, buzzword, and supply chain application, the sustainable apparel world is evolving RAPIDLY. Frankly, I don't have the bandwidth or financial wiggle room as a young business to do slow fashion justice. For now, I'm choosing to hone in on the home and personal care components of the store, as they are more forgiving industries for this little shop at its current phase of life.

You launched online during the pandemic. What was it like going from a physical focus to one that is digital? A whirlwind. Ware's brand is so very content-heavy, which is hard enough to convey face-to-face. Again, we're not selling products because they're attractive (at least not primarily), so we have to really lay out all of the features of a product to explain its value. I spent countless hours attempting to capture the spiels we would give in-store customers translated into product descriptions online. In person, people ask questions. Online, you have to try to answer any questions that might occur to folks, because the hurdle of reaching out directly to clarify is too big for most to be interested in. It's easier to open a new tab and find the product elsewhere. Basically, while I was mitigating financial damage to the brick and mortar, I was also learning how to build a whole new type of business. But I won't start down the "woe is me" path. Most businesses were navigating their own version of those waters - and still are. It just looks a little different for each industry.

Many people think that millennials are overly dramatic because we scream about turtles and force metal straws on everyone. Do you think we’ve gone too far? Why/Why not? Since you brought it up... my unpopular opinion is that the *most* sustainable way to drink liquids is with your mouth. That's kinda why it's there. Even reusable straws aren't necessary for the vast majority of the population, strictly speaking. I'm less concerned with the level of drama, and more concerned with where it's directed. It seems like you're alluding to the same concern. We could afford to raise the volume on the conversations surrounding climate change. It's getting urgent. Turtles are a bit of a distraction. (Sorry, Crush.) It's easy to focus on the turtles because they're cute and the steps to fix their particular problem looks easy on the surface. Straw stuck in turtle's nose? Ditch the straws. But, sadly, single-use straws are a symptom of a more complicated structure in which we have a large part of the global economy depending on the production (and consumptions) of single-use plastic products. The real problem the turtles face is environmental, economic, and political. (See: above definition of sustainability.)

You're a young, female business owner. Do you think your journey has been informed, changed, halted because of your age or your gender? Of course. I'm also white and straight, for further context. I'm benefitting from far more than I am struggling against. I'm in an industry (retail) that is female-dominated and in which it is helpful to be young, agile, and tapped in. I end up interacting with a lot of other women, which I really enjoy. Certainly, I get a fair amount of "will you tell your manager that..." and "who does x for you?" (The answer to the latter is usually, "I do.") One customer-facing puzzle that has been an on-going journey for me is creating a space that feels welcoming to people who don't share my identifiers or intersectionalities. How does this straight, white, ciswoman convey to everyone who is none of those things that her business is a safe space for them, too? I guess that's a million-dollar question - and one that a LOT of marketing professionals are working overtime on these days. But it's always on my mind. How do we speak to *not* ourselves? There are ways in which I do a decent job and many more ways in which I'm failing miserably.

Two years into WARE, what do you know now that you wish you knew then? In business, everything is negotiable - leases, margins, deadlines - and the sooner to start those negotiations, the better. And always buy more of that wall paint color than you think you need. Matching paint later is a headache.

If you could describe your personality in one product, what would it be? The Eco-Sponges. They seem hard and inflexible at first, but if you put one in warm water it softens up and becomes quite helpful in all sorts of applications. It's willing to get dirty to clean up its surroundings. It holds up to a lot of wear and tear, but eventually breaks down, like everything else in nature. It also wants to be left alone with plenty of fresh air surrounding it in between human interactions. How's that for a weird extended metaphor?

What is your favorite skincare product at Ware? The two face oils we have. I switch off between My Bare Skin and My Happy Skin depending on what my face is doing at the time, but these oils are liquid gold. (Spoiler alert: they contain NO coconut oil.)

LOL. Will you explain to the world why you hate coconut oil? To be fair, I don't hate coconut oil in all arenas. I hate that it was ever touted as the one-stop solution to all things health and beauty. In the natural world, diversity makes for a healthy and stable ecosystem. There's no single substance (aside from water) that our bodies want to be full of and covered in all the time. I cook and bake with coconut oil occasionally. I basically never put it on my skin. It's what dermatology calls comedogenic. Basically, the molecules in coconut oil are too big to be useful to your skin. With the same concerns of biodiversity in mind, it's environmentally problematic to be leaning so heavily on any crop. Large swaths of monocultures of genetically modified corn, wheat, sunflowers, etc, create a concerning dependence on a single plant that could truly be wiped off the face of the earth rather easily. I invite you to do some research on the disappearing bananas we all know and love. Scary stuff. Mix it up, people. For your skin and for the planet. We may need a separate interview to thoroughly break down coconut oil's issues. I don't feel like I've done it justice.