Unearthed Paints, founded early this year by husband and wife team architect Florian Speier and attorney Jessica Pfohl, offers paints, plasters, and wood finishes that are made without petrochemical ingredients. According to Pfohl, “When you buy a can of paint at your local hardware store, you are buying a product that has been highly processed and whose performance relies on a variety of chemical ingredients. Manufacturers don’t even dare to provide a full ingredient list.” Unearthed products are made with minimally processed natural ingredients such as clay, lime, and Italian marble and are biodegradable, vegan, and 100% VOC-free.
Unearthed is making a bold move by providing full ingredient disclosure for all of its products. While the industry standard is to keep paint formulas and their chemical ingredients top secret, Unearthed products come with a full ingredient list on the front of the labels. A risky move for a small start-up in an industry in which paint formulas are carefully guarded as trade secrets or consist of patented mixes? Maybe. But, it’s a risk that Unearthed is willing to take to remain true to its ideals. Not unfamiliar with the strategies companies employ to profit from their intellectual property, attorney Pfohl insists that these profits come at the consumer’s expense: “You can’t legitimately seek to patent knowledge that has belonged in the public domain for thousands of years. And you can’t expect consumers to believe you when you tell them your product is sustainable and non-toxic if you aren’t willing to tell them what’s in it.”
Speier, a LEED AP from Germany with offices in San Francisco and Boulder, was looking for the most sustainable paint available to use in the residences he designed. He came across Kreidezeit, a manufacturer in Germany that has been selling natural paints for almost 30 years. Unearthed is now marketing and distributing these natural paints, available in the U.S. for the first time. “It’s amazing that natural paints are not more well known. They’re not exactly a new invention,” says Speier. Unearthed’s mission is to help people rediscover the beauty and performance of paint made with what are essentially ancient recipes. “The recipes have been refined, but they are very similar to paints that people have been using around the world for thousands of years,” says Speier. Unearthed paints are zero-VOC, but Speier claims there is more to question of whether a paint is healthy and environmentally responsible. “There has been a lot of focus on the VOCs in paints in recent years, and everybody wants to talk about how their paints are zero-VOC. This singular focus leaves out a lot of important considerations, both from a health and environmental perspective,” says Speier. For example, there are other hazardous chemicals typically in paint that do not fall under the definition of a VOC and a “zero-VOC” says nothing about the amount of energy that went into production of the paint or the hazardous waste that was created. Unearthed paints and plasters are healthy and sustainable from a holistic perspective. And they look beautiful. “My clients demand unique finishes that bring beautiful, sophisticated colors to my modern designs. These paints and plasters fit the bill.” Unearthed offers a wide selection of paints that can be used to get unique looks that include a textured paint that mimics clay plaster but can be applied with a roller and a lime plaster that can be customized by mixing in ground walnut shells or glass pearls. They also offer a “pure solid” wood finish, which means that it contains absolutely no solvents.
Unearthed’s sustainable products are reason enough to be excited about this start-up, but Pfohl and Speier are also pioneering a unique program that aims to protect the environment and the self-determination of indigenous peoples. Unearthed is using business to channel funds to protect the rain forest and the human rights of its inhabitants. For every square foot of paint you purchase, Unearthed will purchase one square foot of the Chaco Forest in Paraguay. Unearthed donates this land to indigenous peoples who have responsible lived on the land for thousands of years. Per coat, every square foot of the walls in your home translates to rain forest that is protected from the land speculation that has taken place following Monsanto’s announcement that it had engineered a new GMO soy bean specifically for the local drought conditions. Unearthed works in partnership with the German nonprofit “Rettet den Regenwald e.V." and the local human rights organization "Iniciativa Amotocodie" on the project.
“We would like to see full ingredient disclosure become the norm in the paint industry. We would also like to get consumers to move beyond a focus on VOCs, to think more holistically about the sustainability of their paints. And we want to save the rain forest,” says Pfohl. You might expect that this list of lofty aspirations would keep the couple busy enough. “We are also working on a book about natural paints. This is important knowledge that needs to be preserved for future generations” says Pfohl. The book will cover the history of natural paints, their recipes, uses, and sustainability and will be co-authored by Gert Ziesemann, one of the world’s leading experts on natural paint and the founder of Kreidezeit. And the couple has a two-year-old and an organic vegetable garden.
The company just started taking preorders, which will ship to customers in late July. Products are available at www.unearthedpaints.com.
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