Azora Zoe Paknad might just have the Midas touch: she turns everything from beige to gold.
When she founded Goldune, the anti-entrepreneur had one goal in mind: transform the dominant and exclusive narrative about sustainability into one that was exciting and inclusive.
Goldune is a retail marketplace that brings together the best sustainable brands into one place. Full of unique products provided by diverse merchants, Goldune is slowly building a new community centered on helping planet Earth.
Not your average entrepreneur
In 2020, Azora was just wrapping up a long tenure with the home and kitchen ecommerce company Food52. She’d burnt out riding the corporate merry-go-round and decided it was time for a sabbatical of sorts. So she quit her job, sublet her New York City apartment, and put all of her possessions into storage. She was preparing to travel the world, starting in Italy. We can predict how this fantasy ended—with Azora moving back in with her parents, and her life of leisure turning into a life of lockdown.
“I dramatically changed my life because I didn't know that 2020 was going to change it for me. And I found myself unemployed and living with my parents around like May or June of 2020. And I really didn't want to start a company. That was like not at all what I wanted to do.”
My parents are both serial entrepreneurs, so I as much as like we get this vibe from the media, even like on pods, right, of like the cult of the female founder, like founders who are amazing and glossy and perfect and aspirational and like influencers or celebrities in their own right. I had seen the other side of that, which is like what it actually feels like to stress about keeping the lights on, or like being able to run payroll, or not paying yourself for years and years and years and years.
Azora continued, “And I'd seen them have big successes, and I'd also seen them have to close the doors on ideas or companies that started. So I was like anti-starting a business...I wouldn't have done it if I didn't have a burning idea or need. But I did. Instead of honoring the idea, I was punching it down for a long time. And finally, eventually it was like, OK. Instead of thinking about it and feeling the internal anguish about it, why don't I just spend the time I'm spending stressing about it, doing it? And maybe I could do a good job.”
Sustainability is a spectrum
First off, what’s the definition of sustainable? If you’re hoping for a neat answer tied up with an eco-friendly bow, we apologize. Azora says there isn’t one true meaning. In fact, sometimes things that seem earth-friendly at the outset can end up being harmful over time. But for Goldune, sustainability means thinking about things like the fact that while glass is more sustainable to make than plastic, it’s much less earth-friendly to ship.
“I like to think of sustainability as a spectrum. And that was one of the big changes we made during Earth Month was we rolled out a sustainability hub so we could really clearly define what it meant in the context of every single product on the site. But also part of that was kind of admitting that people really want to make sustainability and a lot of other things binary. They really want to think of things as black or white, or ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the environment, in air quotes.”
Azora went on, “And the reality is that there's so much nuance and there's so much complexity that we don't always know. A lot of times we don't know until after the fact or after we measure the impact of something that has happened in the past. And there's so many variables at play. I think we're very quick to focus on packaging and to say something like plastic: bad. Glass: good. And I mean, this might be played out, lots of people probably know this at this point so forgive the redundancy. But glass is heavier than plastic. So glass is actually oftentimes way more carbon intensive to ship. It's actually in many ways worse for the environment because plane and jet fuel is typically worse for the atmosphere, right.
But those are different variables, like that's apples and oranges. So the emissions that happen in the sky when you ship something on a plane are very different from the realities of what happens when plastic builds up or the fact that plastic doesn't decompose, or that we don't know how to get rid of it. Those are different issues.”
Dominant sustainability narratives aren’t approachable
Eco-friendly or not, shopping won’t solve the global climate crisis. But with commerce playing a bigger role than ever in our lives, Azora realized that small changes really do add up.
She saw two major roadblocks to sustainability. The first was that being sustainable was largely the purview of wealthy individuals with excessive time and money on their hands. The second was that most sustainable products were crunchy and dull. Azora thought it was past time to change both.
“I started to feel the more involved I got in the sustainability world that there were kind of like two dominant narratives, or two sides of the aisle that were getting a lot of play, or at least seemed to really dominate the space and the conversation about sustainability.
And one of them was this archetype of a super thin white influencer who has a very aspirational, and using quotes, ‘aspirational’ beige house and wears $800 pants. And I feel like I don't know about you, but I feel inundated by that point of view and by that content everywhere I go.
And it's not me. It will never be me. And I don't know anyone who it will be. And those points of view can exist. But I was tired of that running the show...Especially just because what a privilege it is not just financially to be able to afford to shop or change stuff out in your home, but even more so I think just having the emotional or mental bandwidth to be able to make a decision like that or to even care.”
“To even have space to give a shit about what kind of sponge you buy or compost is a huge privilege, right? When for most of time, humans have just been worried about like water, shelter, food, family.”
Azora continued, “So especially in 2020 for me, I think a lot of this was not just this concept, but timing. Thinking about the U.S. structural inequity and inequalities and thinking like, OK. That zero waste movement is not accessible to folks who don't have enormous amounts of privilege, just socioeconomically, like race privilege, white privilege, gender privilege. It just didn't feel fair.”
Goldune is pure fun: no shame allowed
The other issue with dominant sustainability narratives is that they can be more judgy than the characters from the movie Mean Girls. Azora knew that there was something wrong with the fact that people felt judged or shunned when they weren’t 100% picture-perfectly sustainable. But you don’t deserve to go to jail if you forget to recycle something. Azora believes that true and lasting sustainability will only happen when people feel excited about it.
“That really got me thinking about, OK. What would it look like to create a place where you could obviously find everything you needed and have it be sustainable, but where you felt welcome and not shamed, and not judged, where things were warm. And most importantly, like less granola.”
Azora explained, “Like, not everything needs to be made out of hemp or beige. It's 2021. Design can catch up - it's OK for a sustainable product to look as good as an unsustainable product, right? Like we need that now if we need everybody to get excited about lifestyle changes, excited about shopping sustainably or making those shifts, we need to make them accessible. We need to make them fun. And we need to make them free of judgment and shame.
Because I just don't believe in that as a motivator. I don't think that makes people feel good. And I don't think that's going to solve - I mean, to be very clear, no shopping will solve the climate crisis. But if we need people to start slowly making changes, we need to make those changes fun and accessible.”
The importance of a one-stop shopping experience
In addition to sourcing products that feel inclusive and attractive (no “save the turtles” merchandise allowed), Goldune takes the important step of combining products in one place. Azora has always loved to scour the internet in search of new sustainable brands and products. But before she started Goldune, friends who used to ask her for product recommendations didn’t like the complexity or excess packaging that came from ordering goods across multiple sites. A one-stop shop solves that problem.
“People would sort of lose interest after a certain amount because you don't want to check out from seven different amazing DTC brands. Like you don't want to pay shipping seven times, you don’t want to be taxed seven times. You just want to do it all in one place.”
“And I feel like the success of clean beauty retailers is that they put it all in one place. And so, you know that if you're obsessed with clean beauty—which is its own world and its own beast and obviously has some problematic stuff of its own to work through—but if you aren't a Sephora person and you're a Credo person, you know you can go there. And you know you can add everything to cart in one go. And that's an amazing experience, right?”
Azora explained, “Like, if you have questions, you can talk to someone, they can talk to you through the entire assortment. They can tell you which eye cream is for you. And I was like, OK, clean beauty is really easy. That's a really nice niche. People are into that. But when it came to like, OK, what countertop spray, what sponge, like what laundry detergent, I lost everyone...And as much as I think it would be fun to launch like a single innovative product and have that whole experience, it's not what I felt like was missing, at least for me.
Instead, I felt like there were so many people who had done a good job of that. So many people who were experts in their field or did their homework or spent eight years developing something really thoughtfully. And I needed to pull them into one place so that more than more people could discover them, hopefully. And also they just became more accessible and hopefully more fun to add to cart.”
The sustainability is in the details
For a business like Goldune, it comes down to sweating the small stuff. Before adding a new product to Goldune’s collection, Azora asks vendors to fill out a detailed questionnaire so that product descriptions are as accurate and honest as possible. If something doesn’t meet her exacting standards, such as using bubble wrap in the packaging, she lets her shoppers know - and seeks to change it.
“I know this is really hard, especially if you use a wholesale marketplace like Faire or something like that, where you're going through another intermediary. But if you can ask a ton of questions and you can have everyone answer the same questions - and I don't mean just like a few in an email, but I mean like literally a typeform full of them, I think that's an amazing start to actually really knowing.”
“I want to feel like I'm a partner in making the products when I put a product on our site. I want to know so much about it. I want to know who the founders are. Hopefully I've talked to them on the phone. A lot of times that's not possible, and that's fine. But I'd like to get as close to being actual pals as I can.”
Azora continued, “And I know that's hard to scale, and right now we're at like 75 merchants and probably like 400 SKUs, so it's only going to get harder. Then from that info, I know that info and I adjust it, and I sit down, I write the product description. And I don't spend too much time on it. I explain everything like I would to a friend. It's super casual, it's very honest.
If something, for example, comes in bubble wrap, which is only like two products on the site, I’m really trying to get rid of that. But if it needs to because it is glass for some reason, we'll say we don't love that this comes in bubble wrap. Like full disclosure, it's not great, and it's not for us, and we're going to try to phase it out. And if we can't phase it out, we'll pull it. And that's maybe more info than the customer needs, but it's very honest.”
Businesses need to walk the walk
Goldune may be one of the frontrunners in the sustainability space, but Azora hopes that five years from now more businesses will be authentically committed to things like reusable packaging and lowering or offsetting emissions. Only by taking significant and collective action can we begin to combat the climate crisis and our culture of waste.
“I do think that there are things that businesses could/can/should do. I think that in the future there's going to be kind of a—this is again speculation—like a schism between the people who actually walk the walk and then the people who are just talking the talk. And the difference is more than packaging, though packaging is like the first frontier.”
Azora goes on to explain, “And I feel like we're seeing that with a lot of folks who are focused on packaging. There's some really, really interesting solutions that are coming out around reusable packaging. And I think the brand is called Beukes, I don't know how to pronounce it. But reusable packaging or packaging you return, or even in some cases brands like the Wally Shop where you fill something up, you use it, you return the canister or the jar that you got your flour or your oats in, along with like brick and mortar refilleries.
So I think that there's like all of this, I think both infrastructure, but also these brands coming to fill this white space. And I hope that like five years from now all of the brands that you shop and all of the folks that you know are using those tools, because that feels like a great start. But I do think that it's more than that.
It comes down to emissions. I also think it's very popular to offset your emissions. And I'm hoping that in coming years we have maybe a better conversation globally around what it means, and what a carbon offset is, and why they're not all created equal. And I think the offsets are nice, but like lowering emissions is still more important than throwing money at the problem. Same with plastic neutrality. And I could go on and on about that for one hundred years, but I will try to not.”
Planet G is a sustainable community in action
You can’t buy community. You have to build it. Goldune has never done paid advertising of any kind. That means that the roots of Goldune are growing slow but strong. By recently launching the community resource site Planet G, Azora hopes to allow the conversation about sustainability to grow beyond a two way conversation between her and her customers.
“So we ended up for Earth Month, just launching yesterday, a community zone, like a 'members’ only' community group called Planet G.”
“So it's an extension of our universe, like actually the universe itself now, as opposed to just us writing, like actually a little home for everyone. And I'm beyond excited, because now people can actually have a conversation. And to me it feels like such an extension of the mission, right. Which, the mission wasn't let's sell stuff. It was let's make sustainability less beige.”
Azora explained, “I want to welcome millions of people into this conversation and this POV on sustainability. And whether that happens through sales or through community building, that's great. Those things will all self-correct in the end. But for me, like five years from now I want to have gotten millions of people psyched about that. I want them to feel included and seen and like a part of that community, and like they have value to add, and they're excited, and they know how they're engaging with the climate crisis, and they know their place in that space and they feel good about it and joyful and welcomed. And so the Facebook group is that to me, I'm super excited about it.”
At the end of the day, when you hear the word “home” you probably picture your cozy kitchen or your favorite armchair. But the truth is that we all share the same home - our planet Earth.
There are finite ways that both businesses and individuals can be more sustainable. As consumers, the first line of defense isn’t smart shopping - it’s self-education. Azora urges people to read a book, listen to a podcast, follow a newsletter, and stay engaged.
After all, there’s far more to sustainability than buying bamboo toilet paper. Azora can't emphasize that enough.
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