How one woman’s medical journey turned PiperWai into a clean-living brand

19 June 2023 | By Justin Kirkland, Copywriter

PiperWai products

Welcome to The Sprout, a series that explores the ways businesses are working toward a more-sustainable future.

Back in 2014, while studying at Columbia Business School, Sarah Ribner spent a good chunk of her time in a community kitchen. She and a friend would rent the kitchen by the hour to work on a recipe they believed would change lives. But this was no chocolate lava cake – Ribner was crafting something she hoped would benefit the whole body: a clean deodorant.

That was the beginning of PiperWai. Over nearly 10 years, the personal hygiene brand has expanded to include body washes, underarm oils and deodorant creams. Meanwhile, Ribner, who co-founded the company and serves as CEO, has maintained the importance that PiperWai remain an innovative, clean ingredient–focused brand. As the company has expanded their digital selling efforts, PiperWai has joined Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator (BBA) to grow the brand’s reach online with the hopes of serving all types of people trying to remedy the same issue that inspired Ribner to create the company.

Putting the emphasis on “clean”

Faced with a series of unexplained health challenges, Ribner was at a loss—that is, until she committed to giving a more holistic approach a chance. “Nothing was really working for me until I kind of took control over my own health,” she says. She recalls switching up everything from her diet to personal care and cleaning products – anything that led with clean ingredients over chemically based solutions. As it turned out, Ribner discovered what worked best for her was a lifestyle involving more naturally made products.

“The one thing that I found was hardest to make the switch on was deodorant,” she remembers. “It was a small part of the daily routine that I never really thought much about. But the more I was doing research, the more I realised it was one of the most chemically based products that we put on our bodies.” From clogged pores to allergic reactions, a number of studies have suggested deodorant and antiperspirants can introduce an accumulation of materials from aluminium to parabens into users’ bodies.1 That’s where the innovation started.

The solution came in the form of PiperWai’s signature product, made right in the community kitchen: the first natural deodorant to use activated charcoal to help combat odour while also absorbing wetness. Some key values went into the creation of the product, long before the company even had a name. The deodorant had to be vegan and cruelty-free (no animal testing). And of course, as PiperWai’s site states, the product wouldn’t “contain common pollutants or toxic ingredients that harm the environment or our bodies.”

During the research and development phase, Ribner tested the product, first on herself and then other friends and family. She discovered that a lot of people beyond her personal circle were seeking out a deodorant that ditched chemicals and instead relied on natural ingredients. “The ability to take control over your own health really is a power move,” she says. “It’s for anyone.”

Ribner wanted to meet the demand, which is where the community kitchen came into play – while in the kitchen, Ribner produced about 500 units a month. Eventually, that wasn’t enough either. A year after kicking off the creative process, she officially launched the company, which appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank, and from there, the brand had a new problem: How do you scale this deeply personal product birthed out of a kitchen and turn it into a growing company?

Growing PiperWai into an online player

As PiperWai initially expanded, it used the same kinds of marketing tactics that many young businesses deploy: word-of-mouth campaigns, micro-influencers and sales through small local retailers. That level of exposure fit well with the handcrafted manufacturing happening behind the scenes, too. But after exposure on television, it was harder for PiperWai to keep up with demand. The brand wanted to find a distributor that could help scale manufacturing without compromising delivery times and the mission to ship with sustainable packaging. Ribner remembers those manufacturing pain points being particularly difficult, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But for scaling and business growth, PiperWai began selling products on Amazon in 2017. “That was a pretty natural decision because the category lends itself to Amazon. It’s a daily product,” Ribner notes. “And we want to make sure that our customers who want the convenience of purchasing other items have that option for convenience.” PiperWai immediately began testing and learning around their Amazon storefront and the messaging found there, finding success through use of Stores and Sponsored Display. It was at Amazon that PiperWai also discovered the opportunity to work with Amazon’s BBA programme.

As a Black-owned business, PiperWai was able to take advantage of everything from business coaching to marketing and advertising support from the BBA. “Amazon BBA has been really, really helpful for us. We have an amazing account manager they connected us with, and then through that programme, I’ve been able to learn about all the new tools that are available to sellers – everything from partnering with influencers to even just like marketing literacy and better understanding how we can optimise,” Ribner says. “There’s also a programme where we can get early feedback on new products. That’s been huge, especially as a small business. We don’t launch new products very often.” In the decade since that initial deodorant launch, PiperWai has exploded: Now sold on Amazon and in several stores across the US and Canada, the brand has expanded into several different hygiene products and thrives as a leader in the natural deodorant space.

Turning attention to sustainability

As PiperWai has grown, so has its mission. After expanding into a company that ships products across the U.S. and beyond, Ribner started thinking about the carbon footprint they’re leaving behind. Keeping the body clean is Step 1; Step 2 is ensuring that the earth remains just as pristine.

“A lot of the trending things now, like clean ingredients and sustainable packaging, were things we put forward and always what we wanted to do,” Ribner says. “We didn’t do it because we saw it in a report or because it was trending in the industry. It was core to our brand.”

According to the 2023 Higher Impact report from Amazon Ads and Environics Research, 66% of consumers are actively seeking out brands that are sustainable in their business practices. PiperWai doesn’t just want the product itself to do the minimum; the ideal situation is that from production to delivery, a PiperWai product is one that does the least amount of harm to the earth. “We’re constantly thinking, ‘How can we continue to meet that need?’ because it’s never going to be perfect. Even with glass, it’s heavier to ship, so it has a higher environmental burden,” she explains. “And when it’s produced, depending on where it’s produced, it actually has a much higher environmental footprint than if you’re producing recycled plastic products or aluminium products. We’ve tried to adapt as the industry changes.”

As PiperWai comes upon its 10th year in business, Ribner’s advice to her younger self is a valuable lesson for any business owner wading into an industry that might seem daunting. “I would say, lean into your intuition more because… when I first started the business, I just saw an opportunity and niche and went for it. I think you see a lot of brands today that they go and raise a lot of money, and they have a ton of support when they go to market. We didn’t have any of that,” she says with a smile. “We saw a good opportunity. There’s demand for it, and we’re capturing that demand. And so you just kind of have to rely on inner guidance and intuition, as wild as that sounds.”