Kristian Henderson On Supporting Clean, Black-Owned Brands

Post production supervisor By Adaeze Elechi
Post production supervisor
Adaeze Elechi is the post production supervisor at mindbodygreen. She is also a filmmaker, a Logan Nonfiction Fellow, and the author of Harmattan (a collection of poems and short stories that explore loss, healing, and infinite love).
Making History: Dr. Kristian Henderson on mindbodygreen

Image by mbg Creative x Sloane Dakota Tucker / Contributor

In our series Making History, we're talking to people who are leading the charge to bring much-needed diversity to wellness. They're sharing with us the work that they do, highlighting the voices that need to be heard and telling us what we as a wellness community aren't talking about—but should be. This week, we're talking to Kristian Henderson, DrPH, professor of public health at George Washington University, a natural lifestyle enthusiast, and the founder of BLK+GRN, an all-natural marketplace by all-black artisans. Henderson shares about ways we can support nontoxic lifestyles and build community through being conscious consumers.

How and why did you create BLK+GRN?

A couple of things were all magically happening at the same time. My background is in public health, and I worked in hospital administration. My research interest has always been health disparity, particularly looking at black women and why our health outcomes seem to be worse even when you control for things like age, insurance, and income. It was challenging to me, and I wanted to figure out what was happening. Then I came across this emerging body of literature looking at the environmental risks that are in our beauty care products and how that might be a culprit for some of the things that black women are suffering from, like fibroids or fertility issues. 

At the same time, I just happened to be going on my own personal wellness journey, trying to be more conscientious about what I was eating, the products I was using, and moving my body. So I said, I want to do an even better job at selecting products that are natural and organic.

I started BLK+GRN with the goal of trying to make it easier for people to shop with their values of trying to support black-owned brands while also trying to find natural and green brands. So, it has the health imperative and the economic imperative. It's really trying to solve a couple of problems at the same time.

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Can you talk about some issues black women are vulnerable to in connection to non-green products?

There are a couple of studies that have shown a handful of ingredients on our toxic 20 list that are directly connected to outcomes with women. Fibroids, early-onset puberty, and issues with fertility are the biggest ones. These have all been associated with ongoing exposure to certain chemicals. What's particularly troubling is that we have found that these ingredients are more likely to be in products that are marketed to black women because black women spend more on personal care products than anyone else. That's the reason we have to be more conscientious about our health.

I never grew up reading the back of my bottles, and it wasn't until I became an adult that I started reading the labels of my beauty products. But for a lot of people, it just feels like gibberish, and they don't know what this stuff means. Sometimes one ingredient can go by 30 different names. So even if you learn to look out for sulfates, do you know the 30 names for sulfates? It might be in there and you don't even recognize it.

Is there a way to combat this?

Well, there are a lot of folks right now who are coming to D.C. and trying to push policymakers to put more regulation around the chemicals that we're using and have more transparency. 

A lot of other countries have done this. That's one of the reasons we love sourcing products from other places. So we have some amazing products from South Africa, Canada, and France, all made by black women. The rules in those countries are so much more stringent than our rules that they're just naturally greener products.

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Buying black is at the forefront of your company, right alongside buying clean. Can you talk about the importance of buying black and why it's significant to your mission?

Supporting black businesses is important because that's the way communities grow and sustain. Black-owned businesses are more likely to hire other black people. That's a way you can increase the employment rate. When employment is higher, you tend to have a better educational outcome. It all starts the trend of building and supporting the community.

Being a conscientious consumer, in general, is really important. Every time I spend money, I'm deciding what I invest in. So if I say I believe in black women entrepreneurs, if I say I believe in not supporting child labor, if I say I believe in making sure that things are ethically sourced, then the question is: Would the way I spend my money also reflect those same belief systems?

I also see that investment beyond the product I'm purchasing. Not only do you get the product, but you're investing in someone else's dreams. I bring our artisans to our events. Oftentimes, they'll bring their children, and it really puts a face on it. You see how it's building this family.

You recently spoke about changing the mindset toward black-made things. Can you talk more about that?

There is a stigma sometimes associated with black-owned products. And I have found that some of my artisans won't even say that they're black-owned out of fear of how people will automatically assume that their product is less than or not as good as someone else's.

We're really particular about the products we curate. Because at the end of the day, as much as people want to buy black-owned and they want natural products, if the products don't work, or aren’t truly green, they'll stop using them. We want to show that there are thousands of black-owned products that are high quality. You don't have to compromise your health, your standards, or your values.

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For someone looking to try going nontoxic but who might be a bit intimidated, what are some easy ways they can start transitioning to clean products?

So, there are two different strategies. The first strategy is to start with products that you're already unhappy with. For example, you don't have a deodorant that you already love, or you aren't really attached to your toothpaste. Any time you're looking for something new, try looking for something clean. It's usually easier to switch when you're unsatisfied with the conventional commercial option versus trying to start by taking away something that you feel really tied to.

Another way to look at it is where do you get the most bang for your buck? I like to encourage everyone to get rid of dryer sheets and fabric softeners because they're really toxic and have a lot of carcinogens in them and they're bad for the environment. Wool dryer balls, which we sell on our site, are a cheap alternative. They're reusable and you can put a couple of drops of essential oils on them, which means now your clothes will smell good. They make your dryer time shorter because they're moving the clothes around more efficiently, which saves energy. They're all-around such an easy switch for people to make. 

I always tell people to think about how things that are touching a lot of your body are going to be absorbed into your skin. Remind yourself of that, then start trying to decrease the things you're rubbing on your body, that are touching a lot of your body. And try to reduce the toxic chemicals in those products as well.

BLK+GRN is a place to get clean, green products. But it's also a platform that's raising awareness about health and well-being. Can you share more about the work you're doing through your various platforms?

The products are just one piece of the conversation. Our goal, through our blog, our social media, podcast, and events, is to help create a lifestyle around wellness for black women. We really want to create an entire conversation. We're just really trying to create a community of women who want to vibrate higher and they're looking for other people to vibrate higher with.

The message a lot of black women get from society–and even from our families to a large extent–is that you have to be a strong black woman. That strength often looks like everything that is the opposite of wellness: putting other people before yourself, pushing yourself even when you need a break, working a job that you hate just for appearances. It's all of these really damaging things that we've associated with this idea of strength. 

We have to change the narrative and say, black women are going to be well, too. Black women are going to be happy, too. Black women can find peace and joy, too. And we're providing some tools for that.

And do you want your passion for wellness to change the world? Become A Functional Nutrition Coach! Enroll today to join our upcoming live office hours.

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