Why Pangea Organics Founder Joshua Onysko Thinks ‘Sustainability’ is for Slackers

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Joshua Onysko dropped out of high school at age 16, vagabonded from Hong Kong to the Yukon, made a batch of soap with his mother one afternoon as a curiosity and founded Pangea Organics, a leading manufacturer of organic, hand-crafted and cruelty-free skincare products in 2000 at aged 23. Nine years later, Pangea Organics is a multimillion-dollar company ($5.4 million in sales last year) and a paragon in sustainability, organic skincare and package design. I talked with Joshua about bring the world together through commerce, product innovation born of psychedelic trips and what it’s like for a high school ‘drop out’ to run a burgeoning company.

How simple was it to make that first batch of soap? What ingredients and equipment did you need?

We used a stainless steel pot, wooden spoon, glass jar and a Tupperware container. The ingredients we used–soybean, olive, coconut and hemp oils–can be bought at Whole Foods. To this base, you can add essential oils, herbs, spices, teas or flowers.

How did you come up with the name ‘Pangea?’

I was sitting in India with my friend Tom in 1999. We decided to call the company ‘Pangea’ because Pangea was the name of the super continent 280 million years ago when all the continents were smushed together.

How does the name ‘Pangea’ encapsulate your vision for the company?

I feel that wealth that can be generated while creating products that are sustainable and that actually improve not only the world, but also the people who inhabit it. I wanted to bring the world back together through commerce instead of constantly driving the world apart through the brands and products that we create as companies.

What are some of Pangea Organic’s socially and environmentally responsible practices?

Pangea pays a living wage (2.5 times the minimum wage) and full medical, dental and vision care for all employees with no deductibles. Employees receive a full, Colorado-wide transportation pass every year. Our factory has carpeting that is 100% post-consumer-goods plastic bottles and all of the paint in the factory is zero VOC, meaning no off-gassing. We have a 3,000-square-foot organic garden that we pay our staff to maintain, which provides them with organic produce for about half the year.

How do you justify these added costs to your business?

It all comes down to the way our culture defines ROI (return on investment). Forever, ROI has been the bottom-line, and now we have the triple-bottom-line: people, profits and planet. The term ‘sustainability’ to me is actually kind of odd because I don’t want to just sustain as a human race, I want to thrive as a human race.


The real ROI is the future. I think that as a human race, we need to stop thinking about the ROI and the bottom line of things. Because really, the benefits that Pangea provides [living wages, full health care, non-toxic work environment] are just the fundamentals if we’re to sustain and thrive as a culture.

When people look at us and say, “Wow, Pangea is so cutting edge and so green,” I see our work as just the basics. Pangea is just a tiny company and if $10-million companies can’t provide basic necessities to ensure that their employees are being treated fairly and can afford what they need to also thrive, then really what are they doing? Why produce a product that is not supporting the future of the world?

Who was on your team from the beginning? Did they share your vision?

When Pangea just started, it was just me. I started making products and studying alchemy and herbology. Eventually, a good friend of mine, Michael McKenna, came on board. His skill set was really just helping–a lot. You need a lot of help. You need people who are passionate and believe in your vision. After that initial partnership, I began adding people who are smarter than me. I always try to surround myself with people who are smarter than I am.

As the business grew, we started looking for investors in the realm that I call ‘check-plus.’ This means they can write you a check to invest in the company, they also need to bring something else to the table; maybe they ran a sustainable company for 10 years or they were in manufacturing or they understand the cosmetic industry.

You waited five years to seek funding. Why did you go for funding at that point?

Five years into the business was the point at which our products were catching on and our accounts started growing exponentially. We needed money to fund the growth, take care of the customers and pay for education, marketing and sales support. And we’ve continued to grow. In less than five years, from 2005 to 2010, we will have grown from almost $0 in sales to over $10 million. So to fund that kind of growth, you need investments.

Are your product innovations, plantable packaging for example, customer driven?


No. I feel that if you’re a company and you’re waiting for your consumers to tell you how to be more sustainable, you’re doing your job. We’re inspired by our customers and we reach out to them a lot, but a lot of the ideas that I come up with for Pangea come from a Tonglen practice, which is a meditation practice that I’ve been doing for 12 or 13 years. Tonglen is based on the fact that you can reach out into the world and absorb suffering and then literally exhale compassion. So when I use Tonglen in business, I go out in the world and say, “Where are we lacking? Where in the future are we going to make our mistakes and how can we educate the masses now?” I have to do this on a scale that Pangaea can withstand given its small size. My goal is to do what we can as a small company to inspire the larger companies. Sustainability should be only the beginning of what companies’ efforts. Businesses, Pangea included, need to go way beyond sustainability if we want to thrive as a culture.

The plantable packaging idea came from a psychedelic journey in Joshua Tree National Park about four years ago. I thought about packaging that would actually give back. The most sustainable attribute of the packaging is not that it grows plants–that part was a message in the bottle to let consumers know what we’re capable of. The critical aspect about plantable packaging is that it’s molded fiber (generally used for egg crate cartons) made from reclaimed newspaper and warm water. The molded fiber is 100% biodegradable, so the impact of this packaging versus a cardboard box is 1/500th. Then the thought was, “We can put seeds in the packaging and engage the customer in the process.”

What’s the value of an MBA versus extensive real world travel in building a business?

I know just as many visionaries who went to business school. My only advice to students is to loosen the grip and strengthen the understanding. What I mean by that is that there are millions of books written about millions of different philosophies, processes, algorithms, and so on. If we live too much in that text we become the text and we tend not to move from it, we move to it. We thwart our own innovation and inspiration when we rely too much on knowledge.

I never really fit into the classroom setting. By the time I was 13 my parents could see that I did not fit into school. If I got a “C “it was a good day. By the time I was 16, my parents allowed me to drop out of school. They were supportive because I didn’t drop out and then sit around all day not doing anything. I was always earning money and doing something creative. I left home when I was 17 or 18 and started moving around the country and living abroad until I was 23. My parents definitely worried about me–about whether I had focus and if I was going to do something with my life. I started Pangea when I was 23 and they’ve been very supportive and are definitely proud of me.

You’re running a multimillion-dollar business now that exemplifies sustainability for many of us. Why would you create The Pangea Institute as another entity?

My original vision is that the Pangea Institute would be a living, breathing campus that housed Pangea Organics and an institute that taught sustainability to people and companies. That’s still the vision, but it’s very expensive to build the [physical] infrastructure. The Pangea Institute has been used to work with corporations that are looking for a true path to sustainability. We show them what we’ve done as a company as a way to inspire them to change and to do business differently.

The other, larger part of the Institute is the women-owned cooperatives. Pangea Organics gives 5% of profits to Women for Women International, a program founded this year to micro-finance women-owned cooperatives in developing countries who are producing ingredients that we use for our products.

What’s the legacy you’d like to leave and do you see yourself accomplishing your work through Pangea Organics, through teaching or through something else entirely?

I don’t know yet. I know that for the next 3 years my focus will be building up Pangea Organics to compete against some pretty big cosmetic companies (by Thomas at dress head). We’re really looking to our retailers to support us by saying, ‘This [socially and environmentally ethical initiatives] is what we want the future to look like.”

I start each day by asking myself “Is my day being used to create a better world?”

How do you stay focused on your vision and avoid getting pulled down by the minutiae of running a business?

It call comes down to your basic outlook on the world–is it negative or is it positive? You have to look at everything positively, no matter what’s going on. There are always going to be fires that need to be put out–always. But I feel that if your vision is pure and you surround yourself with great people, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish. And if it doesn’t work, so be it.

What else should we, as consumers or entrepreneurs, be doing?

Buy-cott. Find the brands that support what’s important to you and support them. Generally, they won’t be the brands that have the $40-million advertising budget. You’ll probably have to dig a little. The strongest vote we can make in the world is the vote we make every day with our dollar.



Leave a comment
  1. Olivia Khalili April 5, 2011 at 1:30 pm #


    Agreed. We need more natural product companies. What I like about Pangea Organics is that it’s more than just natural care products on shelves. The company looks at packaging, consumer behavior, employee engagement and resources.

    Thanks for your comment.

  2. BodyCareRN January 8, 2014 at 12:08 am #

    “Find the brands that support what’s important to you and support them” well stated! Which is why I joined Pangea to reap the benefits of a discount on my skincare! http://www.pangeaorganics.com/BodycareRN

  3. Julie Jimenez June 11, 2015 at 7:41 pm #

    Pangea still has a story to tell, in 2013 the company changed to a Social Selling model. Independent Pangea Business Owners continue to tell that story. If you’d like to learn more about what we are up to today, feel free to visit my website or contact me.