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An interview with co-founders Elise and Joanne of Aurum Skincare; consciously designed facial skincare tapped from the pristine subarctic forests of Northern Canada.


Why was it important for you to translate your love for the Yukon into a skincare business?

We both moved to the Yukon almost a decade ago from other parts of Canada, looking for a place to lay down roots and raise our young families. Honestly, it was hard not to fall in love with the stark beauty of the landscape and the frontier spirit of Dawson as a remote subarctic community. It really just gave us this sense we had arrived at the kind of quirky and elusive place we dreamed of calling home but up until then had only existed in our imaginations.

That’s not to say we didn’t have trouble adjusting to life in the far north. Our chronically sensitive skin refused to acclimatize to the harsh new climate and the resulting discomfort was an ongoing frustration for us both. Having grown up in Newfoundland, Joanne learned early on just how much wild foraging can contribute to a sense of well-being so we set out into the bush to look for plant-based solutions. It became a practice that really helped cement our friendship and afforded us the kind of immersive, kinetic introduction to the land we needed to feel at home in our new surroundings.

How does using natural products establish more compassion for the world we live in?

We believe the reality awaiting us in the coming decade requires a critical re-evaluation of our views on nature. The preferential shift that’s happening in the marketplace – towards more transparency and naturally derived goods – feels like it springs from an intuitive drive we all share, encouraging us to foster a more gracious connection with the natural world.

Open-eyed awareness of climate change is a powerful thing but the fear that comes with it can be paralyzing. Yes, we must make efforts to consume less and speak up for the kind of world we want to live in. Certainly, climate justice and the zero waste movements have their merits but the hard truth is: consumption shaming will only get us so far.

Interview with co-founders Elise and Joanne of Aurum Skincare for Merrymen Mag Vol 6
Precious As Gold - Merrymen Mag Vol 6

Without alternatives to bring us joy, we’re left vacillating between blame and guilt, denial and distraction. It’s unreasonable to think unchecked carbon emissions and a surplus of plastic waste are our only problems. We can’t hold out hope that technology and reusable containers will exempt us from having to develop a truly responsive approach to nature.

The problem modern society faces is that we don’t know how to value what we don’t understand. Sure, we can alleviate environmental concerns through conservation – but even after we’ve scaled back the excesses of capitalism, we’ll still need to know how to satiate our wants and needs sustainably. Creating joyous ways of doing this, by conscientiously tapping into the natural wealth we have left, will better facilitate living breathing compassion for the world around us.

It will give us back an emic understanding of nature that can’t be translated through scientific studies or fully realized on weekend camping trips and wilderness retreats. An understanding that breaks down the hierarchical worldview telling us we’re the dominant species; one that returns the sense of belonging we untethered along the way; one that reaffirms our dependence by reminding us where our sustenance rests and our greater responsibilities lay. Using natural products mindfully – cultivating a deep respect for where they came from, what they mean to you, and where they’re going next – is a daily practice we can all engage in to help turn our parasitic relationship with the earth into the symbiotic one we need.

Joanne Sherrard in Merrymen Magazine Vol 6 article Precious As Gold - Available on Amazon
Precious As Gold - Aurum Skincare feature in Merrymen Mag Volume 6

Where did your enthusiasm for birch bio-ferment begin?

Our adventures in ethnopharmacology turned up reference to a medicated skincare product marketed in Russia in the 1970s. Reportedly, birch water made up the base of a formula that was used to reduce skin inflammation and support wound healing. At the same time, we also became fascinated by traditional technologies used in Korean herbalism that feature controlled fermentation as a way to improve the efficacy of plant extracts.

The only problem being, at that time, we didn’t really know how to ferment anything other than alcohol or vinegar – not exactly what we wanted on our faces! So we reached out to an experienced biochemist who knew how to work with specific enzymes to produce targeted natural by-products. Since harvesting birch water doesn’t cause much of an environmental footprint and birch stands are so abundant in the north, we decided to approach a Whitehorse based program called Innovation & Entrepreneurship to help fund the design of a natural bio-fermentation process. Later that year, Yukon College and the Government of Yukon awarded us the Grand Prize for Innovation in Health and Wellness. Better yet, we finally managed to calm our stressed skin; giving us the confidence boost we needed to take Aurum to the indie beauty market.

How does your mission support you and your community?

We are humbled and incredibly grateful for the opportunity to raise our children on the traditional territory of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. I cringe saying that – knowing how grossly inadequate such phrases are when invoked as a politically correct facade in place of meaningful reconciliation – but in all honesty, the biodiversity they sustained in Northern Yukon and the unmatched quality of their stewardship are profoundly inspirational. There’s so much richness infused in Indigenous ways of knowing, doing and being; truths about the world that go unrecognized by Western science and its obsession with objectivity. Our hope is that by learning how to respectfully inhabit this small corner of Canada, some of that wisdom rubs off on us and deepens our relationship to the land for the better.

What are some breakthroughs you’ve had with developing your skincare business?

From the beginning, we knew the only business model that fit our goals would have to be locally based and as vertically integrated as possible. We never anticipated though just how much fight we would have to put up to keep it that way! The venture capitalists we’ve met over the years, claiming there is no choice but to outsource production and fulfillment, have been unreal. Don’t get us wrong – decisions based on cost, efficiency and scalability aren’t bad – but if those are the only values we set to guide us, we risk becoming nothing more than a hollowed out vessel used to make money.

Eventually we were left no other option but to bootstrap the business. Over the years, we’ve learned how to pace ourselves differently and we’ve become proficient in everything from ultra-filtration systems to set styling. The weight of that responsibility can be awkward to carry but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re able to hone our commitment to ethical ingredient sourcing, locality and sustainability. We get to share the wonder of Canada’s subarctic forests with our clients and be part of their journey as they find effective plant-based products to address their skincare woes. Mapping out new ways in which economic botany can contribute to the vibrancy and resilience of our local community thrills us to no end.

© 2021 Merrymen.

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