Interview with Jess Hunt-Ralston, Little Otter Skincare

Header image for the interview with Jess Hunt-Ralston of Little Otter Skincare

Can you tell us a little bit about what has led you to this point?

I grew up on a farm in North Georgia surrounded by books and forests and a menagerie of animals. After that, I studied industrial design at Georgia Tech and began working there in communications for civil and environmental engineering — learning about the science and ecology of our environment, in parallel with how the things we buy are made and the effects of consumption on our planet.

My husband, Chad, and I had just met. We began traveling as often as we could and bought an old bungalow in the heart of Atlanta, in a little neighborhood called Poncey-Highland. I started a blog to share the story of the small steps we were taking together toward a more sustainable life. A few years later, I took up writing over at Where With Elle and kept working on how to do more with less — mend my own clothes, build and repair things around the house, shop the bulk grocery section, travel lighter, make my own cleaning supplies and skin care.

I set a high mark for the skin care products I wanted to use every day but couldn’t find in stores — highly effective, affordable, organic and all-natural, ethical and sustainable, cruelty-free, with less plastic and less waste. I realized I could make these products on my own, and Chad realized we could also make them more accessible to people and give back 10% of net revenue to clean water work — so we decided to share Little Otter with the world.

Image of founder, Jess Hunt-Ralston, in a bathtub full of Little Otter product boxes

Tell us more about Little Otter and the inspiration behind it.

Little Otter coalesced out of research, reading and long conversations with my husband about how to change an industry and shift the status quo from a plastic-centric, linear model based on quarterly earnings, to a sustainable circular model that understands that all things are intersectional and inter-related. We are setting out to create the “Patagonia” of high quality skin care, if you will.

Our lip balms come in compostable, plastic-free tubes, and both our balms and face oils are made with certified organic, GC/MS tested ingredients.

I started making my own lip balms because I was tired of throwing plastic tubes in the trash, and realized the company who made my go-to beeswax balm started charging more while also adding lanolin and cheap fillers to their ingredients. They were also selling in Mainland China, which requires animal testing of all cosmetics. Although they were trying to work through legal loopholes to remain a cruelty-free company, the multi-national group who owned them made the decision to sell in that space knowing that pre-market and post-market animal testing was mandatory. I thought, why not opt out of that corporate dysfunction, make this product myself, and also support a few local beekeepers?

I also had trouble finding an ethical, effective and affordable face oil. We put an average of 168 different ingredients on our faces and bodies every day, and the majority of those ingredients can be readily absorbed into the bloodstream. Yet, most of the luxury skin care products I researched either contained synthetic and toxic chemicals, cheap fillers, proprietary “fragrances” and dyes that irritate and harm the human body and the environment — or they were certified organic and all-natural but cost north of a hundred dollars an ounce.

So then I went hunting for the very best natural and organic botanicals I could find to create a powerful and plant-based face oil. Chad and I tinkered with the formulation and gave little black glass bottles to friends and family over the holidays. A couple of months later they began asking where they could get refills. Chad did the math and realized we had an opportunity to share these formulas for a lot less, while also giving 10% of net revenue back to clean water initiatives, and creating a compostable lip balm tube along the way!

Photo collage of Jess, scenic outdoor images and Little Otter Golden Light face oil

How does sustainability play a role in your brand and product development?

Little Otter is as much a sustainability company as it is a skin care company. Our ingredients are vegetarian, non-toxic and cruelty-free. We use GC/MS tested, certified organic, pure steam-distilled and cold pressed essential oils from France. The beeswax in our lip balms comes from a family of beekeepers who rotate their hives with the seasons.

We are also working hard to go plastic-free, zero-waste in every area of our lives, especially with Little Otter. Our lip balm tubes are made of a durable and biodegradable paperboard, and every order is shipped without any plastic materials or packaging. Even the tape on our boxes is water-activated and plastic-free. For the bottles, we offer a plastic-free natural-corked glass bottle, sealed with all-natural botanical wax — as well as the option for a washable and reusable plastic pump.

We want to deliver exceptional skin care products, and also use their presence and story as an educational tool and a totem of sorts. You’re out and about and have this cool little lip balm, and maybe people ask about it because it looks different from a typical tube. That’s an opportunity to share your own story — why you decided to try it, why you love it — along with this larger idea that you can use your purchasing power to make a better planet. You’re sharing that story, and you’re voting with your dollars to support a healthier ecosystem and a healthier you.

Photo of a woman standing on a rock in the middle of a lake, enjoying nature

What are your thoughts on the future role sustainability plays both professionally in business and in our everyday lifestyle choices, in regards to the future health of our planet?

Sustainability makes business sense. Ray Anderson wrote the book on this, and 25 years on, we’re witnessing industries from fashion to energy to infrastructure pushing rapidly to become greener, leaner and cleaner simply because it saves money. Conserving resources and energy conserves cash.

We’re also at a point on this planet that we can’t afford to keep creating and consuming without real regard and requirements for negative externalities. A plastic lip balm tube currently costs a manufacturer just a few pennies to make because they’re not necessarily paying for the pollution of its production, or for the lifecycle cost of what happens after a consumer is finished with it. Even if that plastic lip balm tube makes it to a household recycling bin, it’s too small for most recycling equipment and ends up in a landfill or waterway, where animals then mistake it for food.

The reality is that 91% of fully recyclable plastic is never actually recycled — it ends up other places on our planet and that’s causing enormous problems for the people, plants and animals who have to pay for it. “Our Planet” is a remarkable wildlife documentary out on Netflix that grapples with some of these stories, and Project Drawdown and Plastic Purge provide comprehensive dives into what we can do both individually and in business.

We’re at a unique moment in history where we have the technological tools and shared level of understanding to connect and create massive change — but collective change requires collective consciousness, acceptance and action. It’s hard to see and truly accept the harm that we, as humans, have done and continue to do to our only home. But that’s the first step in being better stewards of our earth and ourselves, and in getting creative around how we effectively solve these problems.

Photos of Little Otter Lip Balm and a woman in a straw hat in the woods

How does technology and innovation play a role in Little Otter?

We launched two weeks ago, and so far, the source of every single order has been social media. Even our friends and family finding out, this interview — it’s all been through Instagram. We have such complicated relationships with our phones — these little boxes in our pockets. They can so deeply affect our mind and spirit, but can also powerfully connect us to one another and our planet. To have a platform to share our stories with one another in this way is an incredible gift and opportunity.

It’s also helped make Little Otter a better company making better products. We were able to find our family of beekeepers, certified organic essential oils distiller, compostable balm tube manufacturer and plastic-free packaging partners through this intersection of our friends and the internet.

Photo of the Little Otter Skincare line

What does wilderness mean to you?

Wilderness is the spirit and verdant vitality that connects and fosters all living things — the energy behind life itself. We love to go hiking on Sunday mornings. We call it church because, well, it’s where we go to take communion with the universe. Going into the wild can be a deeply meditative, spiritual practice that restores the spirit and shares the wisdom of the earth, if you can just sit quietly and wait and listen for it. In this way wilderness is a classroom, a church, a community, a home.

And really, you can find little pieces of that spirit everywhere you go — in a pocket park off a busy street, a kitchen window garden, a bird alighting on your doorstep. When I’m in the middle of the city and feeling a little out of place, I look for those fragments and facets of nature and try to just sit with them.

I remind myself that we’re all connected by this spirit of wilderness, and that it’s always there with each of us. We share it and we breathe it and become it — within each of us is this whole collection of vibrant cells, this individual wilderness where we each fit into the bigger picture, we each have an important place in the universe in some unusual and essential way.

Photo of Little Otter products in a case amongst wildflowers and then a photo of Jess holding Little Otter boxes while her dog stares on

If you had to choose one place to live with only the basics available to you, where would it be and what would you take with you apart from the obvious survival gear?

Books, books, books. And my beloved French press. Waking up in Olympic National Forest, building a campfire, taking a hike with my husband and our dogs, waterfall bathing, reading and writing over a cup of coffee — that would be a pretty ideal morning routine.

Photo of Jess reading a New York Times article about the challenges that climate change presents in bed

What message do you have for those starting their own business in regards to sustainability and innovation?

Recognize that everything you see and make and do is eventually going to be discarded. It’s all future trash. Approach every aspect of your business with a “what part of this will end up in a landfill, and when?” mentality from the very beginning. This will help you identify and collaborate with a set of suppliers and partners who care about you and the environment, and will also help keep your company on the path of innovative sustainability and making really great products.

What brands do you admire?

There are so many out there that’s it’s hard to name just a few. In clothing, Everlane, Alternative, Cuyana, Elizabeth Suzann, Sevilla Smith, Tradlands and Patagonia are doing remarkable work to create better clothes that are better for our planet and are meant to last. OSEA and W3ll People have been my beauty go-tos for years. Through blogging, I have gotten to know some of the people behind these brands, and am so proud to share and support the hard work that they do every day to make the world a better place.

How important do you think transparency and authenticity in brands is to consumers ?

Transparency and authenticity are everything. There’s this adage in marketing that “content is king.” I see that evolving into something more specific — conscious consumption and content contextualized around that ethos. Humans are a curious species and we naturally want to know the story behind the products we consume. Who made these clothes? What forest did this furniture come from? How did this food end up on my table?

As we better understand the effects of our buying decisions on our environment and ourselves, we realize our responsibility as consumers and we start asking questions about the options in front of us. In industrial design, we called this the “pretty good problem.” You have a lot of product options from a lot of different brands, most of them physically and functionally similar, if not basically identical. That’s the point that we have power as consumers to support companies that care and to pursue products that are healthier for us and our planet.

As a society we are beginning to accept that, frankly, if a company doesn’t really care about people and the planet in their production and processes, they don’t care about us as consumers, either. Conscious consumption is the new king.

Various nature shots from across the southeast and early sketches of the Little Otter brand

What is your favorite animal and why?

Otters are hard to beat. They’re quick and bright, warm and free — always on the go between oceans and rivers, forests and fields. They spend a third of each day taking care of their fur, and another third foraging for food and playing in little otter romps, or families. They like to find a favorite rock and tuck it under their arms in these little pockets, pulling it out to help break up shells on their belly. As they bask and float and dream, they hold paws with their pups to keep from drifting apart.

They’re also great environmentalists! Sea otters are a keystone species. They love to eat urchins that invasively feed on kelp, which keeps urchin populations down and coastal ecosystems healthy. In turn, kelp forests and seagrass meadows soak up carbon dioxide and store it on the ocean floor as “Blue Carbon.” These marine forests can store just as much CO2 as forests on land, with the added benefit of faster accumulation and sequestration. So, otters are out there every day, eating urchins and maintaining the balance of this critical ecosystem by just being their little otter selves.

What is one thing you would be willing to or have already given up with the health of the planet in mind?

Switch out single-use and disposable goods for reusable ones. It’s one simple and sustainable step that will always save you time and money. One insulated thermos keeps hundreds of coffee cups and lids and water bottles out of landfills and waterways each year, and most coffee shops give you a discount for saving them a cup. Fabric napkins and dish towels, metal straws, cutlery and glass food jars only need to be bought once.

These are super small steps that many people think, “Oh come on, this doesn’t really matter, does it?” but it adds up. 40% of all plastic produced today is single-use packaging. How can you help put a dent in that?

When you say no to plastic, buy less, shop with a list and a tote bag, and support brands working hard in this space, you’re drawing down that number every single day. It’s these subtle shifts in your mindset and daily habits that can make a massive impact. Reduce, reuse, recycle — reframe your way to a healthier home and life.