The Beauty of Balance with Heath Ceramics
Heath Ceramics has a long legacy, founded back in 1948 by Edith Heath as a small-scale pottery business in Sausalito, California. Under its current owners, Cathy Bailey and Robin Petravic, the brand’s original values of craftsmanship, sustainability and local community have been nurtured and evolved to reflect the modern world. We spoke to Cathy about the journey of becoming a certified B Corp and the myriad ways that Heath Ceramics is looking to its past to design a better future.
Photography by Aya Brackett, Mariko Reed and Nicole Franzen.
This year marks Heath Ceramics’ 75th anniversary. What does that milestone mean to you?
We’ve always found a path forward by staying true to who we are. This feels particularly relevant at this 75th milestone. We are a local manufacturing company driven by design and craft, and the desire to connect directly with our community. We’ve learned to stay focused on this, take creative risks, but only if they stay true to who we are. We’ve learned that growth and scale can distract and suck out the soul of a place/company.
Did it have anything to do with your decision to become a B Corp?
Heath has been working on sustainability long before B Corp existed. Our clay body was designed by Edith Heath to fire at a low temperature to use less energy (in 1947!) We started looking at B Corp certification over 10 years ago and it helped guide us to focus on certain areas of sustainability, but it was not until we hired a Sustainability Director that we had the bandwidth to dig in and get all the data and information organized to submit to B Corp. We are thrilled that the completion of this work came about at this point when we are remembering our 75-year journey.
"...making is an activity that is intrinsically human. Some people “think” with their hands."
How did you find the certification process?
Since the B Corp certification standards touch every part of the business – governance, workers, community, environment, and customer interactions – every leader at Heath had some involvement in answering questions, so it was a lot of work! Being able to gauge our responses to the B Corp standards was enlightening on areas of improvement. Some were very small, and others were larger, like changing the articles of incorporation with the state of California to be a benefit corporation. Although we have accomplished a lot, there is always more to do!
What are some of the sustainability measures you’ve implemented at your factories, showrooms and warehouse?
We have 100% renewable electricity for our factories, dinnerware and tile, and the Sausalito and San Francisco showrooms. Our kilns are natural gas-powered; some are pretty old in dinnerware, designed by Brian Heath, Edith’s husband. We try our best to maximize their potential by firing at a lower temperature, utilizing the stoneware technique that Edith created. We reduce landfill waste as much as possible. This includes recycling and compost available in our factories and employee areas. We even recycle our nitrile gloves and send the packaging from kiln cones back to the manufacturer.
At Armadillo, we’re extremely mindful about the materials we use. Can you tell us a bit about the clay you source?
Our clay body is a mixture of minerals, but nearly half is mined within 100 miles from our factories. The embodied carbon in our clay is important to us, and due to the distance of some of the minerals in our white clay, we decided to discontinue making it. All of our products currently are made with the locally-based clay.
Do you have any processes in place to recycle or reuse excess materials?
During production, we can recycle clay left over from trimming into the next batch of mixed clay. When we can’t, we can compost it because it contains a large chunk of minerals. Our second-quality dinnerware and tile are available to the public to buy at our Sausalito factory. It might not meet our high-quality standards, but often it isn’t noticeable. Otherwise, we package our leftover and usable tiles by color in mixed tile boxes for crafts and creative reuse. We have seen some unique projects made from these mixed tile boxes. Unsellable dinnerware [that is] still usable is offered to our employees. A bowl with a significant blemish makes a great dog bowl for a lucky pet. Employees donate a dollar per piece to local non-profit organizations of the staff’s choosing.
Heath Ceramics is also reputed as a socially-minded business. What are some of the initiatives you’ve created to care for your people?
In 2020, we made a decision to tie our starting pay to the Living Wage Index. In the Bay Area this year, that’s $25 per hour. While states and cities set minimum wages, minimum wage does not correlate to what it actually costs to live in a place beyond simply covering basic food and shelter, if even that. Living wage relates to the ability to afford to engage in the community by partaking in cultural events, entertainment, education etc. Ultimately, we believe that a living wage builds a stronger and more inclusive community.
Supporting human-scale manufacturing is something very close to your heart. Why is craftsmanship so important?
We believe that making is an activity that is intrinsically human. Some people “think” with their hands. It’s important to us to provide the opportunity to carry on this very human tradition, tying us to our history and putting value on the individuality of a skilled craftsman. It's what gives objects soul.
Do you think customers these days are more likely to invest in brands that align with their values?
Yes, living in a world that is often pushing against your beliefs and values makes it even more important and satisfying when you can connect and support products and work that feels aligned with who you are. It gives customers a feeling of being authentic. Every day we see customers connecting with our products because of the values that are behind the products. Since we have our two largest stores connected to our factories, customers that come to San Francisco or Sausalito can experience how these values play out in our manufacturing.
You and your husband are also celebrating two decades as custodians of Heath Ceramics. What continues to inspire and drive you after all this time?
The people we work with inspire us. The beauty and happy accidents that come from working with clay inspires us. We’re also driven and inspired to create beauty and balance [in] our world, and we are deeply inspired when we see that achieved.