A Convo with Charles McElroy, Founder of Goldleaf, About Cannabis Education, Sustainability & Beyond
We were so excited to chat with Goldleaf founder Charles McElroy about cannabis education and sustainability, along with a deep dive into the full range of experiences and tools that Goldleaf provides surrounding cannabis; from cultivation, culinary arts, wellness and healing, recreation, pets and intimacy, and nerding out on things like terpenes, aroma and flavor profiles. We are all about canna-education and we love that Goldleaf is rooted in the mission of creating accessibility pathways to complex ideas and concepts in plant medicine and medicinal consumption. When it comes to making the complex more approachable or even beautiful, Charles likes to find the balance between aesthetic and education when it comes to the design approach for the brand.
“So in a perfect world we're blending those two pretty seamlessly, and my approach is to have the layout and the look be so aesthetically pleasing that it draws you in without even knowing what the subject is or what the topic is and as someone looks closer they get a taste of what the topic is and what kind of meat the infographic or design is all about. It checks the box of looking good at first, and I feel like that’s half the battle with somebody who wants to learn or engage with something informational. There are plenty of infographics that look like hot garbage that are still really great to check out and it’s like wow, that’s very interesting data you collected there, but in terms of having it be something that is lasting in your memory, and something that somebody will want to look at over and over again, the wildcard is that aesthetic element.”
This design forward approach carries over to the infographic creation, and helps facilitate smoother communication of the message. “Cause at the end, we want people to like looking at this stuff and retain it…So the aesthetic part is very important and it’s also super disarming.” When Goldleaf started back in 2016, this was very important because there were not a lot of cannabis brands who took this type of elevated, measured approach with their aesthetics. Charles also wanted to make the design one that leaned into discretion, with designs without large text phrases or that didn’t use imagery related to “the evocative nature of cannabis.” It's a more subtle approach rooted in science. You might not even know that this is about cannabinoids specifically until you look a little closer. With cannabis being such a polarized topic (maybe a little less though today than in 2016, when Goldleaf was just starting), it was important to the brand that people wouldn’t judge them at first glance. “We wanted them to be like ‘oh that looks neat, let me look closer, wow, look at all this information, oh, that’s cool!’ Then they make the connection that this is about the endocannabinoid system or whatever it is, and at that point their judgements are kind of pushed to the side and they’re a little bit more open minded to looking at whatever it is we’re communicating.” This approach has been core to their design process from the start and they really haven’t deviated from it.
Goldleaf has simplified sharing complex ideas beautifully through their guided entries in their journals, infographics and other toolsets. They have a great drip of disclosure that feels educational while not feeling overwhelming that we found extremely helpful. “It’s only one little bite size at a time so you’re not blowing their cap off with too much information at any one moment.” Goldleaf has made it easy for a journal user to decide when they’ve gotten all that they want from it and put it away to come back later and pick up again where they left off, which they feel is an important part of the educational process.
There are a wonderful variety of themes and experiences that Goldleaf provides, from culture to cultivation to medical cannabis and beyond. When it comes to the process of selecting these different themes and the processes of developing these experiences, Charles explained that the process is one that involves brainstorming, crowdsourcing and expert feedback. They like to understand what consumers want to know and where there are gaps in canna-education and then use that as a roadmap for new topics. They start by asking, “What things are people getting really bamboozled by?” and then create a stand alone infographic or experience to answer some of those questions.
For larger topics and guided experiences, like intimacy for example, they might have a more kitted approach with a journal and some guidance, partnering up with an expert in the field. For culinary expertise for example, they worked with Monica Lo (who we recently spoke with - check out her full feature here) on some pretty cool recipes that went along with their cooking journal. “That was one topic that has just a treasure trove of nuances and questions about it, or cooking with cannabis at home, ya know, so you’re not a chef maybe, but you want to make your own concentrates or oils or whatever, so we have this guided cookbook for just those instances and then we pair that with a bunch of information and infographics that will help you make better stuff. Like the concept of decarboxylation, how you can figure out the dosing in any type of food you’re making, whether it be lasagna or gummies.”
Another great example of a collaboration driven project was the concentrate guide that the brand paired up with MJ Arsenal to create. Normally they will work with primary source research materials for all of their wellness products, but when it comes to concentrates, there’s not really a good source of truth so they ended up working in tandem with MJ Arsenal, who makes glass and focuses primarily on concentrates. They conducted a large poll with about 200 people who work in the industry asking how they would rate different concentrate types that translated into an infographic to help consumers learn more about their options. It’s a rating from the people who work with these concentrates and what their opinion is in terms of purity, enjoyment, and flavor.
When it comes to future projects, Charles has a complex question guided experience that his team is developing that we think sounds super cool. It’s kind of a choose your own adventure infographic. “We’ve got different versions of them but the idea is if you come to a dispensary trying to understand, ‘what should I try?’ It basically asks you a question and depending on your answer, you travel down the map and it asks you another question and you travel down the map until it leads you to a recommendation of what you could try.” At Goldleaf they know that you can’t just make one size fits all recommendations, but they can provide some direction based on factual information. “And that is exactly why it’s taking so long because we want to do it right and we’ve got to get good feedback from people that are like ‘yep this is pretty consistent’.” It sounds like a really exciting concept to us and we can’t wait to check it out when it’s launched!
Charles has found that it has been more challenging to break into the market of “traditional stoners” with the more traditional stoner aesthetic. He has mentioned that that market hasn’t really jived with the design approach, and doesn't seem to be their target audience. “That’s just based on us being in the industry shaking around for a while. We’ve gotten a lot of features and interviews in traditional cannabis publications, like High Times, Herb and Kindland. I would say from a marketing perspective, it never really blows the top off or anything and I think that’s because our audience are people who are highly functional stoners, or people who like to nerd out on things, intellectual connaisseur-y type people, or people who are new to cannabis, which is the largest group, just getting it, just starting out, they need some guidance and they want something that has a level of authority behind it.” Goldleaf makes sure to cite sources with primary source material as well as having a researcher on their team who’s very diligent and keeps things updated. As new things come up, they will update their products along the way. For example, after they found a recent study saying that migraines did not pair well with a particular cannabinoid, they made sure to update it.
When it comes to marketing and communication, anything that worked two years ago pre-Covid is not going to work now. From writing emails and call-to-actions, to the best social media apps for brands, Goldleaf had to adjust with the changes as most cannabis brands can relate to. The legal aspects and rules on social media keep changing as well and it’s getting hard to keep up. “It is really interesting from a marketing perspective to see how that has impacted this subject in particular. Once the farm bill passed in 2018 legalizing CBD , that is really when the hammer came down on everything. Which is fascinating because before it was seen as fully illegal and we’re able to advertise. Once it was not, it was like nope, you can’t do anything, in fact I see you’re not doing anything illegal but the word cannabis is connected with your domain so no you can’t have this image of a book.”
The hypocrisy doesn’t make any sense when big brands like Pinterest and Amazon try to say that you are violating their policy with something like a journal about cannabis or an infographic. The service agents working in the field are often unprepared to discuss these details, and Charles has often been sent in loops of back and forth conversations with no resolutions on these platforms.
The science, the culture, the community, and the social justice have always been Charles’s favorite aspects in the cannabis space and he always wanted Goldleaf to be like a wider botanical science brand, not just with cannabis but with any plants. He also said he could see Goldleaf branching out eventually into tea or mushrooms in the future (which we can’t wait for). Although many have suggested getting into spirits or bourbon/whiskey, Charles prefers something with more of a medical side or a wellness side.
As coffee lovers, we love that Goldleaf highlights coffee along with cannabis. Part of what drew Charles to including coffee in the Goldleaf suite, was his passion for botanical illustrations and some of the parallels between the coffee and cannabis plants. “I’ve always been attracted to that turn-of-the-century scientific drawing style and it is something that is a regular in the Goldleaf arsenal. It felt right to turn our botanical science eye to coffee since it is so similar to cannabis in many ways… culturally, it’s very similar to cannabis in terms of how ubiquitous it is, how well loved it is, the nuance of preparation, the rituals behind it, the amount of different cultivars out there, the history, there’s a lot of commonalities…”. Although many people enjoy pairing the two together, due to being hypersensitive to caffeine, Charles likes to split up his coffee and cannabis starting with coffee before 11 and utilizing the medical benefits of cannabis as his health symptoms start midday. “I’m hypersensitive to caffeine and I’m also very hypersensitive to cannabis. I do have my medical card for autoimmune stuff and microdosing is kind of my secret sauce so I’ll normally start that midday once I start feeling some of the symptoms coming on and I can’t have coffee after 12 o’clock or I straight up won’t sleep and I’m not kidding, I’m so sensitive to caffeine but I freaking love coffee.”
Pretty much everybody who likes coffee likes cannabis so it felt like a really fun next step for Goldleaf to dip into the coffee space. The coffee based experiences are created with industry experts and showcase a beautiful collection of educational resources and tools. Charles tapped into local resources when it came to sourcing experts for these experiences. “I’m from Cincinnati, we work with a couple different roasters here that I really think are some of the best ones in the country in terms of their approach to it. They spent a lot of time internationally visiting all of these different coffee plantations. They’re also single origin,... so we partnered with the roasters and baristas to workshop through everything in the journals. I’m really happy how it turned out.” We love how much Charles cares and looks into the sourcing and quality of coffee beans! Some of his favorites are something more naturally processed like Ethiopian varieties, which he often enjoys as a pour over.
As most of you know we are all about a brand that gives back, and sustainability is super important to Charles and the Goldleaf brand, from sourcing sustainable products and services to pairing up with vital changemaking organizations in the space they are always looking for ways to contribute to the global good. Although the cost can be higher with sustainable brands you are likely getting a much more thoughtfully crafted product that has longevity. It makes sense that minimizing the brand footprint is a pillar for Charles who has a history of co-owning the top sustainable denim company on the planet before starting Goldleaf. This prior work made an imprint on Charles that made him want to incorporate sustainable options into his brands early on. He mentioned the importance of starting out sustainable from the beginning rather than trying to change things later down the road. “Making things super cheap, very throwaway, high planet impact or whatever, it’s really hard as a business to then backpedal cause things are probably going to be twice as expensive, if not more.”
From a business perspective it makes sense to build up in a sustainable way. Goldleaf started with the carbon offset shipping for everything they either receive or send, always sourced FSC certified stocks, used non-toxic inks, utilized recycled/undyed packaging and even found a binding style for their journals that’s free of toxic chemicals and glues. Charles continues wanting to improve product sustainability, “I really wanted to do hemp, I always have, but the hemp paper industry is just a little behind still, it’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve seen hemp stocks that are the appropriate smoothness and thickness that would work in a journal like ours but accessing them has still been a challenge though I think that is something that we’ll be able to do by next year.”
Goldleaf has also been a big supporter of positive growth and reform in the community, they continue to partner with a variety of different charities and nonprofits that work to achieve that such as Project Sanctuary, Last Prisoners Project, and Wildland Firefighters Foundation. We love their gorgeous print design collaborations, which contribute proceeds to a variety of amazing causes. They have also done auctions where they create pieces specifically marked as donation based so whenever it is sold, those proceeds are donated to the organization being sponsored. Check out the details on their site https://shopgoldleaf.com/, including information about some of the amazing work being done to give back.“We did another collaboration with Potli all about decarboxylation for Last Prisoner Project, which is one of the nonprofits. We did a Southern California travel inspired art piece, so this is not an infographic, but it turned out to be kind of a Where’s Waldo of cannabis stuff on the beach. So it’s very subtle like we like, and you look at it and you’re like ‘oh that’s a very cool bright, colorful illustration of a Southern California beach,’ but if you look closer there’s 23 different cannabis references on it.” The original from the Argentinian artist Eugenia Mello, still exists on their site and those proceeds will go where they need to go when purchased. Charles likes this type of ongoing way of doing things. “It seems more connected”.
When it comes to making sustainable choices for cannabis, Charles‘s advice to consumers is to buy from the growers who do it right, but he knows this can be tricky if you are living somewhere with limited options. His home state of Ohio only has about two dispensaries in the entire city of Cincinnati, neither being very good. “It’s hard to blame them though with the way that the legislation rolled out, most businesses are finding it hard to offer diverse products. Not just diverse in the sense of what cannabinoids do these contain? But also diverse in the grow styles, so in terms of sustainability, sourcing sun grown stuff is so much better for the environment and also there’s going to be more terpene content in many of the sun grown options so there’s benefits there.”
His advice to consumers looking for quality products is to seek out a more greenhouse/hybrid approach and to read up on their IPM’s. What do the growers do for pest management? “I think at one dispensary I go into, there’s maybe 23 different growers represented and there’s only three of them that are pesticide free or organic pesticides. The rest of them do all of the worst stuff you can imagine, but they pass the tests. There are many additional factors to consider, what is happening with the waste water, how it impacts your health and beyond. The fact that you’re buying that stuff means that the factories that make it are going to keep purring it out.” He also recommends buying local, sungrown or hybrid products that have a good IPM plan. They are definitely not saying growers should not use anything to protect their plants,, but there are many natural, safe options that are not going to negatively impact you or the environment. It’s important to vote with your wallet so that they become more prominent in the market. He also definitely recommends growing your plants if you can in your state. “Not just to cut out the big commercial farms but it’s just generally less wasteful and I think that there’s certainly a wellness element to it mentally if you’re growing and harvesting your own stuff. I think that’s awesome for folks who live in a state where you can do that, I hope Ohio gets there at some point. Fingers crossed.”
When it comes to manifestations for the new year, Charles really wants to work on the
“choose your own adventure infographics,” more projects, and more collabs with others. He’d also like to manifest a change in the blockers and algorithmic issues in the cannabis wellness space. “The US (and tech companies) are embracing cannabis as a legal wellness business. Decriminalization, sensible policies, and (on a private-business side) update policies to not be so draconian on the subject of cannabis. Looking at you: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Pinterest, etc.”
When it comes to the future of Goldleaf, they are going to be rolling out their Goldleaf Studio in 2023 as a full fledged digital agency. They will be able to offer custom branding, product design, interior design, digital marketing, as well as SEO/digital strategy. They’ve already had so much experience helping other cannabis brands with messaging and design work that it seemed like the perfect next path for Goldleaf along with a great team. “We’ve always done a lot of B2B work, and over the years have built an amazing bench of designers, researchers and creative minds that FULLY understand and embrace cannabis science.’
Charles noted that cannabis consumers need more custom guided experiences. When it comes to medical cannabis, people are still not used to the way that it is being dispensed and used, especially for the people who are used to a doctor or somebody with various degrees and doctorates telling them what they should do. So with cannabis, people are naturally going to expect that, but it doesn’t happen that way.
“I think that’s one of the biggest confusing pieces, is that it’s treated as like an opiate or like any prescribed hardcore thing but then with cannabis the hot tips from them (doctors) are like ‘ok now you have this, I don’t know what’s going to work for your body so you’ve gotta do some personal experimentation. How many times are you, as someone who’s getting pharmaceuticals, how many times are you asked to test it on your body?Never. never is the answer. So it’s really confusing to people for that reason and that’s part of the reason why education is important.” Most doctors aren’t offering much information on medical cannabis use besides starting slow and low and that’s about it. We need to provide additional education and pathways to learning tools about plant medicine and consumption so that potential consumers have a clear pathway without mixed signals. Charles stresses the importance of keeping track of what causes any problems and to listen to your body. “Plant medicine isn’t like pharma where you can just trust a 3rd party to advise and control everything. It is going to be on you in the end.”
When it comes to cannabis and plant medicine, Charles is inspired by the variety of options that are out there and various options and innovations in plant medicine, and he’s excited to start seeing more of that in states such as Ohio. “We’re starting to see the options grow in a positive way, not all strawberry cough’ or all the same damn stuff. I think they’re starting to realize that especially the medical folks, need something more specialized so they're getting to a point where they’re dabbling.” Once the growers have been able to get established enough where they’re not at risk of losing everything, they’re able to start doing more stuff within the space. He is also inspired by the science of the endocannabinoid system and all of the cannabis related science involved. “I know it isn’t sexy or fast-moving… but I’ve long been inspired by the slow purrr of researchers doing their diligence to discover more about cannabis.” When it comes to inspirational moments at Goldleaf, for Charles, it is all about hearing people's feedback on the designs and products they are interacting with, whether it’s good or bad. From patients' feedback on how the journals have positively impacted them, design quips or comments from brand partners and wholesalers, all of this feedback is integrated into future iterations, designs, and guided experiences.
Charles is incredibly interested in observing how people interact with the experiences and tools the brand provides. “They don’t always use the entry pages like I think we originally designed them, but they use them in a way that befits their growth style and their unique environment and I love that.” Goldleaf tried to make everything as universal as possible for the best user experience because everyone’s situation is going to be different. These experiences provide a deep dive onto valuable tools from home grow and consumption. They wanted to make sure to share good grow tools and good grower information, along with troubleshooting tips since it can be so hard to access information sometimes. “You could go to your grow shop and talk to them, but they’re going to be framing it in a way that’s likely based on something they don’t understand because they’re not in your space and they don’t know what cultivars you have and what specifics they might require”. Some people unfortunately live in places where there aren't any grow store options, so they can’t really even ask questions. That’s part of why what Goldleaf is doing and the tools they are providing is so important.
Keep an eye out for some exciting new promotions for the holidays in the Goldleaf shop soon! As for next season, they will be doing more coffee content, plus some immersive projects involving AI design and art creation tools which will be on their site along with videos and more. The brand will also be shifting to more B2B collaborations and projects that we can’t wait to check out! To learn more about Goldleaf check out their site https://shopgoldleaf.com/ and follow them on IG @gldleaf.