Twin Sides of a Handmade Business: Back-To-School (Im)Balance

Shoutout to all the parents doing their best, showing up late sometimes, and still smiling! (Originally posted to Instagram and Facebook Sept 26)

My kids’ school has been having Spirit Week all week and this is our first day participating (Thursday) because I just figured out it was happening.

Of course I finally find the dress up schedule this morning to read that it’s Twin Thursday and I haven’t coordinated a matching friend outfit because… so many negative words flood my head, “I’m terrible, disorganized, flighty, a bad mom.” But the truth is that I’m not in work-life balance right now.

This isn’t my season for the beautiful work-life balance I imagined when I started this business years ago. Back-to-School orders come in like a tidal wave July-September, and my focus turns toward work to keep up. And at this point in my business, I know to plan for the big spike in sales this time of the year, but each year sees expansion and growth I never imagined. So no matter how much planning and preparation I do, we’re still caught a bit off guard.

But back to Twin Thursday 👯‍♀️. So there I am looking at this e-flyer with panic because I haven’t coordinated with my girls’ friends as I’m just seeing this dress up theme an hour before school starts. Probably not an ideal time to make a call to friends for this. But hey! We’ve got a built-in friend duo right here. Yay!

The struggle of a handmade business with a booming back-to-school season during back-to-school season with small kids
Twins-ish?

Both girls are so excited to match pants, shoes, and hairstyle — even if we couldn’t make a matching top happen. And I’m glad we showed up to Spirit Week even if we’re a little late.

Running a growing business and a family looks like this sometimes. But/And I think we are pretty happy! We figure it out and show up when we can, even if we are a little late to the party.

October 1st Note: Special thanks to YOU — customers who kept me busy; followers who cheered me on; family and friends who gave me space and grace — for your patience while I kept up with the massive tidal wave that was back-to-school orders this year. It was exponentially bigger than expected which was equal parts exciting and exhausting. Par for the course in business ownership! Now, I’m taking a breath and celebrating a bit as well as planning for the holiday season and 2020. New prints are coming and more of that #wastefreecurious content you love!

#WasteFreeCurious Wins

We’re more than halfway into this #wastefreecurious movement. Dare I call it a movement? I dare! And I’ve been getting messages of your wins and waste free inspirations nearly every day. They remind me that small changes like ditching paper towels, refusing paper and plastic bags at the grocery store, and getting our composting back on track are actually a BIG deal!

Your messages keep me going when I feel overwhelmed by the scope of our waste problem. So why should I keep your inspirational wins to myself?! Well, I shouldn’t. Moving forward I’ll be sharing your wins and inspirational messages anonymously, so keep them coming! They make my day and inspire us all!

Most of the #wastefreecurious talk, fun, changes, and challenges are happening over on Instagram so follow me @penandthimble and follow the tag #wastefreecurious!

You’ve Got (Eco-Friendly) Mail! Switching To New Eco-Friendly Mailers

In a previous post, Can Shopping and Shipping Online Be Eco-Friendly, I talked about the carbon-emissions side of shipping. But today it’s all about another concern — mailers.

Costs of doing business and small profit margins means eco-friendly packaging isn't always the easiest choice. A #wastefreecurious blog post at penandthimble.com

Counting Costs + Keeping Prices Low

As a small handmade business, I’m always counting. The price of a product isn’t just the materials. I count the materials, my time, packaging costs, shipping costs, accounting costs, business license costs, marketplace fees, web hosting fees, office supplies, and so much more. Keeping prices competitive and profitable is a tricky business in and of itself. And more so as I move toward more eco-friendly options rather than just low-cost items.

For example, organic fabric costs about $15.50-16 per yard, while quality cotton fabric of the same weight costs about $9.50-10 per yard. The bubble mailers I have used for a long time cost $24.50/case. Switching to a more eco-friendly bubble mailer costs $49.50 for the same amount. The bottom line, going green costs more money and that is tricky for small businesses with low margins. I don’t mean this as an excuse. Just to state a fact.

Costs of doing business and small profit margins means eco-friendly packaging isn't always the easiest choice. A #wastefreecurious blog post at penandthimble.com
Working Lunch. The last time I was counting Etsy costs.

Holy Bubble Mailers, Batman

Mailers are important for online businesses. My primary job after making an item is making sure it gets to my customer safe and sound. So to be honest, when I started this business, my priority was to find quality mailers at bulk prices. I just wasn’t thinking about all the extra plastic I was sending into the world.

Last year, when my business kicked up during back-to-school shopping, I was struck with the realization that I was shipping a good deal of plastic out. Like wow!

Costs of doing business and small profit margins means eco-friendly packaging isn't always the easiest choice. A #wastefreecurious blog post at penandthimble.com
One day’s outgoing. Yay! And also oof!

But I’m not one to just shrug my shoulders. I started looking into alternatives. I found an awesome company called Eco Enclose that specializes in making eco-friendly packaging and they send FREE samples! So even though I still have nearly 100 mailers to work through, I ordered some samples to try out. That way, when I run out (I haven’t yet), I’d be ready to make an eco-friendly switch.

Mailer Testing

I sampled everything. I tried thick 100% recycled/recyclable/reusable cardboard and padded mailers but they were too heavy and increased shipping costs by a significant amount.

I tried a more thin 100% recycled/recyclable Kraft paper mailer but my tester kindly let me know the mailer arrived with a tear. So no.

I tried a 100% recycled/reusable/recyclable poly mailer but my products don’t fill it out and it felt too flimsy.

Finally, I tried a bubble mailer made from 32.6% post-industrial recycled content (51% recycled content in the outer layer, 8% recycled content in the bubble layer, and 8% recycled content in the capping layer). These can be recycled and have an extra adhesive strip to be reused! I’ve sampled all the sizes and found one that will work for most items. It is smaller than my preferred mailer size so I’ll have to fold things up more than I prefer, but what a small sacrifice for more peace-of-mind.

No, 32.6% recycled content is not perfect, but it’s better. And it’s honest. And although they cost twice as much for a smaller size, I know they are the right choice. This options blends my desire to waste less and get items to my customers safely and at a low cost. Eco Enclose is also actively working on increasing the recycled content of these mailers. Look out for these mailers coming from pen&thimble soon!

Pen&thimble is Rolling Out Green Packaging Soon!

So that’s the story about mailers. If you have questions, feel free to ask! I’m always open to tailoring the way you get your mail too! When making a purchase, you can always leave note like “no extra packaging please” and I’ll be happy to send you your items with minimal packaging! More on packaging inside the mailer in a future post.

Are You Waste Free Curious Too?

If producing less waste is something you might be into this year, I’d love if you’d join me! Follow my personal and business waste-free journey from the comfort of your inbox. Sign up to so you don’t miss a thing: Click here to sign up! You’ll get a plastic-free produce storage cheat sheet just for signing up! Also, I’m using the hashtag #wastefreecurious on Instagram to share our waste free journey. I’ve just started the hashtag and I’m sharing our waste free wins and fails and tough spots with a mix of posts and Stories. So come on over!

5 Happy Truths About Composting

1. It’s Easier Than You Think

Pro: Once you do a little research — and there are tons of sites and cheat sheets out there — it’s pretty easy! We have a list of dos-and-don’ts on our fridge for reference. It’s not comprehensive, but it’s a guide.

Also composting doesn’t require tons of extra time. Instead of scraping carrot shavings into the trash bin, we scrape them into the compost bucket on our counter.

Con: It is truly easy, but it also takes some care. You don’t just dump some food in the bin and magic up some soil in a few weeks. There’s a little bit of watering, turning, and layering involved.

5 Happy Truths About Composting: For Beginners The Composting Curious Folks Who Want To Try Again

2. You Need The Right Tools + Info

Pro: I swear composting this time around is way more pleasant with the right kitchen counter bin. It doesn’t stink, we haven’t been swarmed with fruit flies, and the waste slides right out of this thing! It’s magic and added a major level of ease! You can find our favorite here. It’s not an affiliate link or anything, just what we use.

Con: We learned the first time around that having the perfect outside bin didn’t mean we were composting correctly. Our inherited bin, albeit a nice compost bin, was not in an optimal location, it was already full of non-compostable items, and we didn’t know what we were doing. So the right tools + information is key.

3. It’s Not Just A Food Dump

Pro: You can put way more than food waste in your compost. Compostable takeout containers, compostable mailers, lawn clippings, leaves, egg shells, coffee grounds and filters, and tea bags can go into your compost too! WHAT!? Yes!

Con: Some food waste is on the NO COMPOST list: meat, grease, oil, bones, and dairy are often no-nos. I’ve heard citrus peels and the papery outer layer of the onion should be on the no list too, but the messages on this seem to be mixed.

5 Happy Truths About Composting: For Beginners, The Composting Curious, and Folks Who Want To Try Again

4. The Kids Love It

Pro: It’s new, it’s fun, it’s got worms! My girls are INTO composting. My oldest wants to join me every time I go outside to empty the kitchen food waste bin. She loves to inspect our growing pile and we both love grabbing a little alone time on a quiet evening — even if it is by a decomposing heap of food waste.

Con: Waiting for the waste to turn into soil. My kids sort of thought it might take a day to make soil. But we think it’s going to be worth the wait!

5. Waste Free Synergy

Pro: Composting fits so well into our #wastefreecurious life. I can’t say that composting alone has dramatically reduced our curbside trash, but I can say that this journey we started in January (just 4 months ago!), that includes getting back into composting, no longer buying paper towels, bringing our own bags to the market, and recycling textile waste, has reduced our curbside trash from 4-5 bags of trash per week to 1.5 – 2 bags. And we’re working on making that just 1 bag.

This journey has helped us pay more attention to recycling, buying, and travel habits and those have had a huge impact on our waste overall. And not just us. My child got recognition from her teacher for picking up garbage at recess. They love to help me wheel the recycling and trash bins inside after school. It’s all connected.

5 Happy Truths About Composting: For Beginners, The Composting Curious, and Folks Who Want To Try Again
She loves the Earth!

Con: We can do better. This isn’t a con really, it’s a reminder that we’ve come so far, but we have so much more to do. We’re just taking it one step at a time. Our next step: before you throw that shirt away, donate that coat with the missing button, or toss that shoe with the broken velcro strap, let’s talk about mending!

Are You Waste Free Curious Too?

If producing less waste is something you might be into this year, I’d love if you’d join me! Follow my personal and business waste-free journey from the comfort of your inbox. Sign up to so you don’t miss a thing: Click here to sign up! You’ll get a plastic-free produce storage cheat sheet just for signing up! Also, I’m using the hashtag #wastefreecurious on Instagram to share our waste free journey. I’ve just started the hashtag and I’m sharing our waste free wins and fails and tough spots with a mix of posts and Stories. So come on over!

5 Happy Truths About Composting: For Beginners, The Composting Curious, and Folks Who Want To Try Again