Production

Ethical Pricing is a Triple Bottom Line

Logic: we need to establish parameters for sustainable success for the environment, community and our businesses.  Pricing is complicated, and incoming and outgoing costs may vary, requiring constant research.  Cultural negligence is an opportunity loss for all of us. 

If after reading this, it also resonates with you, I want to know you exist.  If you have additional thoughts of your own after reading this, I would listen.

Many years before I started my business, I worked as a buyer for retail shops.  Later on, I would create a tool to measure the viability of square footage throughout a retail storefront, based on customer trends, seasons and goals for growth.  These things sound like something a recent college grad wouldn’t be interested in, especially an avid cyclist who had never owned a car, worked in the outdoor industry advocated for shared use access for youth and minorities.  Exclusion was prevalent in the industry and I struggled to feel safe in my work environment and most open space, but I needed them so I developed a knack for tolerating discomfort. I knew this wasn’t right and I saw my discomfort reflected in untapped markets and unspoken stakeholders in the environment.  I sought to give a voice to NEW customers and meet them where their needs lay was like permaculture, cultivating active and responsible users in the outdoors, while addressing existing barriers.  It would be inappropriate to push performance brands on folks not acquainted with the outdoor industry’s marketing tendencies, and when I consulted a local, multi-store chain to create unique merchandising plans for each store to accommodate each niche culture, and it was never more apparent to me that supporting diversity could bring success for everyone.  Marketing is advocacy.

Money is gross, smells weird and generations of people have been exploited for the benefit of the privileged few. Yet, we live in a culture that quantifies everything with it: products, equipment, labor, natural resources.  How do we reconcile ourselves with this historical loss?

We listen. We pay fair prices in order to charge fair prices. We reevaluate regularly.  For Apothecary Muse, this means accepting no labor that is unpaid, including friends.  Establishing a trend of unpaid labor is a privilege that not everyone has, undermines competitors, devalues the laborer’s time, and falsely inflates your profit margin.  Once you bite that apple, it is difficult to pay someone else and face the person you accepted free labor from.  You might lose friends, or if they are your family, lifelong trust.  Not to mention that there are actual labor laws preventing a business from accepting unpaid labor if it could be payable.

When it comes to raw materials, packaging and equipment; this can be difficult unless everything is affordable and accessible.  I’m appalled at how much of my bottom line goes to shipping costs, incoming and outgoing – and the devastating environmental impact that has because of the shipping travel itself.  This is an area I am constantly trying to improve while meeting the needs of a growing economy that, like me, doesn’t have access to quality goods within travel distance.  When my business was tiny, just selling to a few folks and shops locally, I was purchasing at retail prices and selling for close to what it “cost” me to make it.  I wasn’t making a profit, but I was also working full time with a paycheck and healthcare elsewhere so it didn’t seem like a priority.  I started noticing lots of other shops offering free shipping yet a retailer even told me that they thought my products were overpriced.  I checked my privilege.  My job paid only enough to keep me fed, not enough to save money or take a loss with my sales from my tiny “business”.  I was so excited about all the things that I could make, that I tried to make everything that I could possibly make to replace household items I would purchase.  If I didn’t know it then, I know now that the quality of my products wasn’t great because I was caught up in the romance of creative expression, and perpetuated underserving the community.  

I lost my job.  I was suddenly forced to reevaluate my – everything.  Newfound free time spent outside helped me to problem-solve and on a weeklong backpacking trip I decided to take my business more expertly and intertwine it with my advocacy.  I brainstormed ways to improve, tackling better ingredient sourcing, sustainable packaging (including shipping materials), and more streamlined production methods for overall quality control.  I made some difficult decisions about which products to drop from my line (including some good ones) so I could focus on quality for a more reasonable few products, purchased raw materials in bulk, rebranded and relaunched my business with the support of a small, community-backed loan.  I picked up some part-time work as prep cook in a local restaurant to maintain some finances (not all), while the rebranding was underway.  Finding a way to valuate other household contributions became necessary, more than comfortable. My tolerance to discomfort has waned over the years and I’m aiming for something that doesn’t conflict with my ability to fulfill production demand, knowing much of the work is mine along the way.

Yet, I chose this path and many do not have this choice.  This drives my research in sourcing through sustainable suppliers, from permaculture practices to reduced carbon footprint on freight.  The community backed loan endowed me with this privilege – which I’d never had, and fear I could lose at any moment – and I am acutely aware that others do not have.  This affects my competitors, because having a little breathing room in my finances changed my perspective.  I haven’t forgotten where “I came from” though, I just unlocked some new level in the game of business where I had more opportunities and I was able to have conversations with new people about environmental issues. After being used to being ignored in a male biased industry, I was able to increase my availability to advocate for the environment, meet with legislators and mobilize administration to change a law.  My business had empowered me to envision success and it was a new flavor. I wanted my competitors to have some breathing room, too.  If all my competitors were able to have these conversations, sustainable advocacy could have such powerful momentum.

In summary, I am sharing my personal story because it is no simple thing to calculate the price of an item, because that is unique from the cost.  If you came to this website looking for advice, it would be a disservice for me to generalize your situation because it will be different from mine.  I can say that it won’t hurt you to start by looking at where you can pay fairly – according to the seller – for everything, It may take years of continuous research (I’m still going 6 years after initial launch), but you may find you appreciate your products, your time and your self more as well.  Others may see the value in these as well.  I am so grateful for these 6 years where I have had the opportunity to learn more about myself, the community and environment needs and it is my hope that I may be able to continue to learn and contribute in all these ways for many more years to come with a growing team. I hope there are other folks as interested in cooperative industry leadership as I am.

Choice is Freedom

Might be more than a shack in the woods. Photo and words by Eryn Hughes (c)2019

This isn’t a sale pitch. It’s more like a public record of why I do what I do. This may change over time and most certainly will be perceived differently by others, but I have always felt the need to anchor my personal values somehow in my work to create meaningfulness.

Rules and boundaries have always begged me to challenge them. Broad applications of a system intended for everyone can not work effectively for anyone. We each have nuances, ideas and other contributions that can only be throttled by complete assimilation. Our identity is impacted by the circumstances in our environment and the Choices we make to interact with it.

These things affect my personal space on a daily basis and I find myself constantly adapting with the ebb and flow of the business needs. Even though I’ve finally moved my business out of my home into a professional production studio and sometime have staff assistance, it’s a legitimately chaotic ecosystem at times, and I don’t know how someone could prepare for this. It seems simple to the undiscerning eye, including my own.

How I serve the public is by offering soap and skincare products formulated for people who spend a lot of time outside. These products seek to spark a conversation about the environment and bridge a gap in consumer goods. I am inspired by anecdotes from my professional training in the outdoor industry, coaching, sports nutrition, transparent marketing and outdoor advocacy – places where I’d been in the comfort of collecting a modest paycheck, having benefits and the burden of decisions upon someone else. I don’t make any promises to fix the world, but I do want to engage the senses so that users can go through daily steps of problem-identification and solving on their own terms. Being creative with inflexible circumstances is fertile ground for rewarding innovation, although technically it is also a risky financial investment. It’s impractical to achieve alone, but worthwhile to pursue and develop allies along the trail.

Researching claims, making independent decisions and choosing which rules to challenge, gives me hope to maintain a living wage, save for retirement and lift someone else along the way. I welcome alternative opinions and feelings, but make no offers of free labor or goods with my transparency piece.

“We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.” ~ Oscar Wilde

Planting your soap labels!

Spring is a good time to plant the Apothecary Muse soap wrappers you’ve been saving. You might have noticed the note: “WRAPPED IN PLANTABLE PAPER” shown on the side of your favorite bars of soap. Hopefully, you saved the wrappers so you might plant them and get a second round of sensory enjoyment! The labels are printed with eco-friendly, wax-based ink (think: crayons), on paper embedded with a blend of North American wildflower seeds. Upon flowering, your wildflowers may help attract pollinators like butterflies which also help our local farms to have a sustainable crop. I store trimmings from the holiday show season and either germinate them in a bag during colder months or put the paper in some damp soil and then covering it with a piece of lexan glass like a winter cold frame. But that’s mostly what works for my space and region. Read on to learn more ideas that might work for you:

Germination may begin as quickly as one week or may take up to six weeks depending on your regional growing zone and planting depth. We recommend just 1/4 inch of soil coverage. The full Step by Step journey: How do we ensure a successful planting? It can be tough to nurse the live seeds through germination into fully grown plants and because of these common challenges, we do not offer a guarantee that every customer will be successful in this process. There are too many factors that come into play and too much that can go wrong for us to take the responsibility of elements that we cannot control, like soil temperature and acidity, watering, sunlight and planting depth. We have very rigid testing and handling protocol to ensure that every batch of paper made here contains enough viable seeds for each item that we sell to have the potential for growth. For your own piece of mind we recommend that you do the following; take a small piece (quarter size or bigger) of our made in the USA paper (larger is recommended for made in Nepal stock), place it into an airtight zip lock plastic sandwich bag, place a table spoon of water (or enough to fully saturate the paper) in the bag and then seal the bag and trap a bit of air inside it so it forms a bubble to keep both sides of the bag from touching. If you do this in a room that is has an ambient temperature of at least 72 degrees and allow the bag to be touched by sunlight for a few hours each day. You will see evidence of the seeds growth within 10 days time. Once you see the sprouts roots searching for soil, transfer the paper from the bag into a pot (or garden) with a light covering of soil and continue nursing the seedlings along by daily watering.

Thanks to Of The Earth for their Step by Step instructions!

Hidden Puzzle?

If you’ve recently purchased a bar of my soap, you might be wondering what that red code is on the bottom right of the front panel on the label. Previously, it included only the style number which I figured might be useful one day. I opted not to include the date stamp on previous batches, because not a lot of people are familiar with the curing process and the benefit that time has on a bar of soap. I wanted to leave that to the soapers and retailers who stock their shelves with my soap.

BUT one day when I was making homebrew beer, I happened upon the methodology for batch coding Guinness beer and thought it was brilliant. So, I made a formula to reconcile specific batches with formulations, without giving away the date too easily. BUT, if you’ve come this far, you’ll already know that the date is not always an indicator of “Best By” or that freshest is best. Often, several months of curing can lend itself to making a bar of soap harder and quicker to lather, ultimately helping the bather to use less and soap last longer. HOWEVER, much of the herbal benefits and essential oils will fade over time, so one can’t wait too long. I think the sweet spot for most of my formulations is 1-6 months. Of course, you don’t need to know this for any specific reason unless years from now you find a bar of soap stashed in your sock drawer and knowing the date might help you know who gave it to you and you can have warm, fuzzy feels.

Here’s how to decode that label:

Logic: All letters and numbers are swapped for their counterpart. First letter of month, last two of the year. Since there are more numbers to any given month than the alphabet, the exceptions include A=1 to 5, and Z=30 to 31.
Order: Day Month Year
Date: 16-May-17
Code: L17M
THEN: Add the exact product number to it.
Thus, a Super Simple Soap (#001) bar made on May 16th, 2017 will have a batch code of L17M001

Have fun learning more about the journey of your bar of soap!

The Muse – Always Learning

As of late, I’ve been REALLY enjoying my time in the woods, visiting 2-3 times a day in some cases.  In addition to my regular trips mountain biking and performing trail maintenance, I’ve also been detailing my hikes by foraging for mushrooms with new friends from the West PA Mushroom Club and advancing my herbal identification skills with Rosemary Gladstar’s Science and Art of Herbalism class paired with a local herbalist for hands-on identification in our native region.  I can’t recommend looking outside yourself for new perspective, enough!

On a recent trip with my partner in crime to California (which you might remember from photos posted to my facebook or instagram pages), I found this lovely little herbal book at Bart’s books in Ojai, CA. One of the things it helped me to appreciate is how different each herbalist takes their relationship with the plants around us – myself included.

Lots of new items to try!

I’ve been working pretty hard to refine products and packaging for the holidays, stocking up on supplies, ingredients, sleep and even preparing food in advance so I don’t have to take as many breaks.  I’m definitely working more than 40 hours a week, now that I’m a small business owner!  Over the weekend, I had a successful kick-off and reinvested my profit into future event fees, more supplies and ingredients.  I feel so fortunate to be able to buy such quality ingredients, be the first to test them out and finally, share them with you.  Next stop, Small Business Saturday!

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My new items include a Winter Balancing Act Facial Toner, Sinus Care Aromatherapy Roller, Holiday Soap and the return of the Meditation Mixer and Bike Face Soaps.  My from-scratch winter soap base has begun to include moisture-retaining oils like castor and shea butter, and as always, I list all the ingredients per FDA guidelines on plantable paper.  They are a little more creamy and less hard as a result, never containing the typical and bubbly sodium laurel sulfate.    Woodsy Warrior, Chef’s and Gardener’s soap will be making a comeback in the Spring, when fresh, seasonal herbs are available again.  If you want these updates as soon as they become available, please consider joining my email list.

I’ve been having fun taking product photographs for my Etsy shop in addition to the Gift Basket for last weekend’s Pittsburgh Vegan Festival and my process for checking pH of the Bike Face soap prior to cutting into bars.

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