Doing My Best for My Little Leaves

Doing My Best for My Little Leaves

My name is Caroline Stockman, and I love giving gifts. It's truly special when you can make someone feel seen. In this world where problems seem louder than solutions, it's unique to be heard and understood. It's only fitting that I work in the gift-giving business; although I don't consider what I do work, I consider it my purpose. I have always stood for the unseen, the unheard, and the misunderstood, and I take great consideration to what I put out into our shared world. My business and my life are dedicated to making people feel like they are enough, they are not alone, and can do what they love by following their dreams. My customers, although I never call them that as it feels too transactional for my form of "business"-- rather my "Little Leaves" have grown to trust me and my judgment regarding everything I put into our world. Whether that be the products I sell, being tested and loved by myself and our team, our mission of "artists supporting artists" and showcasing work from those who deserve recognition for their immense talents, and for the way we choose to share these products with our community by gift-wrapping everything in such a way that's ready to be gifted. Regardless if a purchase is for a friend or yourself, each item that leaves my hands is a gift from my artists and myself to you. I choose to present my business in a way that feels sentimental, special, and sacred because shopping at Of Aspen isn't like shopping anywhere else. It's a unique experience that my "customers" stand by and enjoy because it makes them feel like they have a friend. After all, they do. 

Whether this experience is through an online purchase with an order shipped to their home or in-person at our retail store with a gift bag, our customers know our brand through our signature wrapping efforts and quality. Everyone should be able to speak their truth, have an opinion, and have their thoughts heard. Being a woman, an entrepreneur, a member of the generation that's not hoping but instead acting towards a brighter future, and someone who considers themselves an outcast, I stand for having the right to make decisions on behalf of my business and to run it in the ways I see fit. I love having the freedom to choose eco-friendly options for my business and to do so without an added charge to my customer. I have a special relationship crafted over the past four years, showing them repeatedly that I'm doing what I can to make those decisions, not just for my business' survival but for the Earth's. We have never used plastic bags to package our goods, and we stand by our paper gift bags, not just because they proudly display our name but because they are recyclable and reusable, so you can gift again and again and make the most out of something as simple as a bag. I know I'm not the only one with a closet full of paper bags, reusable bags, ribbons from past gifts, and a stash of tissue paper from every birthday in the family; Our community is artists, and artists savor everything that could have another life. 

Our town of Swarthmore has recently been working on an ordinance that bans single-use plastic and paper bags along with other changes to the business district, including a mandatory $0.20 fee for the customer if they want a bag to carry their goods. On Monday, May 8th, the borough council discussed this ordinance, and many people shared their views. Students of SRS, townspeople, and business owners, including myself, made statements and voiced their concerns, followed by the borough discussing the ordinance and its many points. This discussion led to amending parts, including a decrease in the proposed mandatory fee to no less than $0.10 per bag that complies with the ordinance. In brief summary, the bag must be made of 40% post-consumer waste and is recyclable and/or reusable; more detailed requirements are written in the ordinance. 

I posed the question during my statement, "What problem are we trying to solve?" This is critical to finding the correct solution, as there are a few different areas in which we could focus our efforts. Are we, as a borough, trying to eliminate all single-use plastic? We were all in agreement that single-use plastic should cease in our town; that was made extremely clear during the meeting and through the business' efforts since October. In fact, at the news of this plastic bag ban in October, I ran to my illustrator @ambersnotebooks to create a reusable bag showcasing all the things that make Of Aspen unique, with the idea to gift one to every resident of Swarthmore. I didn't want a financial threshold to hinder anyone from participating in this reusable bag trend. I wanted to embrace this new victory through positive reinforcement and the physical item to encourage it. Unfortunately, this is how I realized a bag on everyone's doorstep was soliciting. This was when we told Swarthmore in our Swarthmorean article that we would be giving away 1000 free reusable tote bags on our opening weekend in early November, and I'm proud to say we successfully gave away 2500 bags between our community online and in-person. We also sell reusable bags, although those are sold at prices between $18-26, entirely at the discretion of the artists we work with. We could choose to sell our version of reusable bags for a mere $5-10 fee, but that would devalue the artists we work with and their time, the same reason we never offer sales, all in support of the artists' value. We've given away thousands of dollars of reusable goods in support of this movement to do better because it's important to do the right thing but essential to also value our customer's dollar and not charge them costs that aren't necessary. We live in an expensive world where it's been hard for most to make it by. I do not want to increase that burden, and I would rather pay out of pocket to benefit others than make their life harder. 

Is the borough trying to lessen overall trash volume? The volume of paper bags and their potential to be thrown out seems to be the top issue being discussed, although these bags could be recycled, reused, and composted. Yes, not everyone recycles and reuses, but it's certainly better than plastic unless you're considering every detail of the process, revealing that in making paper bags, there also are many poor impacts on the environment. 

Is the borough trying to lessen the burden on the business district from the cost increase of this switch from plastic to paper bags? It couldn't be, as $0.20 (now $0.10) does not even begin to cover the costs of paper bags. Although all businesses offer different bags, I speak for Of Aspen when I am transparent in sharing that my recyclable paper gift bags cost $1.28 for a small, $1.80 for a medium, and $2.06 for a large. We also have recyclable $0.04 flat paper bags that fit a sticker/card/small flat print. The reason behind the bag charge is to incentivize customers not to use a bag that could be thrown out. This proposed fee penalizes customers for needing a bag, encouraging them to do without or bring their own. If this ordinance is passed, I risk being fined $50-$200 a day if I don’t charge customers for bags. I personally do not want to charge a customer for a bag as I feel it is my duty as a business owner to offer a form of transport for my goods. That customer decided to support my business over another, and I should be able to let them take those items out of my store without more hurdles. If they're spending their hard-earned money with me, I have the right to not charge them more if I so choose. If any business wants to charge this bag fee or charge for anything else like a credit card transaction fee, they have the ability to do so; it's their business and their decision. 

I am in favor of a plastic bag ban, and I am in favor of taking action to support the longevity of the environment; I am also in favor of removing this added fee from the ordinance and taking the triumph of banning plastic as its own victory because it truly is. 

At the meeting, there was a comment that doing "something" isn't good enough, and we must do "everything" possible to be better. I agree with this statement. Everyone needs to be active in making a considerable effort to save our world. However, sadly, I don't know if our town is ready for that magnitude of action as we're just getting started on this journey to betterment. Doing everything we can is in favor of altogether banning the usage of bags in the business district and enforcing customers to bring their own reusable bags into any establishment. Other towns have implemented this, and if we have to do everything possible, why not this? There are many problems with this. To name a few, that would take months, if not years, to implement successfully, as not every member of town actively utilizes our business district. It also doesn't consider the different practices needed to successfully run the different types of businesses in our business district. Food service differs from retail, which differs from our grocer and other service-based businesses. Imagine walking up to a restaurant for a take-out order, and no bags are involved. Boxes of entrees piled up, expecting the customer to bring ample bags and work with the kitchen staff to bag the various meals with the customer's bag as other take-out customers arrive and diners are eating. Bags have use and can be crucial in running a business smoothly, although other towns and businesses have successfully done so without. I am not saying we act towards this colossal change, simply stating it as an option towards what the borough's problem is indicated as.

I think a simple punch card strategy would be a more approachable system to encourage consumers to bring their own reusable bag while not burdening businesses with charging added fees. Just as a coffee shop may offer a punch card to reward return customers with a free cup of joe when the card is filled, our borough could implement a punch card where customers who bring a reusable bag into any shop in town get a distinct punch/stamp on their card. Once it's complete, they can redeem it for a reward/gift card/etc. from the borough to help incentivize rather than penalize someone trying to shop in town. We can still mandate that recyclable/reusable bags are provided in stores when needed, but instead of charging customers, we can incentivize them to bring their own and return to shop in town again to get the punchcard filled.

I often think about how a town as small as ours can survive, and the problem that looms is attracting more customers to utilize our services. We have townspeople, college students, and people from surrounding towns, but that doesn't mean everyone is shopping at our stores, eating at our restaurants, or using our services instead of going elsewhere. What makes our town special? Many will say our love of community, our support of the arts and music, and our ability to be unique and share that with our town. I like to express Of Aspen through the artists/brands we represent, our support of creativity with our Artists Supporting Artists movement, our caring staff that tries to make our experience every bit as memorable as it can be, from our eclectic music taste playing in the store to our hand-painted window displays to our hand-wrapped gifts that leave the door. We are unique, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Our customers wouldn't have it any other way. In fact, they travel from near and far to visit our store when possible and make a point to share their stories with us. We've had customers visit from Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pittsburgh, Lancaster, South Carolina, and even Massachusetts, specifically to "see the magic in person," and that is something I'm proud to offer Swarthmore. 

People are willing to travel to Swarthmore to see what we have to offer, and I will not charge them a fee for walking out of my store with items that can't fit in their hand just because they're out-of-towners and didn't know. It's part of the service of walking into a gift shop; you get a gift bag. They savor these bags almost as much as I savor having someone go out of their way to support me and my dreams. I had an 18-year-old girl come into Of Aspen bursting with excitement because her birthday wish was to see the store in person, so her family made the trip all the way from Virginia Beach to visit and check it out. Every visitor who comes to see the store asks what there is to do in the area. We should shift our focus to welcoming visitors and having answers to those questions instead of charging them to shop in our community. If someone is choosing to visit our town and take the time to give their attention to us, we should savor it and make the most of it because the more they can link Swarthmore with good feelings, the more likely they are to return and bring a friend. We need to think optimistically and act with encouragement rather than penalizing and discouraging customers from our local businesses because the one thing we can all agree on is we want this town to not only survive, but thrive. Thank you.


  • Quincy

    Thank you Caroline for taking the time to write out your concerns in detail. I fully agree that we want to create less waste and I see your point why you wouldn’t want to charge customers… what would you think of having bag bins provided by the town where the community (and maybe school students) could contribute bags to be reused? Plastic, paper, fabric, etc. Each business and the borough hall could have them. This would let community members be active participants and I think many would be willing to have a place to share extra bags to be reused (personally I’d be overjoyed to be able to bring them somewhere other than the grocery store). I think it would be very exciting to be able to take this step towards a more circular system of use, while hopefully bringing more foot traffic into our local businesses.

  • Sharon Mester

    Thank you, Caroline, for this thoughtful post. I love your philosophy around your customers and I think incentives around bag use is a gentler approach. Great idea!

  • Alyssa

    I know I personally save every little card, sticker or bag I get from small businesses whether that be to reuse, regift, or even just to memorialize the trip. You are 100% right that some of these changes really just harm the small businesses it affects and don’t actually solve the intended problem. Let us know if there is anything we can do to support you or the town and I’m sure people will be willing to help!

  • Theresa

    Thank You Caroline. I too, will NOT punish customers for needing a bag. It’s ridiculous to single out retail businesses when banks, accountants, lawyers, etc. all depend on paper and envelopes to communicate with their clients just as a small example. The idea that we all can’t make the right decisions for our environment is insulting. I don’t need Borough Council to preach to me about “the right thing to do”.

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