DIY hand poke tattoo kits – A Small Green Business in 2019

It’s hard to be fully “green” in today’s global economy. As a reseller, I create a web of buying and selling that spans the globe. I do not meet most of the people whom I purchase from and sell to. What can we know about each other? Where do these products originate? Who made them, of what are they composed? Where does my product, once used, end up? This is determined by the push and pull of a global economy – which is affected by currency, trade agreements, labor laws, environmental regulation, politics, race, and all is rooted in a history of colonialism.

I do call my business “green”, and loosely “fair trade”. That is because I am as green as possible and fair as possible: I keep an eye on my bottom line while weighing, calculating and researching ways that I can further green every aspect of my business – from the work space – to the kit supplies – to the ink cartridge of my printer. Can I get that cute baby glass ink jar from a place that manufactures in the USA? How much more per piece will that cost? Will the profits from selling my homemade stick & poke tattoo kits™ be impacted heavily?

Generally, I have decided to upgrade to green when I can, and allow the profit margin to narrow. That is the only way I can do this work with a conscience. As a former science teacher, I see this move into business as somewhat selling out. And boy am I! Sales have increased every year through 2017 and expect to increase sales for 2019. I started this business to help friends who love to sticknpoke but didn’t have good supplies – it is a Harm Reduction product. After 5 years of growing this business – how can I use this product to do more good?

Besides donating a percentage of profits to local social justice organizations and offering a “donation kit” I can research the sourcing of each item and make it better – for people and the planet.

A glass jar from China, possibly containing lead and possibly not completely sterilized costs about half that of one made relatively locally in the U.S. and that boasts being “pure, sterile and laboratory ready.” Plastic tattoo cups made in China are widely available and very cheap, however they are single-use and will certainly become fish food within a year or two. And so I get the U.S. sterilized glass jars at over 40 cents a pop, and I repackage them with happy part-time contractors (aka my friends).

My contractors make a “living wage” and in the Bay Area, CA with rents around $800/mo for a room in a house that means $18-25/hour is minimum for unskilled production work. I get a lot of emails about how inexpensively I could produce these in China or Indonesia. But I want to create jobs for my community in Oakland, CA. I would not be a Green company if I did not know my employees personally, or if I shipped supplies all the way to China and back again. All of our paper and brass Stick and Poke Tattoo Instruction Booklets are printed 2 miles away, in Berkeley, California at a unionized green printing press. It is double the cost of FedEx Kinkos, but supporting a local shop helps to combat gentrification and outsourcing of skilled laborers from the bay area.

I choose to package anything possible in unbleached wax paper, brown paper and cardboard – instead of a more durable, waterproof plastic. I worry that packages may fall apart if handled roughly by USPS, so the wrapping takes much longer than a plastic mailing bag that self-seals. My shipping labels are printed on unbleached craft paper and when the all-brown paper package comes to your door, it’s like 50 years ago – before plastic became ubiquitous. All labels and stickers are paper and must therefore be hand-applied. It has been worth the extra time and hassle. My packaging from kits sent a year ago is now soil, smoke or organic sludge – something that can rejoin the carbon cycle soon if it hasn’t already. It is now something that does not need to be stored for my grandchildren to rummage through when resources have become scarce.

I am happy to say that almost all of the kit contents sent out can be recycled or should disintegrate within a year, and that only the necessary plastics included therein will live to swirl in the Pacific ocean gyre.

How can retailer or consumer feel good about selling or buying anything that cannot be traced back to the source; and when discarded, cannot see where it may have gone? It is a strange disconnected time in which we live. It is not how humans have traded goods in the past. There is no responsibility forced upon us like before, no accountability, no personal interface. With my business, I try to pull some things back together.

The earth will continue to balance an imbalance through collapse, sadly starting with the beings most vulnerable, who had no say in a system set up to reward the rich and punish the poor. In some ways, this same system fuels my very business and that is the ‘rub’. As Millennials try desperately to connect to something, to the future, to mother Earth and to themselves – perhaps a tattoo mark reminder of how much they like pizza, their friend Hector, or a feeling in a moment of time – grabbing something otherwise pretty ephemeral onto a permanent register. They purchase this kit of organic vegan ink made in California and a pack of needles (from China) and they tattoo themselves as safely as it’s ever been possible – risking only regret (as opposed to Blood Borne Pathogens, infection & disease).

As all human cultures have done for centuries, we still want to poke our skin with ink to mark a time, a passage, an expression of self. We continue to trade and buy and sell, both near and far. We still make art, and skate, and eat pizza. What else can we do?

My advice to the owners of successful businesses: green and localize as much as you can. You’ll feel better having done so, and, collectively, we can make a difference.

This was a guest post by Nic West, owner of Stick and Poke Tattoo

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