I was so excited to interview Angie Miller, owner of Plymouth SoapWorks on Main Street in Plymouth because she makes the best shampoo I ever used – it doesn’t come in a bottle! – and I admire the grit, tenacity, and determination it takes to open a small green business during a pandemic. Angie is not only the scientist behind the soap, she’s also an entrepreneur and a renowned educator devoted to making a sustainable lifestyle affordable and accessible to everyone. She was named 2011 winner of NH Teacher of the Year for her work as a middle school English teacher at Holderness Central School, received the 2017 NH Outstanding Library Program of the Year at Interlakes, and shares her zest for writing, teaching, learning, creating, and embracing a green life with every customer who pops by the shop. This month, Angie and I spoke frequently over email and she told me all about her business, plastic-free living, and what it’s like to run a small business in these strange and interesting times.
1. Please tell us a little bit about Plymouth SoapWorks. How did you develop this interest and space? We are a plastic-free shop. We make our own products for your body and home driven by a mission to make eco-friendly living affordable for the regular person. As far as we know, we are the only store like this in the state...and maybe the country! We sell everything in returnable, biodegradable, or refillable containers. So when customers return any jars or tins, we take packaging off the next purchase, sanitize the returns, and put them back into production.
This idea came about when our daughter, who was serving in Americorps, asked for plastic-free products for Christmas because she couldn't afford them. This made us start reflecting on the connection between equity and environmentalism. We had the realization that if 100% of our population cannot afford to buy eco-friendly products, sustainable change will never be made. So we set out to democratize the market for our own town and state—a de-gentrification of sorts.
As an educator of 20 years, my focus has always been on equitable access to resources, so while this seems like a new branch in my life, it actually is a natural extension of what has driven me my entire career. Our space is incredible, and while we would like to take credit for it, our community is who has truly built it. They have been so gracious, welcoming, and enthusiastic. It is not just a shop--it is a community hub and we’re honored to be a part of it.
2. What's it like to own a small business in NH, especially during this pandemic? Pros? Cons?
Moving from two decades of teaching to becoming a business owner felt scary at first, but now that I am in the midst of it, none of those fears have come to fruition. The people in our community are so supportive of small businesses. They are invested in our success. We were originally supposed to open shop in 2020, but when Covid hit, our storefront fell through and opening a store when stores weren't even open seemed ridiculous. I signed my teaching contract for one more year and sold items online and for local pickup/delivery. This was hard. It overtook our entire lives and we worked from the minute we put feet on the ground in the morning until we fell back in bed at night. But beauty often grows from hardship and we were able to open our brick and mortar shop in 2021 without hiccups--we had worked through glitches, had built a solid product line, had a loyal following, and had the time to really develop our mission and values. I think the pandemic also forced everyone to reflect on what is important, and the people in our area committed to maintaining our Main Street businesses. The pandemic has been difficult and divisive in so many ways, but at the same time, it has also made us better.
3. I love your mission: Plastic-free living that everyone can afford to love. How do you make sure you live this mission in your business? How do you introduce these concepts to customers?
I grew up super poor- - no running water, cardboard on our walls. I was pregnant at 18 and lived in public housing as a single mom while I worked on my undergrad degree. I was a teacher. I know what it's like not to be able to afford high quality, eco-friendly products. I'm grateful for all of these experiences.
When we began to build our business, we knew that the first thing we had to focus on was quality. There are too many subpar products on the market and we knew if a product doesn't exceed expectations, there is always one that will in a plastic bottle. We also knew that if an item was good but overpriced, there would always be a less expensive one in a plastic bottle. So we focused on quality and then price point. And then the plastic-freedom. We also focus on authentic messaging. There's a lot of "vegan, non-animal tested, all-natural" soaps out there. We don't use flashy words- - instead, we teach our customers how to read labels and understand ingredients. Most soaps are vegan (unless they use tallow, which is rare). No small soap business has the funds to test on animals and there's no reason to - soap formulas are run through tried and true calculators. And “all-natural” is a really vague term that is often overused and misunderstood.
Our customer is truly everyone- - we have college students, single moms, nurses and doctors, teachers, plow guys, construction workers, contractors, high school students, dancers, artists... everyone! And many have successfully, in the past year, transformed their kitchens/bathrooms/showers/personal care to plastic free. It is so exciting to watch these individual journeys.
We try to be super transparent in everything we do, so educating our customers on everything from how much plastic is thrown into landfills every second to how the micelles in our surfactants work to keep your hair clean. We've found a lot of our customers love the nerdiness that comes along with having an English teacher/research librarian at the helm and that they appreciate the transparency we offer. We avoid catch phrases and green washing, and are not going to take up your time with excess descriptions. Instead, we want to empower our customers to understand how and why their eco-friendly products are made. We want them to read labels, ask the right questions, and be discerning consumers.
4. What are some products you'd like to highlight? Our top seller is our shampoo. There is a whole shampoo cult in Plymouth now! The second best seller is our Pura Vida dish paste modeled after the solid dish detergents used in Costa Rica and the rest of Central America. People love this! Our chapsticks are third on the top-seller list, but honestly, everything we sell has a good customer base. We also do a lot of special orders and events. We make special order soaps, we help with fundraising, we run private events making salves or salts, and we visit schools (or they visit us!) to talk about ethical business practices, environmentalism and equity, and science.
5. Anything else you'd like to share? What do you want people to know about Plymouth SoapWorks? We have a no-nonsense business approach. We want our customers to know that we see them, we know them, we are them. There are no frills, bells, or whistles -- we are straightforward and sincere in our concern for our local environment. We've sold over 2,000 bars of shampoo, 3,500 bars of soap, and 1,800 chapsticks in the past year--this makes an incredible dent in our contributions to landfills for the Plymouth area. Our customers are a living embodiment that small actions can build big change. And finally, if you do stop by, make sure you say hi to our incredible staff. We have been blessed to hire the right people at the right time who bring the right perspective to the table. Michael, Lily, and Kristina are invaluable resources who make every day an amazing adventure and ensure that our vision is brought to fruition.
Alyssa Walker lives, works, and writes in New Hampshire with her husband and two children on the southern edge of the White Mountains. Her journalism has appeared in the the New York Times Smarter Living Newsletter, HuffPost, and Engadget among others. She’s writing a novel. You can learn more at www.alyssamwalker.com.