After years selling purses and bags through her Etsy store, Halifax mom and entrepreneur, Tracy McNeil found new focus with eco-friendly housewares. Now through Teebags, her home-based sewing venture, she sells reusable bowl covers, snack bags, cheese bandanas, sandwich wraps, and yes — adorable purses, to a growing list of far-flung clients. Always one concerned with environmental issues, McNeil strives to lower her own family’s footprint — despite facing judgement for her commitment to sustainability. We spoke to her about her drive to make a difference, how she handles running a business — from home — while raising two kids under five, and how taking things one step at a time helps make the overwhelming manageable.
Teebags has evolved over the last 8 years, can you share the story?
I’ve been sewing since I was a kid but In 2010 I started selling little purses, wallets, toss cushions — stuff like that. That’s where the name came from T for Tracy and bags — because bags (lol). All the eco-friendly stuff just started in the last year or so.
What prompted the change?
Well, I bought the food safe — waterproof — fabric to make snack bags. People were asking for those. And once I had the fabric I was like, ‘what else can I do with this?’ So I played around with it at home, made some Christmas gifts and when my family saw those… well, it led to me listing a few on my Etsy Shop and it’s just blown up.
How do customers find you?
They come looking for eco-friendly products. Most people that find me on Etsy are searching for ‘zero-waste’ or ‘eco-friendly gifts’. That brings them to my Etsy shop and then they see all the other stuff, like the cheese bandanas.
How do you develop your products?
I do well with a certain product — like the bowl covers — and then go, ‘what else can I make?’. Every few weeks I think up a new product. I just released new sandwich wraps. They’re like the cheese bandanas but square. Basically a plate or a placemat you wrap your sandwich in and close with a velcro tab.
You mentioned Etsy. Is that where most of your customers come from?
Etsy has been my main source. The great thing about Etsy is it’s worldwide and they do a lot of the marketing.
Once I noticed what was selling best on Etsy I launched my online store. People there mostly find me through Facebook and Instagram. It’s nice to have my own little spot with more freedom than Etsy. I do a lot of custom orders. People really like the custom experience, they feel they’re getting something unique and special. And I’m also at Train Yard in Dartmouth.
Is the eco aspect of the business important to you?
It is. I think that’s why it’s successful. My passion is coming out and it’s shows in my product. I’ve had environmental interest since high school but I find it can be really overwhelming — knowing where to start. These last few years I’ve been trying to not put so much pressure on myself and just take it a step at a time. So I’ve been looking at my garbage to see what’s mostly there. I saw we were using a lot of plastic wrap and a lot of Ziploc bags, so that was a good place to start.
Your son is still quite young but does your daughter understand what you do?
She does, yeah. She spends a lot of time downstairs with me. I mean she’s mostly throwing beads around the room from my jewelry days, but… yeah, I think it’s really important for her to see that I make my own money as well and that I’m doing something I’m passionate about, something I love. I told her when she’s a little older we’re going to get her her own sewing machine too and she’s super excited.
What other ways do you bring sustainability into your family life?
I use cloth wipes, cloth napkins, and I’ve nixed paper towel. I guess it’s handy that there’s a resident seamstress in the house — and lots of different types of fabric available.
My next project — I might start some today — is reusable makeup pads — those little round ones. I’ve had several family members ask for them so I’m going to make a bunch for them to test out.
Are you always looking for the next eco-project or problem to tackle?
I was just talking about this the other day. How if you just start suddenly you find yourself asking, ‘well if I make this, why can’t I make that?’ So I make my deodorant, I’ve been making my own for years and I was like ‘well, if I make my own deodorant why can’t I make my own sunscreen, and lip balm’? Turns out I can.
What challenges do you come up against while trying to live more sustainably?
Well, I’m totally addicted to McDonalds coffee and I have a real fear of inconveniencing people. But I finally got up the courage and I brought my own mug through the drive through — I don’t go in because I have the kids. I asked if I could use my own mug and they went, ‘sure’ and I was like okay that was easy. Then flash forward to another McDonald’s and they were all, ‘no way’. And I heard when I opened up the conversation on Facebook that have taken their mug into the store and they used a cup to measure the fill then threw the cup out anyway. And that just defeats the whole purpose.
What a waste.
That’s what gets me fired up. Like we are trying so hard and it’s a lot of effort and some things you just can’t avoid. Why is the onus on us, the little people? I mean yes it’s on us to do our part but it would be so much more successful if the big companies would change their packaging.
Another thing I don’t understand is garbage bags. It doesn’t make any sense that we make something big, out of plastic, just to throw our garbage away in. Why do we need to use garbage bags? I don’t get it.
How do other people feel about your eco-efforts?
I get a lot of people acting as if I’m being ridiculous. Why are the people trying to fix things the ridiculous ones? The ridiculous thing is that we let convenience govern how we do things and it’s the reason we’re destroying the Earth; it’s too inconvenient to change our ways. I think that’s why I’m successful now — I’m taking it step-by-step so it’s not so overwhelming.
When I do implement a change it’s always well-received. Charlotte’s on board with all of it! And that’s the thing, if we raise our kids to think this way then it doesn’t have to be an inconvenience for them. It will just be their way. They’ll think the old ways were ridiculous.
And they surprise you. I ordered bulk bamboo toothbrushes and Charlotte had just gotten a Hello Kitty toothbrush for Christmas. But I showed her the toothbrushes and she was psyched about it, “I want to use my new bamboo toothbrush now”. She thinks it’s the greatest. If you just get out of your head and do it people are more accepting than you think.
Do you talk your daughter about the environment?
I do. It’s important for the kids to be on board. I just tell her everything. I don’t doom and gloom it but I think it’s super important for kids to know what we do has consequences.
Watch Tracy share her work on CTV Morning Live!
Robyn McNeil is a Nova Scotia-based freelance writer, bartender, and editor of the Whole Family Happiness Project. She lives in Halifax, with her son and a penchant for really strong tea, yoga, hammocks, and hoppy beer.
The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.