“Bleed red, think green”
It’s no secret that our plastic use is out of control and having a devasting effect on the environment. As a society we are beginning to make changes to cut down on single-use plastics, however, something that often gets overlooked is the plastic waste that is tied to menstrual products. Tampons and sanitary pads are estimated to produce over 100 billion pieces of waste every year and they are the fifth-most common type of waste washing up on beaches, with nine plastic tampon applicators found per kilometre on UK beaches according to the Women’s Environmental Network. With the average woman using around 12,000 tampons in her life, each of them contributes 24,000 pieces of plastic to landfill, as most applicators have two plastic parts.
That’s where DAME comes in. Founded by Alec Mills and Celia Pool, two friends with a shared goal of cutting down waste, DAME is the sustainable personal care brand who are turning the bathroom green. The pair started out in the period product industry selling popular brands of tampons, pads and menstrual cups through their subscription service. It was during this time they realised just how much waste comes as a byproduct of menstruation. Through their research, however, they found that 60% of women still preferred using tampons with applicators over reusable options like menstrual cups. So, feeling the need to fill the sustainable tampon void, they created D: the world’s first reusable tampon applicator. And the world responded enthusiastically, donating in droves to the brand’s Kickstarter campaign, smashing the funding target in three days and ultimately overfunding the project by nearly 300% of the original target.
We speak to Alec and Celia to find out more.
Tell us a bit about yourselves and where you grew up.
Celia: We definitely didn’t start out life dreaming of becoming tampon salespeople. I grew up with two sisters and a mother and nothing was off the table for discussion, including periods. My father could be found in a corner talking to the dog.
Alec: Some of my earliest memories are picking litter with my grandpa on the south downs and of my granny repairing my clothes - they were real wartime generationers - and my parents are big conservationists, so I think an awareness of waste and the environment have been baked in. Although my needlework is non-existent.
Have you always been interested in issues of environmental sustainability?
Celia: From a young age it was there, lingering under the surface. Scouring charity shops and second-hand furniture was a big part. And always being aware at Christmas of that massive pile of packaging and rubbish that immediately built up after the 10 seconds it took to rip open all the presents. However, it wasn’t until I was at home with a newborn baby that the impact fully hit. Every day we discard our rubbish in so many places, bins at work, on the street, in other people’s homes. Being confronted with how much waste I was producing really knocked me to want to make a change.
What led you to want to start DAME? Where did the idea come from, what did you think was lacking in the industry that you wanted to address?
Celia: Like many good start-ups, the idea came about after we’d sunk a few glasses of wine – but it still seemed to make commercial sense the next day. We began selling popular brands of tampons and pads alongside reusable items such as menstrual cups via an online subscription service. However, we quickly realised that hardly anyone was going for the reusable options even though, elsewhere, people were switching to reusable coffee cups and water bottles. It made us question why. The resounding response was that, although people wanted to reduce their plastic footprint, switching from failsafe applicator tampons to something as different as a cup was too big a leap for many.
We believed that if we could create a product that was both sustainable but similar to what people were already used to, it would be easy to get them to make the switch. The average menstruating person uses 12,000 tampons in their lifetime. Given most UK tampon users prefer applicators, that means 24,000 pieces of plastic (each applicator has two plastic parts) ends up in landfill per person. Creating a reusable tampon applicator seemed like the obvious place to start.
And once we discovered that most tampons contain plastics, toxins and harsh chemicals, it was a no brainer to create a line of organic, biodegradable tampons alongside our reusable tampon applicator.
Alec, from a male perspective why was this project been important for you and something you wanted to get involved with?
Alec: I slightly walked into the menstrual space thinking that there was an opportunity to solve an environmental problem, but was soon exposed to the conversation and culture around periods. The statistics around mental health and a lack of confidence in teenage girls compared to boys are quite remarkable, and I think a lot of this is to do with how young girls feel about their bodies. If we can normalise periods and make puberty a positive experience, then I believe young girls are more likely to become confident adults. By building an aspirational brand that makes people feel good, we can take period products out of the bathroom cupboard, physically and metaphorically. I think we’ll all feel the benefit of that.
Why did you decide to start the campaign on Kickstarter? Were you expecting such a huge response from people?
Celia: It was all well and good that we personally believed the world needed a reusable tampon applicator, but we had to go out and see if others felt the same. For a small startup, Kickstarter is an awesome place to take your idea to the crowd and see what they think. Luckily there were a lot of people who agreed with us. We ended up being featured in over 100 top international publications, trending globally on Twitter, selling in over 50 countries, smashing our funding target on day three of our 30-day campaign and overfunding by nearly 300%. The phrase ‘jumping for joy’ does not quite cover how nuts we went after seeing the amazing positive response we got.
Why do you think there is such a stigma around periods?
Celia: Traditionally we just weren’t taught to engage with that area of our bodies as much. One quick lesson at school and maybe a brief chat with your mate and then that was it. At DAME, it’s really important that we build a brand and narrative of positivity around menstruation. We’re taking a stand against the idea that periods are ‘discreet,’ ‘dirty’ and ‘shameful’ - these are ideas that have traditionally been used to sell period products and can have a huge negative impact on how young teenagers view their bodies. Rather than creating a product that is intended to be hidden away, DAME products are designed to be displayed on the bathroom shelf, alongside your other preferred brands, so that we can finally normalise periods as an everyday element of life for half the global population.
Has technology affected the way women approach their periods?
Celia: 2015 was hailed as the year of the period: a woman ran the London Marathon whilst free-bleeding; there was outrage when a photo of a woman with blood on her knickers was taken down twice by Instagram; the Tampon Tax sparked global protest; and the tennis star Heather Watson talked publicly about how her period affected her game. After years of being shrouded in shame and fear, periods are finally moving into the public arena.
What propelled this change? Social media played a huge role in tackling this taboo. For all its flaws, social media has a wonderful way of bringing hitherto unspoken topics to the forefront, to be discussed, debated and often trolled. Even if you object to seeing an image of a menstruator showing their menstrual blood, the fact that it is visible for people to see is revolutionary.
Why do you think we are culturally becoming more open to talking about periods, especially in relation to women’s mental health, wellness, self-esteem?
Alec: Like mental health, there feels a liberation to bringing this topic out into the open: to not hide tampons up our sleeves, and to talk about it openly with friends and reduce the stigmatisation of something that happens every month.
It has also allowed us to properly examine what an integral part of life periods are. Frequently dubbed as the extra vital sign, periods are increasingly being viewed medically to be as useful as blood pressure, body temperature, etc. as an indication of your overall health and well being. I hope we will see the knock-on effects soon. In the UK, still, 1 in 4 women don’t go to get cervical-cancer screening (smear) tests even though they are free.
What would you like to see DAME evolve into?
Alec: We want to turn the bathroom green. We believe that by using beautiful designs that ask little of the consumer, we can make the sustainable option, aspirational. The planet is in a tight spot, and we need to innovate and rethink how we go about our everyday lives or the outlook is bleak. At DAME we’re on a mission to create low-impact, beautiful alternatives to bathroom products - and there’s no time to waste.