Last week, I met up with Alec Mills, co-founder of DAME, a British company tackling plastic pollution with their organic tampons and reusable applicators. We spoke about DAME’s journey to fruition, challenging dominant brandnomers, and the future of FemTech and sustainability. DAME is a company I admire hugely for their commitment to sustainable periods being emblematic of a larger mission to increase women’s confidence and dispel the taboo around feminine hygiene. As imprinted on the front of Alec’s notebook, they’re changing the world, one tampon at a time.
Alec and his co-founder, Celia Pool, were at a dinner party on a fateful night back in 2015. After a couple of glasses of wine, they got on to the subject of the inconvenience women have of always having to have the right tampon at the right time, and the disastrous consequences of not. As with all great business ideas, they came up with the concept of a tampon delivery service that very night, but as the hangover receeded, the idea and passion did not. Thus, Sanitary Owl was born.
Sanitary Owl consisted of a subscription service to mainstream brands, such as Tampax, which packaged up all that you might need in a cycle: different strengths of tampons, panty liners, ibuprofen, heat pads and various others. It was being so close to the behemoth feminine hygiene brands that gave them insight into what actually goes into a tampon. Everything from pesticides to bleach, to glue to chlorine are thrown into a tampon, with no legal requirement to state it on the side of the packaging. Vaginas are the most absorbent part of our bodies, and the average woman will have a tampon inside her for a total of 7.5 years, using c.12,000 in her lifetime. Alec and Celia were horrified, and thus, DAME was born!
They had 3 core motivations for starting DAME, which remain true to them today:
They funded their first product via Kickstarter and were 500% oversubscribed. For people who aren’t familiar how Kickstarter works, DAME could promise a discounted product to early subscribers, and then go to manufacturers with a ready set of buyers, so any economies of scale can be maximised, and the product is a win before it’s even launched. Soon enough, they had every major supermarket coming to them asking to stock them before the first product was even launched, with Waitrose requesting exclusive rights to stock ‘D’ in all three hundred of their stores.
Though Alec and Celia had cottoned (…!) on to plastic being an urgent issue, it took the world a lot longer to wise up. David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II raised awareness of and popularised the plastic pollution agenda. The series came out 2 months before they launched DAME, and Alec puts their success partly down to this impeccable, fortuitous timing.
After 2 years of development, DAME launched D in February 2018, a reusable applicator giving more women more opportunity to have an environmentally friendly period. Alongside D, they launched an organic tampon subscription service, toxin-free and 100% biodegradable. “D honestly looked like a medieval torture tool to begin with, but we honed the design thanks to medical designers, and then finally took it to industrial manufacturers to mass-produce it”. Finally, design and comfort have trumped functionality and D is a beautiful blend of all three. It is made of Mediprene by UK medical engineers, meaning its durable, BPA and leak free. The applicator itself has built in Sanipolymers, acting as a natural, antibacterial steriliser. It is silky smooth with its semi-gloss matt finish meaning it’s comfortable and looks sublime.
“The brand is confident, stripped back and premium. It is so much more indicative of the women using DAME than the pink fluffy branding surrounding feminine hygiene products”Alec Mills, Co-Founder of DAME
The branding does a fantastic job at displacing the stereotypes surrounding feminine products. Alec explains, “we didn’t want pink, we wanted the colours to ooze the brand. It had to be confident and stripped back”. The choice of the assertive, “premium” green and silver makes it more indicative of the women using DAME. The products are tactile, from the sleek metal of the tin to the soft organic tampons to the roughness of the imprinted applicator grip. Alec is keen to banish pink fluffy branding and words like ‘discreet’ all over tampon branding. From as soon as puberty hits, women should not have to be scurrying around trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, which can harbour feelings of shame and vulnerability. As Alec says, “what kind of message does that give a teenage girl?”.
It’s easy to see the possibly damaging side-effects which may ensue with articles written about how best to conceal your tampon – https://tampax.co.uk/en-gb/tampax-articles/my-first-tampon/how-to-use-a-tampon-discreetly)
The Tampon Market
Competitor-wise, Tampax are the obvious choice, just due to their market dominance, but there is a huge rise in challenger brands.
DAME’s purpose is steadfast and concise: to nail sustainable periods. With its simplicity comes an easily digestible objective for customers and employees to understand, while still keeping them busy; “there is so much within that objective, we really don’t need to break into another market quite yet”. This also translates to their hiring process and retention levels being somewhat easier than others’ – there are people that are really passionate about both Femtech and sustainability, and so will work tirelessly to achieve this goal.
Alec is hoping that it’s this relentless, 100% focus on sustainable tampons that makes them authentic and perhaps more immune to competitors that spread themselves more thinly. Tampax have brought out an organic tampon range, Pure, this year in the US. But far from panicking about market disruption, Alec feels safe in the comfort that consumers can definitely smell authenticity, and that the next generation of consumers won’t buy into it. Alec tells me, “Tampax has developed a menstrual cup for $40 and it lasts for 2 years. Every other cup is about $20 and lasts for at least 10 years. It just shows that they may be getting involved for the wrong reasons and I hope consumers can see that”.
In March of this year, DAME officially became a B-Corp (benefit-corporation), meaning that they are a “business that meets the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose”[i]. At the time of writing, there are 191 Certified B-Corps in the UK, but Alec tells me this is growing exponentially. I joked that the B-Corp will become the new arms race, to which Alec agreed “isn’t it a wonderful thing that people are almost competing to be ‘the most sustainable’?”. Alec foresees a time where future consumers will view the B-Corp logo as something of a hallmark and buy exclusively from brands which feature it.
The Future of FemTech and Sustainability
Alec’s motivation for joining the world of Femtech is rooted in fairness above all. Being a man in this very female-led sector puts Alec in an interesting position of objectivity, “being one degree detached gives me an outsider’s point of view. I can see it as a problem that needs fixing rather than a personal vendetta”. Alec explains, “I became fascinated in what a 2-inch piece of cotton represented, a supposedly democratised product in the world. There’s so much in a tampon – capital short-termism, cultural associations, environmental impact”.
DAME’s biggest challenge is getting people to ‘convert’ to a more sustainable way of thinking. If people can switch their mindset to buy sustainable tampons, this could play as their ‘way in’ to more conscious consumerism. Alec hopes that DAME can support this switch, and in the future be a part of an integrated web of sustainable products that provide for all aspects of someone’s lifestyle – “it’s about building out a lifestyle that starts with tampons, and pushes sustainability further into the home.”
“It’s about building out a lifestyle that starts with tampons, and pushes sustainability further into the home”Alec Mills, Co-Founder of DAme
According to a recent YouGov survey of 2,000 respondents, only 1% of women described themselves as beautiful, compared with 9% of men thinking they are handsome.[ii] Alec can’t stand the effect social media has had on women’s confidence: “Mark Zuckerberg has done a fantastic job at creating platforms that have deteriorated people’s body image, and DAME is on a mission to build it back up”. He hopes that impact marketing will kick off, giving your entire social media budget to causes you believe in, as it “feels wrong that DAME is then giving money to fuel these platforms”.
When asked where he thought the future of FemTech was headed, Alec thinks that at its core will be convenience and comfort. “People are using data to catch up in understanding the space and are beginning to recognise the discomfort some women go through. Everything will become more comfortable and more convenient, making cervical screening, contraception, breast scans and fertility treatment more pleasant”.
DAME is on a mission to do good, from their packaging (combining
postage and packaging into one), to their hiring (making a conscious effort to
hire more women, and encourage their partners to do the same), to their charitable
endeavours (donating over 100,000 period products to charity partners such as
Bloody Good Period). They want to be
carbon neutral within a year and have recently received investment from Sky
Ocean Ventures in partnership with the UK government. It’s incredible to see
them gaining so much traction, so make sure you keep up to date with everything
they’re up to on their website, wearedame.co (not to be confused with We Are
Damé, an indie Dutch musician group)