When it comes to talking about periods, both men and women have long considered the topic to be taboo — until now. Enter Conscious Period, a brand dedicated to providing healthy period products with ingredient transparency for women of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Founders Annie Lascoe and Margo Lang are changing the conversation around menstruation to a positive one, while using their brand as a vehicle for impactful social change. In honor of International Women’s Day this week, we chatted with these two inspiring social entrepreneurs to learn more about their mission.
HOW DID YOU LADIES MEET?
ANNIE: We actually met through a mutual friend. Someone neither of us knows that well, but who thought we would have a lot in common. It turns out we were both interested in starting the same company. I had started getting Conscious Period off the ground, meanwhile Margo had spent two years workshopping basically the same exact concept in business school. And right after she graduated, we met and decided to partner.
WHAT WERE YOU DOING PRIOR TO THE CONCEPTION OF CONSCIOUS PERIOD?
ANNIE: I’m a social worker by training, so I come at this from the nonprofit side of things. And, what I’ve been most excited about is really melding purpose and profit in a meaningful way that can bring forward social messages but also provide real solutions to women who need them every single month.
MARGO: My background is in the social enterprise space. I worked for Toms before I went to business school and then sort of curated my business school experience toward the education that I felt like I needed in order to be a social entrepreneur. I did a Certificate in Sustainability in Business and had a Social Enterprise Lab fellowship which really allowed me to curate my educational experience. So, and here we are.
YOU ARE SELF-DESCRIBED “MENSTRUAL REVOLUTIONARIES.” HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THIS BUSINESS CONCEPT?
MARGO: There are sort of three main issues that drove both of us to start this company and create the advocacy around our brand. The first, is that the FDA doesn’t require tampon companies to label the ingredients in their products because they’re classified as medical devices. So, women don’t have the opportunity to know what the materials are that they’re putting inside of their bodies for over 50,000 hours of their lives, which is obviously absurd. And, as more and more research starts to come out, and there is more conversation around this, there obviously are harmful, endocrine disruptors and reproductive toxins and things of that nature in the commercial products on the market. We really wanted to offer a healthy, safe alternative that was just as comfortable as the commercial brands, because our experience with the organic products was that they were a lower quality. We didn’t like the cardboard applicators, for example, and our friends really agreed with us.
There were also a couple of really compelling social issues in this space. Food stamps don’t cover period products and they’re taxed in 36 states as “luxury items,” which as a woman, you understand how absurd that is. After speaking with homeless shelters and other service providers, we realized that period products are some of their most requested products but they are always in short supply.
We really wanted to sort of address all of those issues in one cohesive model, by selling a 100% organic cotton tampon with a plastic applicator that the market wanted. But also by donating products to women who don’t have access to it. And going a step further and addressing that root social issue by providing jobs, as well.
HOW DID YOU FIRST LEARN ABOUT THE LACK OF TRANSPARENCY IN INGREDIENT LABELING IN COMMERCIAL TAMPONS, AND ABOUT THE LARGER SOCIAL ISSUES SURROUNDING THIS INDUSTRY?
ANNIE: We learned about these through policy changes that were happening. In 2014/2015, Canada moved to abolish the tampon tax, Great Britain did, France tried unsuccessfully, and Australia was working on it. And then that kind of legislation headway came to the U.S. Same with the ingredient transparency issue. Carolyn Malone is a congresswoman from New York who tried to pass an act to require more testing and ingredient labeling into feminine care products that failed a bunch of times — she’s still really working on ingredient transparency. And, around the country, politicians are trying to advocate for abolishing the tampon tax on the state level. Finally, there was an increase in public discourse about these policies and what needs to be paid attention to within the field of menstrual health.
The way we look at social enterprise is a culmination of product innovation, responsible and thoughtful giving that’s not just for marketing advantage, and social action on the policy standpoint. We can’t create real change unless we have legislators really backing us and citizens who are advocating for it.
MARGO: And, as far as the shelters are concerned and those sorts of organizations, we really wanted to make sure that we were serving our partners in the way that they needed to be receiving product. We are really intentional about how we give by making sure that we’re meeting their needs, and we’re not overwhelming their storage base. One thing that we learned very early on is that many women who are living on the street prefer pads over tampons because they’re easier to change without access to a clean, safe bathroom and there’s some hygiene issues that make pads a little bit easier. And so, through market research and talking to people who work at these organizations and serve these women every day, we decided to give pads.
THAT’S SO FASCINATING. HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT DEVELOPING AND SOURCING AN 100% ORGANIC COTTON PRODUCTS?
ANNIE: We were seeking out a manufacturing partner who had the capability and willingness to work with us and meet our demands. We did a ton of research, and called a ton of factories. Our manufacturer right now is in Europe. They make a really high-quality product by constantly thinking about what a woman needs. We worked really closely with them to develop it. We’re a young company and we want to push the envelope by bringing new, better products to the market, and that’s something we’re constantly looking to as well.
HOW DID YOUR COLLABORATION WITH FAIRCLOTH COME ABOUT?
MARGO: We met Phoebe Dahl from Faircloth through a mutual relationship, and absolutely fell in love with her brand and product. Her social mission is so authentic and in line with what we’re doing. All of us were on the same page about what responsible giving looks like and what is required in order to make sure that every product we put to market has as much integrity as possible. And so, through those conversations of mutual respect and admiration for what each other does, we decided to launch a product together.
CONSCIOUS PERIOD IS A BOLD CONCEPT AND YOUR SOCIAL PRESENCE IS BOLD, AS WELL. HAVE YOU FACED ANY CHALLENGES BECAUSE OF THIS?
ANNIE: The challenge is that visual menstrual advertising has been really boring and bland, always headed towards the, like, ladies prancing through fields of daisies and that blue liquid. So, for us it was basically putting up a visual representation of a menstrual product company that is an activist, feminist company standing to make real change in the world. Also, understanding that change happens slowly, and our impact will only happen if we continue to have a lot of integrity and are willing to pivot. It’s never been done before, and frankly, we didn’t know that our customer would be so excited about the edginess of our campaign. It’s moving us towards thinking even more outside of the box and constantly pushing the envelope. We recently were lucky to partner in a BuzzFeed video where three women documented their experience of free bleeding for a day to highlight what women who don’t have access for period products do. The video got over 4 million views in less than one week. And we were showing menstrual blood on this video. The women who did it are, in our eyes, absolute heroes for really bringing these issues to life in a very in-your-face and important way.
MARGO: Yeah. I think that one of the things that’s been most exciting about what we’re doing is that people are constantly emailing us and engaging with us on Facebook to tell us how they feel like we’ve given them the gateway to start talking about these issues in a way that they wouldn’t have felt comfortable otherwise. The number of really young girls that reach out to us on a daily basis who are so inspired by what we’re doing and want to know how they can contribute or be involved in this conversation is absolutely astounding. These young women want to talk about these issues. They have questions, they have concerns, they want to bond with people about this uniquely female experience — and that’s something that we are really excited about, inspired by, and frankly, proud of. We’ve been able to hone that message so other people can continue to bring it into their community.
ARE THERE STILL TABOOS SURROUNDING MENSTRUATION? AND IF SO, WHERE DO YOU THINK THEY ARE STEMMING FROM?
ANNIE: I think that taboos come from a lack of female companies being able to advertise these issues in an authentic way. More companies like ours are coming to light, which gives us more ability to partner with other brands and talk about these issues in the open. I think it’s just a lack of an ability for women to speak their truth. We didn’t anticipate how ready the market would be for what we’re doing. We hoped it would be. Our market research tool indicated that would be true, but until you’re putting a glitter photoshoot on Instagram, you don’t really know if it’s going to work. We’re going to constantly push the envelope and encourage our other partners and the companies like THINX, the menstrual cup companies, and other tampon companies to keep pushing envelope as well.
MARGO: Also, I think that men have never been invited into the conversation in a way that has made them feel comfortable. And so, by that exclusion or alienation, it created this weird distance where women have these experiences that aren’t shared openly. There hasn’t been that discourse in a way that is inclusive for everybody, and so, there is a stigma. And then, there are laws and regulations that don’t reflect what makes the most sense in the space. The minute that we can engage everybody in a way that makes them feel included and part of the conversation, all of the sudden that dynamic shifts.
HOW DO THESE ISSUES INFLUENCE YOUR PRODUCT PACKAGING?
MARGO: Our wrappers are bright colors and when we give samples, people think they’re candy all the time. We think it should be celebrated. There is no reason to hide. There is no reason to be ashamed. And whatever people feel comfortable with is what we want them to do. If they want to hide it in their pockets, that’s totally fine. If they want to hold it openly for the world to see, that’s also great. As long as women feel like they have options and feel like they have the authority to make the decision about how they want to interact with these products, which ones they want to buy, how they want to use them, and when they want to use them, then we’re happy. That’s the very core tenet of our brand — boldness and outspokenness.
IN A CLIMATE THAT’S INCREASINGLY HOSTILE TO WOMEN IN SOME WAYS, WHAT CAN WE DO AS INDIVIDUALS TO HELP STAND UP AND FIGHT BACK?
ANNIE: I think tapping into the power of the collective and speaking up. Whether it’s in markets or town hall meetings for local representatives or making calls, finding a way to be politically active is really important. We see the power that politicians have — it’s very, very real and very visceral for so many women.
Also, making really smart purchasing decisions and not taking for granted that the companies we put our buying dollars into have our best interest at heart. Women and young women are the most powerful consumer group in the world. American women have trillions of dollars sunk into a global economy, which means we have the power to make really smart decisions with our purchasing choices. If you’re already spending money on essentials like, tampons for example, why not choose company that’s going to give back, that’s owned by women, that’s committed to making the community better, and that is politically active?
MARGO: I think it’s all about being intentional. Doing the research, being informed, making those intentional purchasing decisions, showing up in a way that is really intentional, and how we interact with each other on a daily basis. I think there is something so intentional about the way that we speak to each other, the words that we choose, the way that we collaborate, the synergies that we see and take advantage of in order to move our agenda, or move our need as a holistic group forward. Being very intentional with those choices, and doing what you commit to do in a way that’s very purposeful, is kind of the best way to make progress, and band together to support each other in addressing all these issues that we all care very passionately about.
THAT’S SUCH A POWERFUL POINT. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE WOMEN WHO MAY BE INSPIRED BY YOUR STORY AND WANT TO BECOME ENTREPRENEURS, ESPECIALLY IN THE TABOO OR UNDERREPRESENTED?
ANNIE: I think that it’s one thing to have a dream, and it’s another to be able to take the personal risks necessary to make that a reality. For us, I don’t think the we would be doing what we’re doing every day if we didn’t believe so much in our mission and in the broader picture. It’s important to have a deep sense of purpose with an entrepreneurial vision and a ton of integrity. You must be absolutely willing to pivot and be really audacious. I mean, it’s not simple. Entrepreneurship is not a straight line. And being a social entrepreneur, especially in established product categories, is a huge challenge but an even bigger opportunity.
MARGO: If it feels stigmatized or it feels taboo, but it really does have its universal experience – why is it taboo? If you have to ask yourself those questions, then somebody needs to starts talking about it, so, why not you? Everything that Annie said is so true. You have to be so committed because the world will try to shake you and knock you off track. It’s not linear, it’s not easy shaking up an industry like the one that we exist in. But if you feel like that conversation needs to be had, and you really see and can verify the issue, and believe in it strongly, other people will too. All you have to do is bring it to light and instigate that conversation. That doesn’t necessarily mean having to start your own company. Maybe it means starting a YouTube channel, or a blog, or changing the narrative on your own personal social media. If there is a conversation that you feel needs to be had, that is stigmatized and taboo, then have it. Do it, go for it, and figure out where that leads next.
SINCE WE ARE A BODY POSITIVE COMPANY, WE’D LIKE TO KNOW, IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT MAKES A WOMEN BEAUTIFUL ?
ANNIE: I think a woman who knows her power and is willing to harness that power and do something positive for her community, other women, and people around the world is true beauty. A deep sense of purpose, conviction and belief in herself no matter what. Because, as a woman, that’s the biggest challenge — to believe in yourself.
MARGO: Also that willingness to be vulnerable and put yourself out there. Getting outside of your comfort zone in a way that you might not have been willing to in the past — I find that incredibly inspiring and incredibly beautiful.