Interviews

Celia Pool, Co-Founder, DAME

Celia Pool co-founded DAME to offer women a more ethical and ecological alternative to traditional forms of menstrual care. Its tagline? “Bleed red, think green”.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE

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“Being able to allow every woman in the world to have access to acceptable, accessible and sustainable period products is our real goal.” Celia Pool is discussing the nature of DAME, the brand she co-founded with Alec Mills in March 2018.

The two friends had set out to create a different business: a subscription service for branded tampons and sanitary pads. “[We] wanted to offer women more convenience and more choice,” Pool adds.

But once the pair started, they soon stopped believing in the products they were selling. Pool explains, “Like anything when you get up close to it, you start to see all the flaws and we just realised these things are filled with plastic and they’re filled with all this other crap which people don’t really think about and aren’t really engaging with.”

They realised that people are so stuck in habits either built up over a lifetime or passed down by elder female relations, that they couldn’t begin to imagine switching. Unless, Pool and Mills thought, the alternative could be ethically and ecologically better, both for the user and the environment.

Being able to allow every woman in the world to have access to acceptable, accessible and sustainable period products is our real goal.

Celia Pool

Shaking up the menstrual care industry

DAME pitches itself as a “sustainable personal care brand”, focusing on both women’s health and the overall health of the planet. Its tagline? “Bleed red, think green.”

It markets itself as the first climate positive period brand, meaning that they remove more greenhouse gases from the environment than they emit. DAME introduced a rigorous tool to measure its carbon output and commit to its aim of “turning the bathroom green.”

The first product DAME launched was D, a reusable tampon applicator which they created in collaboration with medical engineers; 1.3 billion disposable applicators are thrown away every year in the UK. Each time a woman switches to DAME’s product, the brand claims, she’ll prevent approximately 12,000 single-use applicators from entering the ocean. DAME also produce a hypoallergenic tampon made from 100% pure, natural cotton.

Don’t talk about it

Periods are rarely talked about, if ever. They are designed to be neither seen nor heard, with women slipping tampons up sleeves or lugging their entire bag to the loo, with brands even introducing extra quiet wrapping. Until 1972, TV ads for menstrual products were banned in the US. In fact, until as recently as 2018’s ‘Blood Normal’ campaign by AMV BBDO for Bodyform, period blood was shown as a medicinal blue rather than red.

Pool explains, “The language that has always been used around these products and periods has been all about discretion, [that] no one needs to know that you’re on your period.” Pool believes this stigma has led to a lack of focus on periods within the education system, meaning that the entire subject has become very hush hush, to the detriment of millions of young women.

Recently, different period stories have begun to emerge. In 2015, musician Kiran Gandhi ran the London marathon ‘free bleeding’, while an image posted by the poet Rupi Kaur of a woman bleeding through her tracksuit bottoms was briefly removed by Instagram. “There were all these little stories that started to come in the press and with it came this new conversation,” says Pool. “And it was amazing to watch that.”

For Pool this meant that when DAME launched, social media was a key focus for the brand. It was important to keep those conversations going. Pool adds, “That dialogue, that openness means that people are now questioning the product that they have used unquestioningly all the way through their life. Now we’re seeing a real change in people actually thinking, ‘no, I’m wondering what’s in the product?’ ‘What is it doing to my body?’ ‘What is it doing to the environment?’ And that’s been really, really interesting to see.”

Part of DAME’s offering is in empowering people with the information to make up their own mind, and then the product to match. They are giving women a choice where previously they hadn’t believed there was one.

That dialogue, that openness means that people are now questioning the product that they have used unquestioningly all the way through their life.

Celia Pool

A moment of change

Following on from the conversations spreading on social media, there were broader changes taking place around sustainability. “We could see women were using things like reusable water bottles, reusable coffee cups. People were getting up in arms about plastic bags,” says Pool.

DAME launched on Kickstarter just a few months after David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II aired, a programme which sparked a global conversation around the human impact on wildlife and the environment. It brought to light an entire market of people looking for companies providing solutions. It was, says Pool, “really, really fortunate timing.”

They took the decision to launch on Kickstarter to “get market validation,” says Pool. And validation they got in the form of exceeding their funding target in four days, receiving backing from over 50 countries and trending around the world on Twitter. 

One of the most important results of the Kickstarter campaign, explains Pool, was that it created a discussion point with people passionate to learn more: “We got thousands of advocates who love our products, love what we’re about and are there for us to ask questions to and really interact with.”

The attractively sustainable option

“When we first decided we wanted to do this product, we thought right; we want to make the tampon sustainable. And then we thought wait, hold on; sustainable doesn’t sell. There are so many amazing products that sit on eco websites not selling.” Pool is outlining the conundrum DAME began with; how to change people’s habits by making an attractively sustainable option.

She says they realised that something was stopping people from using the sustainable products already in existence, like cups and cloth pads. She realised it was fear of change that was holding people back; what is unfamiliar is too much trouble to try out, even if the evidence suggests it’s better.

In that moment, she says, the team realised they could do something about it: “We can take a product that they’re already comfortable with, which was the tampon, and just re-design it and make it much more sustainable, much more environmentally friendly but let’s make it a small leap for the consumer.”

[When I started] someone said…no one wants to talk about tampons in the pub. I was like OK, I’m going to prove you wrong.

Celia Pool

Design-led innovation

Just before they started, Pool went to ask people’s advice. She tells the story of how one person she spoke to wasn’t convinced: “Someone said, I don’t think it’s a good idea because you’re never going to make it on social media. Social media is all about the discussions that people want to have in the pub, and no one wants to talk about tampons in the pub. I was like OK, I’m going to prove you wrong.”

For Pool it came down to creating something people would want to talk about: “We knew that people being able to talk about something which traditionally they hadn’t really talked about was going to be really, really important for us…that’s why design was so important to us because we needed something that people were happy to have on their Instagram feeds.”

The brand has been design-led from the very beginning, to appeal to the Instagram age, to the very visual social media culture we live in. If a product isn’t aesthetically pleasing, it’s not worth engaging with, no matter how powerful or virtuous its goal. Pool thought, “why don’t we make it design-led, why don’t we make it beautiful, make it look aspirational because that’s the quickest way that we’re going to get people to convert to this way of thinking, to this lifestyle.”

Attractiveness was key to encourage people to convert. DAME wanted to design products that mean consumers don’t notice the difference between the brand they’ve used all their life and the one they buy today; except, Pool adds, “the environmental difference is huge.” For while DAME and Pool realise that sustainability might be the leading piece for the brand, “customers today look for the whole package.”

Staying true to the founding beliefs

Pool acknowledges the multiple challenges the company faces but says there’s one that outweighs all the others: “staying true to our belief as we scale up.” She cites Patagonia as a key source of inspiration on this point, a company who have stayed true to their founding ethos. Patagonia’s ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ ad is one of the most referenced when it comes to true brand purpose.

Pool believes it’s important not to underestimate how difficult that steadfastness must be. It’s something she is adamant DAME will retain as well, helped by the fact that the business has been B Corp certified since very early on in its life. It’s given Pool, “a firm belief in us and our system.”

B Corp businesses are committed to reinventing business by prioritising purpose as well as profit. Several of DAME’s business practices that contributed to their certification include a commitment to rethinking resources, supporting women’s health and wellbeing and striving for gender parity; only 22% of the UK’s designers and 11% of engineers are female. For Pool, being a B Corp means it’s “written into our company structure that we will try and use our business as a force for good.”

This is channelled through reusing packaging wherever necessary; applicators are all sent in repurposed boxes. They also offer work packing tampons to homeless people.

She does acknowledge that “we’re by no means brilliant because there’s so much that we looking to change.” She gives the example that DAME tampons were originally wrapped in plastic, “a process which we hated”, but the team have since been developing biodegradable packaging alongside their manufacturer.

By realising that failure is good, you learn from it and you just move on.

Celia Pool

Change for good

That continuous desire and openness to change and refine as you go is often what sets younger businesses apart. They are not afraid of change; on the contrary they want to run towards it, to dismantle a system that has been long in place and to create space for a new way of business that is good for both people and the planet. “We’re constantly trying to change and improve, recognising that at the end of the day, we have an element of disposable products around us and we need to always be thinking about how we can improve it,” adds Pool.

She’s excited about the future of DAME, as she believes she learnt from the fear of failure she had in her twenties. “I didn’t push myself into the unknown and I now see that that was a completely epic fail.” With DAME, as many a founder will empathise with, she pushes herself out of her comfort zone every day: “By realising that failure is good, you learn from it and you just move on.”

All around the world women live with the shame, poverty and lack of resources all associated with their periods. Pool believes that “in terms of the ambition, for us it’s basically to improve the world for women. For us it’s by making period products for both people and planet.”

This is no mean feat but by giving women access to clean sanitation and clean products, you are empowering them to lead more full lives. Pool, with DAME, demonstrates how, just because you don’t see a solution, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Create it yourself, with strong founding principles and you can change an entire industry in the process. You might even get people talking about periods in the pub.