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Meet the Businesswomen Solving Plastic Waste and Menstrual Stigma at the Same Time

Disposable menstrual products are the fifth most ocean-polluting plastic product in the world. We live our daily lives surrounded by a cornucopia of plastics, yet, most of the time, we are blind to the true extent of our plastic consumption. When it comes to menstruation, period products most readily available on the market have plastic embedded in their basic design. Although they are equally as damaging as other single-use plastics items such as straws, they qualify as medical waste. So institutions are not obliged to keep track of them. Unfortunately, in the case of period waste, out of sight does not equate to out of mind.

National Geographic reports that a woman who menstruates for 40 years bleeds for about 96,000 days in her lifetime. That’s just under 300,000 disposable sanitary pads and tampons per person- and single-use plastic containers. But the female empowerment movement has a solution to the problem. We spoke to Erica Athena Lebrun, who co-founded Madame l’Ovary, one of the most chic menstrual underwear brands currently on the market. Together with co-founder Olivia Eltsing, this forward-thinking businesswoman has been tackling the issue of single-use plastic menstrual products. Although the company was born only three years ago, their products are now worn by more than 7000 women around the world. They’ve also managed to win a string of awards and become pioneers of the positive menstruation movement in French Canada. How? By designing a menstrual product that’s resistant and plastic-free.

Fall in love with the problem, not the solution. Because the solution might change. Embrace the problem. For me, the problem is waste on Earth. As weird as it sounds, I fell in love with this issue. It generated enough energy in my body just thinking about it. And that’s what keeps me going.

Erica Athena Lébrun
Madame l’Ovary Co-Founder

Hi Erica, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us despite your busy schedule. You’ve founded one of the first modern eco-menstrual products business in the world. Tell us more about how things blossomed.

I founded the company with my ex-girlfriend a few years ago. Olivia and I were partners for five years. I think it’s important to mention this because the business was founded as a “couple’s business”. We were two women, living in Mexico and starting a business. The fruits of which are a product of the love we shared and poured into the project, together.

I was living in San Pancho [on the Pacific Mexican Coast] and there I met Olivia, a circus artist. She had been travelling around the world and touring with her own circus company. In her life, she had needed some menstrual products that would allow her to perform. That would be super safe for her to use during her shows. So she designed her own type of menstrual underwear, essentially creating our first prototype.

When we started to go out, I would go to visit her to Guadalajara [four hours from the coast]. One day, while I was at her place, I got my period. I didn’t have anything with me, so Olivia gave me some of the pants she had designed to try. They were so good! In my mind, I was like “Why are we still using tampons and pads?”. I told my sister about them and she asked me to make her some. So, as a little side-thing to do, I decided to make some menstrual pants for family and friends. But the fabric I wanted to use was only sold in rolls. That would have meant producing hundreds of pieces. I really wanted some, so I had a little think about it and said… ok, let’s do it!

Was the first production hand-made?

Yes. The first batch we did, were produced by two friends’ of ours from Guadalajara. We did 400 underwear the first time. It was a long process. The cut, the pieces, the elastic… Still, we never thought back then we’d be making a business out of it.

When we came back to Canada, we bought a van to live in and travelled from festivals to fairs. It turned out we sold everything we had… fast and effortlessly. We thought we’d do it again. But we wanted to improve the design and do it professionally this time around. That meant we couldn’t work with our friends in Mexico anymore, because they didn’t have the machinery.

So we went to Colombia, where we found people who would work with us. But they said they would need a minimum order of 1000 pieces.

Is that when you did your famous crowdfunding? [Madame L’Ovary’s crowdfunding campaign raised about £25,000, exceeding their target by 22K]

The crowdfunding went well… we blew our objective by 894%.
I was in Mexico when we launched and I remember my phone just started going off constantly…

There was a demand for it, clearly!

Yes, well I think it was a mixture of great timing and launching something that was very aligned with our values. You know, I never thought I would be doing this… make menstrual underwear, I mean. But I feel I am very guided in this project. It’s my mission.

How did things proceed in Colombia?

The first time we worked with women in Colombia, Olivia found Marta, our first seamstress. It was big processes because we had to buy the fabric, find a guy for the cut, etc. It was a lot of managing, but it was fun. Marta was working with other eight women and her daughter. It was a female, family-run business and we really enjoyed it.

However, when we started to be incorporated, we had to move onto Marta’s sister… with an established underwear brand. She’s the head of the production and our brand is a side-line project for them. It’s much better for us because they can keep the cut onsite. That’s such a big deal for us. We can do many more things from afar. Even though we love being there as well. Colombia is home for me, it’s where my heart is.

Your business also has a social dimension. I mean, the fact that you’re reducing plastic at the source is enough a social dimension, to be honest. But there’s more to it, right?

Our number one mission is education. Education, nobody can take away. It’s like planting a seed that can actually grow and ripple. Because a physical product cannot be multiplied, but knowledge can. So that’s what we focus on. And the beauty of being a business is… we’re not a non-profit. We make a profit from what we do. And this profit can be used for anything we want.

We don’t have to justify where the funds are coming from and where we want to invest. That’s what NGOs have to go through, and it makes it more difficult. It makes the process longer because you have to ask the government and you have to get permission etc. So I’m really happy to have a business because I’m free. If I wanna put on a super crazy event, I can do it.

So we started doing monthly events in Montreal, each with a different theme. I would describe them as a roundtable. We invite two or 3 speakers we ask questions to … we serve chocolates and herbal teas, and we have about 50 women who attend. Eventually, we want to go online. Another project on the sideline is conferencing for teenagers in schools. So far we’ve been working with private schools… we haven’t accessed the public school system yet. We’re working on that now.

The last thing we’ve done s far with social and political implications has been commissioning a private study on menstrual waste. There is no study quantifying the exact amount of waste produced per menstrual period. The studies available have looked at waste in terms of kg, but don’t include blood in their measurement.

They were counting empty pads and tampons…

Yes. Basically the data they collected would refer to empty tampons and pads. They wouldn’t dare to ask interviewees how many they used per day. Because of shame and taboo around menstruation, even the data we have isn’t precise!

So we conducted a private study, just for the city of Montreal, because that was the most accessible option. We discovered it would cost less money for the government to pay for 50% of the reusable option [cup, underwear, etc] up to 100 dollars per women. That would save them money in comparison to what they would have to spend for dealing with landfill waste.

Is this study available on your website?

Yes, it is. It’s currently in French, we haven’t translated it into English yet. You can find it in the Sangdéchet area of our website.

I’ve been meaning to ask you about that. What does it mean?

Yes, well Sangdéchet is a wordplay in French. Its literal meaning is “waste blood”, but the word “sang” sounds like “sans” [without], so it means “our blood is not waste”. It doesn’t work quite the same in English. Thanks to the sangdéchet campaign, 12 cities in Quebec will reimburse women by 50% when they buy eco-menstrual products. They just need to provide receipts.

You ladies are ahead of the game! I Read Montreal is pledging to go Zero Waste by 2025. Is the mayor of Montreal a woman?

Yes, she’s a woman.

I also read that Canada is very forward-thinking in this respect. It’s one of the four countries in the world which doesn’t apply a luxury tax on period products. In the UK, Scotland has just pledged to make period products free. But the stats say that only 3 out of 9 of the main supermarket chains stock plastic-free period gear. What about your country?

I went to Ottawa to meet with a delegation trying to tackle this issue. Their project is to introduce a law that will ban single-use plastic. They also want to include more women in the general workforce. To increase women in the workforce, one of the ideas was to include tampons and pads for free in all governmental offices.

I told them it was a very good initiative, but then if they want to ban single-use plastic, it wouldn’t work! So my advice was to include the opportunity of offering reusable period products.

Our number one mission is education. Education, nobody can take away. It’s like planting a seed that can actually grow and ripple. Because a physical product cannot be multiplied, but knowledge can.

Erica Athena Lébrun
Madame l’Ovary Co-founder

What was their response? And how many women were there, making these decisions.

They thanked me and they said they will consider my point of view. In this particular meeting, there were none. The minister is female, but she wasn’t present at this meeting and she has an all-male entourage.

What have been the challenges of setting up your eco-business?

You know, I think we all have our part to play in the bigger play. I feel like sometimes with my business, I really want to be perfect in all areas. But then I surrender to the evidence that my challenge is to bring an alternative to women. An alternative that creates less waste on Earth. That’s where my main focus has to go. Every choice we make tries to take us as close as possible to being zero waste. Our product is completely packaging-free. But when we ship, we use recycled envelopes. Which is still a waste. We’ve thought about organising pick-up locations, so to be completely 0 waste.

Maybe what’s hard is to not get lost in all those things you could be doing.. but to keep the part of your plate very clean. And try to be creative with it. Constraint pushes us to be more creative. The challenge is to try to be the best you can in everything. And also accept that we’re not perfect.

What you are saying is so important because… some effort is better than one. It’s important to try. And you’ve been doing so great, I’ve been following Madame l’Ovary since… by the way, what an awesome name! How did you come up with that?

Basically it’s “Love Your Ovary”. And it’s also a wink to Flaubert’s character from the homonymous Madame Bovary, who was a bit of a feminist, you know… out there, breaking the rules etc. I can’t take credit for the name, it came 100% from Olivia.

Last question: what are your main tips for starting a green business.

Find something that really resonates with your heart. Find a mission. I find that there’s this aura around being an entrepreneur. It’s as if people think it’s sexy to be an entrepreneur. Like, it’s a trend! But the truth is, it’s really hard. If you don’t find a cause or a something that really makes your heart vibrate, you’re probably gonna run out of gas. In that case, it’s so much more simple to have a 9-to-5 job. For me it became my life, I’m only just starting to have time for myself.

Fall in love with the problem, not the solution. Embrace the problem. For me, the problem is waste on Earth. So, as weird as it sounds, I fell in love with this issue. It generated enough energy in my body just thinking about it. And that’s what keeps me going.

If you want to keep up with what these amazing ladies are doing, follow Madame l’Ovary’s Instagram or Facebook.

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