We recently sat down with Olivia Cotes-James, founder and CEO of natural period care startup LUÜNA Naturals based in Hong Kong and Shanghai. The company recently launched a line of organic cotton pads and tampons, as well as reusable menstrual cup in Hong Kong. LUÜNA aims to empower women in Hong Kong and Asia more broadly with accessible natural, toxin-free and eco-friendly menstrual products. In our exclusive interview with Olivia, who shares LUÜNA’s vision, the social taboos that women face everyday, and why we should all live a little bit more honestly.
GQ: It’s great to be speaking to you, Olivia. Could you give our readers an idea about why natural period care is still relatively unavailable in Asia?
OCJ: Tampons specifically are not popular in Asia. In China, around just 3% of women use them. And there are a host of reasons, but the main one is due to social taboos about inserting something into your body. In Asia, there are a lot of misconceptions about tampons as a product, so tampon users in Asia have really struggled to get a hold of natural, safer, toxin-free tampons, which was the impetus for starting LUÜNA. Still today, health-conscious and eco-conscious products for women in general are hard to come by in Asia and beyond, due to these misconceptions and lack of awareness.
GQ: How critical is the need for all-natural period products in Asia?
OCJ: In my opinion, there is a critical need because the biggest barrier to the advancement of women and girls is the lack of trusted period care. The silence around menstrual health poses a threat to women’s lives on a daily basis. Feminine hygiene products that are not made with natural ingredients feed into this – the use of plastics, for instance, contributes to making people think that periods are dirty. As a result, women don’t want to see their own period blood, and even the idea of using a menstrual cup becomes disgusting for some. All-natural period care is important because it can encourage a healthier relationship between women and menstruation, which contributes to overall well-being as women.
GQ: The feminine care movement has taken off in recent years, with companies like Thinx becoming quite popular. Is this a part of the general health and wellness explosion, or is there something more to it?
OCJ: I think there is a slow but significant shift in attitudes towards womanhood. For a long time, issues around equal pay have dominated the conversation around equality. But now alongside the growth of the health and wellness industry, we are becoming more attuned to ways women are being subjugated, and how under-researched and under-valued women’s menstrual health is.
GQ: The pads and tampons by LUÜNA, while organic, are still disposable. Why create more single-use products at all?
OCJ: We want to grow sustainably, but our mission is first and foremost female health. It is a long journey for some women to switch from a disposable plastic product to a reusable silicone product, and we want to help women through this journey by starting off at the beginning. The first step is to get women thinking about why we should use organic and natural cotton pads and tampons, and the effect that conventional toxin-loaded products have had on their bodies. Feminine products made with plastic have long been associated with irritation and other chronic health problems. The next step is to get women to then think about the impact of menstrual products on the planet. We hope that as we grow and establish more trust with our customers, it can encourage some to explore reusable products that they were initially uncomfortable with.
GQ: In terms of taboos, what are some of the key issues that women face in Asia surrounding feminine hygiene?
OCJ: I think the most pernicious taboo women face is one linked to menstrual pain and symptoms being “totally normal” or “unavoidable”, and the notion that women are “naturally weaker” on their periods. This is problematic because it positions women’s menstrual health as a slight on the overall female experience. If society valued women’s hormonal journeys every month, the female experience would be easier and more enjoyable for many of us. The idea that period blood is “dirty”, which is a significant taboo prevalent in Asia, means that women often want no further interaction with their menstrual health apart from just ripping the plastic padded sheet off their pants and throwing it straight in the bin.
GQ: As a female-led company, what advice would you give to young women looking up to the business that you have created?
OCJ: Two things. One – if you’re creating a product, it has to be something you cannot live without. No matter what comes my way, I am so convinced that my product can change women’s lives, so it’s really difficult for me to feel unmotivated. Secondly, you need to define what success means to you, because it will lead your business decisions. We are committed to succeeding in a way that truly impacts the world positively, and is ethical, and this keeps us passionate even if our growth is slower.
GQ: What do you think is the biggest pressure young girls and women face today, and what is the most important piece of advice you would give them?
OCJ: Women are told that they should be doing everything and ticking every box, and still be looking and feeling fresh all the time. My advice is to really try your hardest to resist external pressures, whether it be on social media or within your own group or community. Live a bit more honestly, and this goes for men too! When we can be honest with our vulnerabilities, we can thrive because we are being ourselves, not someone else.
GQ: If you could choose one green habit that everyone should pick up, what would it be?
OCJ: Am I allowed to say to use the menstrual cup?! Yes, organic tampons changed my life – I stopped getting irritations for the first time in my life. But when I started using the cup, it totally transformed my relationship with my period. It is not just an eco-friendly habit, but it can collectively shift attitudes in modern womanhood, and be an educative and positive experience.
GQ: What is something you wish all young girls knew, that you didn’t at their age?
OCJ: It is just going to have to be linked to periods again! I wish all young girls knew that menstruation was directly related to their overall female wellness, both physically and psychologically. There are women I have met, who are in their mid-30s, 40s, even approaching menopause who are still confused and fearful about their bodies. We should be appreciating the journey that menstrual health will take us on throughout our lifetime.
GQ: In your opinion, what is the most important issue the planet is facing today?
OCJ: Plastic use. We exist in a forward thinking community, so sometimes we feel like this is getting more traction than it is in reality. Outside of our circles, there is still such a long way to go – too many people lack the awareness of the impact of plastic on our planet. So we have to speak louder about this issue to people outside our direct sphere of influence.
GQ: And of course, we always ask: team rice or team noodles?
OCJ: Going to have to be team noodles! There is this amazing dish of cold noodles in peanut sauce that the restaurant next to my Shanghai home serves. I’m absolutely addicted.
Lead image courtesy of Green Queen.