Beyond Net Zero Hero: Alec Mills, Co-Founder of DAME

Teal coloured asset with name, photo and job title of Alec Mills, Co-Founder, DAME

“A big part of our ethos is that the sustainable option has got to be aspirational, it’s got to be desirable, otherwise people aren’t going to switch over.”

Alec Mills, DAME

DAME has considered both the impact of plastics and carbon footprint when developing products – the former perhaps being the most obvious issue when it comes to period products. 

“The difference between net zero and something like plastic is that we can see plastic bottles everywhere, it’s a very tangible thing,” Alec points out. “Whereas with carbon dioxide or any gases, it’s all invisible and we don’t really think about it.”

In actual fact, the carbon footprint of period products is significant. 

“Not many people think of period products as being particularly carbon-emitting, but the period industry produces 15 million tonnes of carbon annually, which is the same as 3 million cars driving on the road for a year.”

Alec and the team at DAME have spent a long time looking at the lifecycle of their products in order to calculate how to have the least impact on the environment – down to ensuring that their reusable tampon applicators contain antibacterial materials to avoid the need to sterilise the product in boiling water after every use, which would increase its overall carbon footprint. 

“The huge impact we can have is on thinking about the entire lifecycle of our products… and ensuring that where we would use plastic one side, we can also reduce carbon on the other,” explains Alec.

This strategy has led to DAME becoming the world’s first climate positive period brand, and the first ever recipient of Carbon Footprint’s Carbon Neutral Plus certification.

Alec believes B Corps are at the forefront of an important movement towards transforming capitalism. “I think we have to get capitalism to work for us. It’s a very powerful force. And it’s about time that we harnessed its power and diverted money into those areas that really matter, on the timescales that actually work.”

Jenny Briggs, Greenhouse PR (00:08)

Welcome to the Beyond Net Zero audio series.

We are at a critical moment. According to the IPCC, if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, it’s essential that we cut net global carbon emissions by 45% in the next decade, reaching net zero by 2050.  But what if businesses could go one step further, reaching net zero and beyond by 2030? We’ll be interviewing game-changing organisations throughout B Corp month to find out how we can create and communicate a net zero future. The B Corp accreditation has huge potential to inspire more businesses to drive positive and meaningful action on climate change. So please tune in and listen to a series of business pioneers leading the way. 

Hello, today I am joined by Net Zero Hero guest Alec from DAME, an innovative company who are on a mission to make periods positive. They launched the world’s first reusable tampon applicator and are focused on making their products sustainable, accessible, and acceptable – it’s a bit of a tongue twister – for all. Welcome Alec.

Alec Mills, DAME (01:28)

Hi, Jenny, thank you so much for having me. I’m sorry, that was a real tongue twister, something that we constantly battle with.

JB (01:36)

Thanks for coming on. Now, this audio series is about showcasing the B Corps who are going above and beyond to exceed their B Corp accreditation and net zero targets. Because ultimately, we need businesses to adopt regenerative practices in order to create a fairer, greener future for everyone. So I wanted to kick off by asking for a quick 30 second introduction to DAME, and what your business is, why you founded it and what your big mission is.

AM (02:04)

We are DAME and we make sustainable period products. And our mission is to provide a sustainable period product for every woman on the planet. We started off with the world’s first reusable tampon applicator, which was specifically aimed at reducing the 1.3 billion plastic applicators that get thrown away in the UK every year. We also make organic cotton tampons that are toxin free and made without pesticides. And we’ve just launched a reusable pad. And the aim is to make sure that there is a comfortable high performance solution for every person on the planet that doesn’t cost the earth.

JB (02:45)

That is definitely a mission I can get behind. And I’m so in awe of your beautiful packaging and design. I think you’ve really made the reusable tampon applicator beautiful, which I don’t think anyone thought it could be, so thank you for that as well. Because I think that’s there’s a lot of taboo around periods anyway, so making them a little bit more beautiful in design really will go a long way.

AM (03:08)

Well, I think it’s a big part of our ethos, that the sustainable option has got to be aspirational, it’s got to be desirable, otherwise, people aren’t going to switch over. And I always get bullied for it in the office but I keep referring back to the hippies of the 70s and their sandals and hemp jackets. They were onto a good thing but it just wasn’t necessarily the sort of design ethos that the mainstream wanted. And so that’s a really important part of our process of trying to convert people.

JB (03:42)

So what role do you think the B Corp movement has in the UK achieving and exceeding its net zero targets?

AM (03:49)

I think B Corps can be incredibly important, because it provides that structure and that framework for businesses in order to have the impact that they want to have. And there’s clearly a desire now for people to do good. And a lot of businesses don’t know how. And it’s great to have that, not roadmap, but I guess guidebook, on how to be better.

And the way we see it is we all live our lives on a personal level, maybe giving a little bit back to charity or using shopping locally or whatever it might be. And the power of B Corp is very much that it can take that good, that pathos and that passion for change and and dial it up on a corporate level, which is really exciting. And it seems now as far as I can tell, that there’s serious momentum and businesses are almost wanting to use B Corp as a badge of honour and they’re all racing to try and get it. Almost if you don’t have it, well then what are you? And that’s come from the consumers, which I think is really great.

JB (05:05)

And really, really powerful as well that it’s consumer led. Was the B Corp accreditation always part of your business model, because it feels like sustainability is obviously at the very key heart of everything that you do? So have you always intended on being a B Corp?

AM (05:20)

Well, we set out to tackle the plastic waste issue. So sustainability was certainly at the heart of what we’re doing. And a lot of people think B Corp is about sustainability. It’s not, I mean, sustainability is one thing that feeds into it, but actually, it’s so much broader than that. So sustainability was certainly a tick box, but also on a personal level, Celia, my co founder, and I, have always believed that business could be doing better, and like we should be treating each other like we’d like to be treated in our personal lives. And businesses don’t necessarily need to be the big bad capitalist monsters that they are. And so a lot of it is our own personal belief. And we decided to run DAME according to the rules that we’d like to play by.

Then we discovered DAME and did this hackathon in 2018, and ended up winning the B Lab hackathon. And when we were there, it just felt like we had – it sounds so cheesy – like this was a long lost family, everyone there had exactly the same thoughts as we did. And we thought, oh my God, this really does feel like home and it’s great that other people also think that business doesn’t have to be so kind of, claws out. And so it wasn’t necessarily from the very start. But we were kind of already a B Corp before we became a B Corp, if you know what I mean? And B Corp was just a really lovely home to come to.

JB (07:04)

That makes a lot of sense. I’m glad to hear that you’ve found business peers, who really share those values, because I think that’s also what will help us to do better is just learning from others. So really, really good to hear. And as a company, how have you approached your net zero targets?

AM (07:22)

Well, we try and take a holistic approach on everything. And one of the big challenges of reducing plastic is that the consequences of that is that carbon emissions increase. I mean, you look at paper bags versus plastic bags. And actually, plastic bags are incredibly good for the environment in terms of their manufacturer, but they’re just stinky things that hang around for hundreds of years. So when we design our products, we always think about that holistic thing. And our pads, for example, reduce 40 times the carbon of disposable pads. And not many people think of period products as being particularly carbon emitting, but the period, industry produces 15 million tonnes of carbon annually, which is the same as 3 million cars driving on the road for a year. So it’s a big thing.

And so, yes, our pad reduces plastic, but when we did our carbon analysis, we realised that actually, it’s the washing of the pad, that’s going to cause the most amount of carbon. And so we designed a dry bag where you can pre soak your pad in. And by pre soaking it, you can then wash it on a 30 degree wash, and you don’t need to wash it on a hot wash. And if you wash it on a full wash, we have 40 times carbon reductions. But if you wash it on an anti wash with just your pads, because you’re nervous about the blood leaking into your laundry, well then it’s actually three times the carbon of a disposable pad. So the huge impact that we can have is on thinking about the entire lifecycle of our products before just making them and ensuring that where we would use plastic one side we can also reduce reduce carbon on the other.

And likewise, rather than boiling our applicator after use and the boiling of the water would obviously increase its footprint, we baked in these Sanipolymers so it’s self cleaning, and it’s 99.999% antibacterial. So all you need to do is rinse under some cold water and then it’s good to go. So on a product level, we really do try and focus in on that. And then on a company level, our supply chains are as short as they can be and we try and make our products using as little resources as possible, or reusing where possible. And then we have offset the rest, which is, I guess another whole story.

JB (10:26)

It’s really interesting as well, from a product level to hear how you’re almost claiming responsibility for creating these products, and actually, for their whole lifespan afterwards. So I can see there’s a big education piece on making sure your customers are also continuing that journey to reduce carbon emissions. How are you approaching that conversation with them, just to make sure that they’re following that guidance.

AM (10:52)

We post a lot of graphs on our Instagram grid, we get a bit technical. Because I think there’s a lot of greenwashing as we all know, and there’s a lot of people who  just slap slogans on on things. And we like to show people that we go the extra mile and really do our calculations so that they can trust in us. And I think that authenticity is a really important thing for consumers who are increasingly aware of this stuff. And then in terms of the awareness of, let’s say, something like washing, we’ve teamed up as of next month with Smol, who’s a washing detergent delivery company. And through teaming up with them, we can really educate more people about smart washing.

And I guess what’s great about the B Corp movement, and about the sustainability movement in general is that as a business, you can do stuff which might not have a big impact on your own customers necessarily. But by doing things in a certain way, you might just inspire another business to take the same approach. And we certainly have been inspired by lots of other people and it all filters in because we’re all ultimately swimming in the same direction here. And so the process of using Smol and smart washing, you hope that by educating people about using a full laundry load, every time you wash, maybe our customers will go off and think about that on any other wash that they might do. And that way we can have little ripple effects that pass out.

JB (12:36)

Little positive ripples.

In this podcast, we really wanted to dive into the concept of net zero because I think lots of people are really confused by it and it just sounds like a buzzword, that – you’re right – I think a lot of greenwashing is starting to circulate around. And so from your perspective, what does this net zero future look like?

AM (13:04)

I mean, it ultimately is a future where we don’t contribute any more to the damaging of our ozone layer and through the emissions of not just carbon dioxide, but of all the other gases that are starting to warm up the planet. As Bill Gates spoke about the other day, we need to do so much more than what we’re doing, we actually need to go down, beyond zero and actually suck out some of the dangerous gases that are in the air. Otherwise, we’re not going to get to where we need to be quick enough. So what is net zero – it is the rapid changing of production and use of energy so that we don’t contribute any more, and then we also need to pair that with the removal of emissions through things like seaweed or sucking out carbon dioxide. There’s many people looking at this at the moment, and it’s really exciting challenge, but it’s a huge challenge. I mean, it puts COVID into a little box.

JB (14:19)

Yeah, it really does. I’ve become so fascinated with the power of kelp recently. I think you’re right, the potential for drawdown from kelp is is absolutely enormous. So that’s been a new passion area of mine over the last few weeks. And what do you think the general public understands about net zero? Do you think it’s a commonly understood term?

AM (14:44)

I don’t think it is. I think people think it’s about global warming. But the detail of that beyond that and how it can happen, I think is not necessarily widely understood. I mean, hell, I don’t necessarily understand all of it. And it’s what I do every day. But as long as people understand the key point that it’s about consuming less, and the energy that we do requires from renewable resources, then I guess people don’t necessarily need to know all the science. And I think as a brand, we can do our bit to try and educate people. But it is complicated, just like recycling, just like all these other things. And I guess the difference between net zero and something like plastic is that we can see plastic bottles everywhere, it’s a very tangible thing. Whereas with carbon dioxide or any gases, it’s all invisible, we don’t really think about it.

JB (15:57)

Linked to that, what do you think we could do from a language perspective or from a visual perspective to bring net zero to life for people and help communicate it? Because I think you’re right, the plastics debate, maybe after the David Attenborough Blue Planet moment, really brought everything to the front of people’s minds. But how do you think we could do a similar thing, but just around the concept of net zero and reducing emissions?

AM (16:25)

I watched – because I’m a total loser – I watched a programme on landfill the other day, and that visually brought to life so much of what net zero is all about. Which is useless consumption and not thinking about end of life. Obviously, it’s also about energy, and wind farms and all the rest of it. But for me, they were doing an archaeological dig on the side of this riverbank, and looking at 1970s vinyls and other things, and it’s like wow, this stuff really hasn’t gone anywhere. And look at it all just stacking up and stacking up and stacking up.

And for me, visually, it just showed how everything that we use in the home ends up somewhere. And all of that has a price. And so I think bringing in that visual element as much as possible is really helpful. From an energy point of view, I think it’s a lot easier to do it because you’re looking at quite pretty and uplifting things like a wind turbine or tidal power, and it’s a lot more natural, a lot more digestible. And at the end of the day, I think people always like to consume things, whether it’s mentally or physically, that look good. And I think if you have a sunny wind turbine and all that it helps people digest it, certainly I remember learning about that at school. And I remember those wind turbines, it really stuck with me because it was always a very lovely idea.

JB (18:26)

I completely agree. That landfill programme sounds really fascinating, because I think that you’re completely right, that there is no ‘away’ when people throw away rubbish or get rid of something. I think we did a period campaign a few years ago, where it was about trying to raise awareness of period waste going down the toilet, and how lots of people were doing that and thought that the problem had gone but actually due to sewage overflows, it was ending up on beaches and impacting marine life. And the awareness of the public was just so low to that being an issue. And I think people, because of the taboos around periods as well, for “actually I just want it to be gone, I don’t want it in my bathroom” – the impact of that and the idea that that was then ending up in beautiful spaces and impacting wildlife, I think really bought it to life. So a lot more work to be done.

AM (19:21)

Do you remember when the council in a town in the UK stopped working or they went on strike, and everyone’s rubbish ended up stacking up at the end of their gardens or lay in the front of their houses? And it was such a powerful moment because people for two weeks had to look at what they threw away. And then you look down the street and they were just hundreds of these huge bags and you think, God that’s just one street in the UK, imagine this dialled up. Maybe there’s something to be said for that. You know, maybe you get charged per bag and you make people really think about how much they throw away. I’m not saying that’s a solution, but in answer to your question about how do you translate some of these concepts? Well, that’s a very powerful manifestation of our overconsumption.

JB (20:17)

Yeah, I think you’re calling on all recycling and bin men to go on strike.

AM (20:25)

I like my bin men too much.

JB (20:28)

I’ll finish off by just asking you about the future and what ambitions you have for Dame over the next five to 10 years.

AM (20:37)

We’ve got a day dream and a day job, and our day dream is to make sure that every person on the planet has access to sustainable period products. First of all, that’s not in the UK, so we need to expand beyond the UK. Second of all, some people on the planet don’t even have any period products. So that challenge of getting them an affordable, sustainable solution is also quite a challenge. And so that’s our daydream.

And then our day job is to keep improving our products, keep making people believe that sustainable period products are normal, reusing them is normal, period blood is fine. And it’s become so evident that one of the great blockers to using sustainable period products is this handling of period blood. So a big thing that we’re trying to do is push the acceptability of periods. normalise it, and you may have seen, we were on the side of 200 London Buses with a big tampon and tampon string. And that’s not just brand awareness, that’s trying to push what is deemed normal. That’s a big part of it, because if people accept their period blood, the next step is reusable products, which means that they will be more sustainable, and so the two missions are very much hand in hand. And then from a net zero point of view, we offset our emissions.

JB (22:24)

Could you chat a little bit more about how you’re going beyond net zero, maybe really explain how you’re offsetting your work?

AM (22:34)

Sure, the dream is obviously to reduce your emissions wherever possible, but until you can get your footprint down to zero, we think the next best thing is offsetting. We explored this for a long time, and we didn’t want to just plant trees, because it’s not necessarily totally watertight, that whole scheme. And we ended up funding a project in Uganda where we pay for villages boreholes so they can get clean water straight out of the ground. And what I love about this project is that not only does it stop wood being cut down and healthy trees, it also stops wood have been burned, because ultimately, they don’t need to boil water to keep it sanitary. But also because women and children don’t have to go out and collect firewood, they can spend more time being educated at home, and there’s much less chance of them being raped. And it gives me so much joy, this project, because it’s such an all-round solution. It’s not just offsetting, but also furthers the Dame mission of protecting women around the planet, or improving their lives rather. So whilst we might have 40 times carbon reduction on our pads, there’s still carbon and that was a great scheme for us to find.

JB (24:17)

Thank you for going into that. I think often, the whole world of offsetting is quite confusing, and lots of people are adopting the traditional form of tree planting, and often the trees aren’t being planted. Maybe they’re monocultures or they’re not being planted in the right places. So to hear about other projects is really, really interesting. I’m just going to finish off and ask you what vision you have for the next 10 years for the UK and the net zero movement here. What would you like to see?

AM (24:53)

Gosh, we were having this discussion in the office the other day, and we were all thinking about, if we were on the front benches of Westminster, what would we really be trying to hammer home? I think on quite a small level, bringing in much more carbon awareness. So having carbon footprint on a traffic lights scale on every product a little bit like you get with your nutrition, so that people actually look at something in another way, and they might just see whether this is good or bad for the planet in a very comparable way to other products. I think it’s much deeper taxes on those processes that produce more carbon. And I think we need to bring forward our timelines massively.

If we can phase out diesel cars in the space of five years, why the hell can’t we do that for for the renewable energy industry and say that in the next five years, 50% of all your energy has to come from wind farms? And by doing that, by artificially buoying that demand, suddenly, there’s going to be a lot more interest in building wind farms. And I think we have to get capitalism to work for us. It’s a very, very powerful force. And it’s about time that we harnessed its power and diverted money into those areas that really, really matter, on the timescales that actually work.

JB (26:46)

I completely agree. I think we need a huge amount of urgency. I was disappointed to see some of the recent announcements around domestic flights, tax going down and things like that. It feels like we’re suddenly moving in the wrong direction, which is the opposite of what’s being pledged ahead of COP26. So hopefully, we can just increase some pressure and make sure actually we are building back better following this pandemic and going the right route that’s really going to put people and planet first.

AM (27:15)

Yeah. And it’s so disappointing to see that that coal mine got given the go-ahead.

JB (27:24)

I have heard there’s a U-turn potentially on the cards this morning. But we will have to wait and see. Fingers crossed.

AM (27:34)

Yeah, fingers crossed, because that really has been a bad foot forward for the beginning of the next 10 years.

JB (27:42)

Completely agree. Thank you so much for your time today, Alec.

AM (27:45)

Well, thank you so much for having me. It’s been really good exploring this.

JB (29:09)

You have been listening to Beyond Net Zero, a campaign celebrating pioneering B Corporations, from Greenhouse PR. Find out more on our website and sign up to our webinar on March 31, with John Elkington, a world authority on corporate responsibility and sustainable development.

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