I created tampons that are safe for my daughter and her generation

By Clara How, May 30, 2019

Jette is a citizen of the world: she’s half-Indian and half-English, and grew up all around the world, living in countries including France, Africa, South America and the United Kingdom.

She moved to Singapore last April with her then-fiancé (now husband) and their 3-month-old baby girl, Molly. In just that short year, Jette is now the founder and the one-woman team behind ilo, an eco-friendly and non-toxic sanitary products company.

Ilo’s tampons are made of 100 per cent organic cotton, and are 100 per cent biodegradable and free from the nasty stuff (carcinogens, toxins, and stray plastic fibres). Their pads are made from natural bamboo and parts of it are also biodegradable. What we appreciate: 50 per cent of their profits go back to helping period poverty and homeless women.

This week’s Menstrual Hygiene Day (28 May) was started to break stigmas and increase awareness about menstrual health management. To celebrate this, Jette tells us why having her daughter was the catalyst in wanting to revolutionalise how the world looks at and deals with periods.

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I’m Jette, and I’m 36 years old. Over the years, I’ve had so many different careers: I’ve started a plumbing company, ran a hotel, been a food stylist, and even started a homeware brand.

I know that my perspective about career and running a business may be different from others – people tend to think a lot about the pros and cons before a career switch – and I’ve had many. But my take is, if you’re overthinking for a year, you’d have lost that year. At some point, you need to make a decision. I believe in simply going ahead to try out what I want to, to give it my best shot, and have no regrets.

While I have made many career switches, the one thing that’s been a constant is my belief in the importance of sustainability.

Growing up, my family has always been conscious about food waste, chemicals, and trying to be sustainable. When I ran a hotel in Mexico in my 20s, I wanted to show people that you can live in luxury, and still be sustainable. We used 100 per cent solar power, recycled water and grew our own organic vegetables, which I would cook for guests.

In the last two years before we left Ireland for Singapore, I founded my own homeware range that featured affordable pieces from local artisans like linen makers or ceramists. I loved the fact that our products were limited – there could just be 120 of these plates in the world, and it wouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg.

But more importantly, I didn’t want the business to involve mass production, because I believe that fast fashion and fast homeware is part of the problem of mass consumption. I didn’t want to contribute to this.

Right now, I’m the founder and the one woman show behind my company, ilo. In a nutshell, ilo wants to change the narrative around periods by focusing on menstrual health products that are safe and environmentally-friendly.

It started after the birth of my daughter gave me an epiphany: I wanted to do something to make the world a better place, for her. When I had Molly, I started thinking about the issues that women face today, what with the #metoo movement, and body shaming. It was a sobering realisation. The reality of having a girl and the responsibility of raising a girl in today’s world really shocked me.

I decided to focus on menstrual health because period is one of the most important topics for women, and so many things haven’t been changed since tampons were invented. Apart from sustainability, female health in general has always been a big thing for me, and I’ve used a period cup for seven years until I started ilo.

I didn’t want to just wait for someone else to make the world a better place for future generations when it came to safe menstrual products - I wanted to do it for Molly, and for all the other kids, so that they grow up using menstrual products that are good for them.

When I was doing my research before starting ilo, I dug deep about cotton, tampons, and the industry in general.

I realised there were two key issues in general. Firstly, very little was said about period products and its safety. Secondly, many of the products available in the market were not environmentally-friendly.

I learnt that many of us do care about the products we use regularly – people are concerned about skincare, the ingredients that go into makeup, how much time they spend in the sun and the products that they use… but very little is talked about when it comes to vagina health and the safety of menstrual products.

The thing is, the vagina is the most absorbent part of your body, so we should care about what goes in there or near too – especially since women have their period for an average of 40 years.

A big concern for me is that the non-organic cotton that a lot of sanitary products are made of may have residual chemicals in them. Many sanitary products are still unregulated. This means that often, sanitary product companies do not need to state what’s in the product, how it’s made or what chemicals they contain.

So much of what we need to do stems from education, and unfortunately there’s not enough resources out there when it comes to menstrual health or products in general. Sometimes, we make the decisions we do just because we don’t have enough information or that there isn’t enough awareness being raised. For example, it’s not uncommon for some women to just grab the first product on the shelf or simply use the one their mother used.

Another health and safety concern I had was that because of convenience, most women use tampons from the same box throughout the duration of their period.

This was something I really wanted to address, because I want more women to know that you should be using a lighter absorbency on days where you have a lighter flow. If you’re using too high an absorbency for your flow on the day, there’s a risk that the vagina dries out and the tampon creates tiny microtears. This is one reason why toxic shock can happen.

There is also the big issue of sustainability – I realised that the products in the market today have so much throw away element that’s not biodegradable. And mainstream tampons end up in landfills or in oceans.

When I was doing my research, I was shocked to learn that we literally have 15 to 20 years to cut back on our wastage, otherwise there’d be no planet left. And I really want my daughter to have a planet.

I thought about what I can do to tackle these problems, and decided on creating products that are organic and biodegradable. So not only are they safe to use for your body, but this means when you throw an ilo tampon away, they fully break down without leaving plastic or chemicals behind. They’re also wrapped in recyclable cardboard packaging that’s fully biodegradable.

I understand the issue of affordability and convenience so to make things easier so women don’t have to buy multiple boxes of tampons with different absorbencies, I designed one box of our products to have tampons of different sizes (you can select between three types of mini, regular and super combinations). There are also articles on our website to give women more information on period health.

Since moving to Asia, I have to admit that I’m not used to the level of plastic consumption here, where one piece of fruit goes in one bag in the supermarkets – even if it’s a fruit that has a skin, like an orange or a banana.

I go to Geylang market and ask the vegetable seller if he has tomatoes that aren’t already in plastic, and he says he can take the tomatoes out of the plastic bag for me, which defeats the point. At times, it can get anxiety inducing when I see these things happening around me.

Change is hard, and I get that. I do understand that many people are reluctant to change their lifestyle because of convenience and out of habit. It’s what we are accustomed to, and of course, not everyone witnesses firsthand the plastic in the oceans or in the countryside. But unfortunately the reality is that the amount of plastic usage we’re getting through is affecting the world in a very negative way that will soon become irreversible.

Of course, at some point we do need plastic. But it’s the plastic that we don’t need that we can try to cut back on.

There are the small things that we can do: like saying no to the plastic bag if you’ve only got one or two item(s), and saying no to the straw if you’re sitting in a restaurant. Or bringing your own water bottle. One thing that I personally do is to use reusable nappies for Molly, and flannels instead of baby wipes which aren’t biodegradable.

For mums who are thinking of making the switch, I honestly believe that it’s not as hard as it initially sounds. The push factor for me was finding out that children get through roughly 10,000 disposable nappies in their life, and each take around 200 to 500 years to decompose.

Personally, I think more governments (not just Singapore, but in the world) should regulate plastic usage, otherwise the change will not happen fast enough.

Because at the end of the day, I believe that it’s not about a few people living perfectly sustainable and eco-friendly lives. It’s about a lot of people trying our best to live imperfectly sustainable and eco-friendly lives.

When we decided to leave Dublin, I was living with my fiancé Tom, and three month-old Molly. Tom was applying to a bunch of jobs, and Singapore was what came back. It was also geographically convenient because it’s closer to his native New Zealand. Between moving to Singapore and starting ilo was just six months.

Honestly, the hardest bit was getting investors to realise and believe that women are looking for a change, and more people are looking for companies that aren’t completely profit driven. But the investors weren’t interested because they didn’t see how they could financially benefit – it’s fine because it’s their right, but it’s sad that they have this opinion.

So ilo is currently self-funded (I put in approximately $20,000), and we’re also crowdfunding. I work alone on the business and I work from my home once Molly is in bed or napping.
 
While all the positive customer feedback I have received has been rewarding, the truth is that there aren’t many profits at the moment because I do need to build up more awareness around ilo.
 
Of course my company has to make money, but I believe that I can still make profits and give back. That’s why I donate 50 percent of our profits back to the community to fight period poverty (no access to sanitary products), which one in 10 girls around the world suffer from. Right now I’m working with a charity in Ireland, called The Homeless Period where ilo donate products to homeless women.

At the end of the day, I believe we have a responsibility to leave the planet in a good place and that means trying as hard as possible to make people's lives better, easier, safer. And I’m doing my part with ilo.

What’s heartening is knowing that increasingly, more people are questioning companies. It’s not enough that a company sells a product – what more are they doing? What do they believe in? How is this company making the world a better place? We have the power to change things, and we should be aware of this power. It’s an exciting time to be in.

Writer’s Note: 
We reached out to the Health Sciences Authority to ask if they carry out any regulation on sanitary hygiene products. Their response was that these products are not considered health products and not under HSA’s purview. 
 
When it comes to any health-related products, we encourage everyone to do their own research and decide which product is best suited for your needs. Jette’s story inspires us because she is so passionate about what she does and believes in, and we thank her for her perspective. 

If you are interested to know more about ilo, they sell online and ship worldwide at www.ilolove.com, and are available in Singapore at The Wyld Shop at Joo Chiat and The Moon at Mosque Street. They are also stocked in three stores in Ireland and two stores in Australia. 
 
Photos provided by Jette Virdi. 

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