It’s amazing how things can wind up to where your passions lie, even if where you started seemed far from where you are today. As women who have resided in different major cities, gone through career and industry shifts, we understand and appreciate how inspiring each woman’s journey can be. This week, we chat to the Founder of feminine care brand LUÜNA Naturals, Olivia Cotes-James. From New Zealand, London, to Hong Kong, her natural entrepreneurial spirit has led her to building a brand as well as a community. Her story is uniquely inspiring; finding a business solution to an environmental and female issue that we all face while opening up the conversation around the taboos of menstrual health.
Tell us a little bit about yourself! And what brought you to HK?
Born in New Zealand and raised in the UK, I moved to Hong Kong after graduating from university in 2013. I was 22 and saw this as a perfect opportunity to explore and connect with the place my mother was born and raised. During my childhood, I’d been so drawn to her pictures of Hong Kong and vivid memories of the city which only deepened as I grew older.
All my life I had enjoyed writing above all else; stories, scripts, opinion pieces - anything. Therefore, after graduating with an English Literature degree from university, I naturally assumed this would be the course my career took. However, after struggling to find a job in this field that could pay me a salary to support myself in Hong Kong, I found myself in branding; a career that would last me until I started my LUÜNA journey in 2016.
What is the story behind LUÜNA?
Whilst living in Hong Kong between 2013 and 2016 I, like many women continue to do today, got used to ‘muling’ tampon supplies in my suitcase from trips home to the UK.
Due to low adoption rates of this product in Asia, which are typically less than 3% in countries across the region, tampons are sometimes hard to find and are often a lot more expensive than in Europe or the US. I had accepted my status as a ‘tampon mule’ without question until in 2015, an experience in Heathrow airport made me question this for the first and ultimately sparked my journey to create my company, LUUNA.
There I was, over the weight limit for my luggage and forced to unpack a hefty supply of tampons in front of a queue of people at the check in desk. As I felt myself squirm with embarrassment, I thought to myself two things; firstly, why in a modern city like Hong Kong, am I required to bring basic feminine care supplies from abroad? And secondly, why am I so embarrassed that this queue of fellow humans has seen that I menstruate?
Upon returning to Hong Kong, I began research into this stigma, intrigued to unpick why the menstrual status quo for women today had remained so archaic. It was through this, and the subsequent menstrual health workshops I began holding across the region, that I saw the traditional feminine care industry clearly for the first time; its uninspiring branding, shameful advertising and use of toxic product ingredients. I learnt these dangerous materials are used in the tampons I’d been putting in my body for almost a decade and crucially, when I stopped using them, the yeast infections and discomfort i’d suffered for years during my period - those i’d blamed on my own body, not my products - stopped.
I knew then that I had to create the period care company that myself and all women deserve; those who value transparency, ethics and purpose.
How important is being environmentally conscious to you while running a sustainable business?
Myself and the team are still on our sustainability journey, learning every day how we can make greener choices in both the business and in our everyday personal lives. In 2017, when I started developing my products, my decisions were guided significantly by a focus on health and a desire to protect the bodies of people who use my products. However, during this process i learnt more about the devastating effects of the traditional period care industry on the environment and increasingly, sustainability became a driving force in our decision making process.
In everything we do, we endeavour to reflect our business values in our internal team values, from transparency, to gender equality, to sustainability. As such, single-use plastic items such as coffee cups and plastic takeaways are not allowed in the office, for example. After all, how can we raise the standards of an entire industry, if we cannot raise the standards in our own lives?
We love what you’re doing for women in disadvantaged communities. What motivates you to give back and do good through your business?
We exist to eradicate the dangerous menstrual stigma which subjugates people who bleed around the world. We will not succeed in this until every single menstruator, regardless of their nationality, economic status or educational background, is empowered. Therefore, we see every decision that our direct community makes, be it buying better period products or talking more about menstruation, as an action that can free our Sisters in need from repressive attitudes around their bodies. Our social impact business model reflects this, ensuring that every time someone supports our business, they are supporting those from vulnerable groups to break free from these toxic stigmas.
The conversations around menstrual care in Asia vs Western cultures are taboo in different ways. How are you breaking through this with LUÜNA?
I’ve seen first-hand that the menstrual taboos between Asia and the west are equally prevalent, though nuanced between different cultures. For example, while cultural barriers have led to low adoption rates of tampons in Asia, we found that around 90% of those who do use tampons don’t know what they’re made of. This is demonstrative of the deep-rooted menstrual stigma that also exists in the west.
To tackle this, we focus strongly on providing taboo-free education, both online in our content and offline through our workshops. To-date, we have given over 500 of these workshops in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, fostering more open attitudes towards menstruation to smash the archaic stigmas.
As your own #girlboss, what challenges have you faced as an entrepreneur? What advice can you give to girls out there who want to do their own thing?
Starting a company is so much harder than anyone ever tells you (haha), or at least, than anyone ever told me. You have to be totally obsessed with what you do and believe deeply that the world needs it. It’s that belief that will help you persevere through the tough times and my god, there will be tough times.
Females who inspire you?
The women on my team who work tirelessly by my side to tackle oppressive attitudes and make positive change in the world. My company wouldn’t exist without them and I’m inspired by their creativity and dedication more and more every day.
Top 3 items in your wardrobe?
Trainers - always.
My Okra (the most beautiful brand created by a themazing Julie Pang) jewelry.
The jumpsuits I designed and had made by a tailor I met in Shanghai. They are SO comfy; it’s like wearing pyjamas to work.
What’s next for you and LUÜNA?
Continued innovation of healthier, more sustainable personal care products and the scaling of our social impact business model to deliver more period cups and educational workshops to vulnerable groups across the world.
Learn more about Doing Good With LUÜNA Naturals and their mission to “make periods better; for our bodies, our planet and our sisters in need.”