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Normalize This: Eco-Literacy

Eco Literacy

Welcome to this month’s installment of our Normalize This Series, where we open up through heartfelt conversations about life as we age, and shatter antiquated notions of what’s relevant to women as we get older. 

Today is Earth Day (though we’d argue that really every day is Earth Day), a perfect time to dive into a subject that we care deeply about — eco-literacy. 

Quick story to set the stage. 

When Attn: Grace was raising its first round of venture funding, investors must have asked our founders a hundred times, “what makes you think women in their 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and beyond care about using a product that’s better for their bodies and better for the environment?”  It was as if they were suggesting that women stop caring about these things when they reach a certain age.  And in the most macabre interpretation, it was as if they were saying: why do you care about what goes in and on your bodies, or what’s happening to our precious planet if you’re past your so-called “prime.”  

Then and now, our founders answer this question, quite simply, by reminding the skeptics out there: “We know these women care deeply about these issues because we ARE ‘these women’. We care about the chemicals we put in, on and around our bodies — not just for our own health, but for the health of our planet and for the health of our children, grandchildren, and generations to come.”

That being said, it’s not always easy to navigate the landscape of clean (or purportedly “clean”) products. In a world rife with “greenwashing” (corporate marketing that gives the false impression that a brand or its products are environmentally sound) and so much noise in general, it can be a bit daunting to know where to start. Take it from our founders, though, and know that it’s not as hard as it might seem. And let’s face it, if you’re reading this post, you’re likely already ahead of the game.  

We sat down with Attn: Grace Co-Founders, Mia and Alex, to talk about eco-literacy, and how to effectively navigate cleaner, greener solutions within our individual lives.

Q: What does eco-literacy mean to you?

Mia:  When I was growing up, we shopped local — the butcher, the fishmonger, the baker… my mother would call and order, and we would ride our bikes to pick everything up.  I remember there being a sense of mutual respect — we knew where our food was coming from and we valued the commitment to quality that came with shopping small and local. Today we have endless choices around what to consume, what products to buy, and more often than not, unless we make it a priority to learn, we don’t really know where or how our products are sourced and produced.  So when I think about eco-literacy, I think about the need to educate ourselves around how we can make smarter, healthier choices in how we shop and the businesses we choose to support.  

There’s little to no regulation in this country when it comes to personal care or beauty products, so it’s really up to all of us on an individual level to learn how to make the best choices we can. wWhether it’s your shampoo, your sunscreen, your moisturizer — you name it — knowing what chemicals to avoid, where those chemicals are typically found, and what products you can buy instead is a great place to start.  

Q: Can you describe your own eco-literacy journey?

Alex: As much as I hate to admit it, I didn’t give all that much thought to what I was putting in or on my body until I started trying to get pregnant ten years ago. And even then, it was a slow, somewhat skeptical start. The notion that we all ought to be paying way more attention to these issues, from a personal health standpoint and from an environmental standpoint, had been around for a long time.  Pioneering groups like EWG, founded in the early 90’s, embarked on a mission to empower consumers with breakthrough research so that we can make informed choices and live a healthy life in a healthy environment. But for any number of reasons, it wasn’t really top of mind or being discussed in my direct orbit. And it most certainly wasn’t something my parents were focusing on as I was growing up.  

Fast forward twenty years, I can remember when I first found EWG’s website, where they do such an incredible job of laying out the data and science behind the ingredients found in products we use every day and that we had all assumed were safe. It blew my mind and I’ve just never looked at consumer products the same way since. Not long after that, I remember BeautyCounter launching and learning about their Never List and the fact that there are literally THOUSANDS of ingredients that are banned from use in consumer goods in the EU but are not banned or otherwise regulated here in the U.S. It changed everything for me. And once I started learning, I didn’t want to stop. 

I also kept having one experience after another where I was seeing the impact of these choices in my day-to-day life.  For example, for my entire life, I would get headaches within minutes of using a conventional tampon, to the point where I just stopped using them altogether and only used pads.  Then one day it dawned on me that maybe it was the chlorine bleach or any number of the other synthetic chemicals or fragrances found in tampons that was the culprit.  I switched to cotton tampons and poof, the headaches were gone.  It’s crazy when you have those sort of “ah ha” moments, but it’s also so very logical. Ingredients matter, avoiding toxic chemicals in our foods and our personal care products matters. Our bodies quite literally feed off of what we put in, on and around them.

Q: Let’s talk about green-washing. It’s a major problem within CPG (consumer packaged goods).

Mia: Yes, completely. Remember Herbal Essences? It is chock full of chemicals but its branding had so many swayed by its natural / botanical appeal when it first came out (and yes, it didn’t hurt that their launch campaign featured an orgasmic shower experience, but I digress). From packaging design cues that make products “look” cleaner and greener to loose interpretations and generous use of words like “cleaner” and “greener”, it’s hard for consumers to tell fact from fiction. I also think there is still a huge swath of our population who just implicitly trust what’s on a label.  We’ve been socialized, really over decades and decades, to trust what brands and manufacturers tell us.  Combine that trust with the lack of any meaningful regulation at a federal or state level and it’s a recipe for disaster.  There are many words and adjectives that are unregulated -- from “natural” to “non-toxic” -- meaning many brands can make claims that are indeed deceptive. In the incontinence space, we’ve seen  some new brands that are simply white-labeling old, chemical-laden products while claiming innovation and a commitment to the environment. Green-washing is everywhere. This is why honing our eco-literacy is so important. In the void of better regulation, it’s up to us to be more savvy.

Q: People talk about the susceptibility of young (baby/kid) skin, but that bar has yet to be raised for aging skin. Let’s talk about that double standard.

Mia: Yes, it’s so true. We’ve seen such a powerful shift in the baby and even in the prenatal space with brands and parents learning more and more about how susceptible babies are to the harsh chemicals found in conventional diapers, wipes and diaper creams. But as we observed  early on in our journey, everything in the baby space is designed to be lovely, elevated, celebratory, and in more recent years, more sustainably minded in some instances. It seems that we generally appreciate that the skin of newborns, babies, and children is particularly sensitive and highly absorptive, and as a society, we have prioritized designing products that are better and safer for our children. This is obviously great! But conversely, at least in our “Western” culture, older people are not respected the way they are in some other cultures, for instance. We are an afterthought, at best, and largely perceived as not caring -- or perhaps even not having the right to care -- about the ingredients we put on our bodies. (After all, we’re on our way out, right? We’re done procreating, so, why bother? That’s a little dark, but unfortunately I don’t think it’s too far off the mark in many cases.) 

The fact is, our skin gets thinner and more vulnerable as we get older. Turns out, life really is pretty cyclical/circular in many ways. And so as we age, it becomes all the more important to be mindful of what products we are using on our bodies and to avoid harsh, potentially hazardous chemicals in our personal care routines. Similarly, just as it’s critical for women to avoid chemicals (like BPA, Phthalates, BHA, BHT, etc.) that are known endocrine (hormone) disruptors in their childbearing years, it’s equally important to avoid these chemicals in perimenopause, menopause and beyond. Our hormones play a huge role in our health, really at all ages and stages and it’s important to stay vigilant.   

Q: Let’s talk about sustainability in the incontinence space, and a certain elephant in the room. Our liners, pads, and briefs are single use disposables, and are sadly not yet recyclable. What does sustainable design mean in products like these?

Alex: This is really important to address. There are reusable solutions that work really well for many women with lighter leaks, but when it comes to women with moderate or heavy leaks, we’re limited to the current state of innovation within the non-wovens space. That means we’re limited to certain materials that will function to absorb moderate to heavy leaks, some of which just aren’t green or clean, let alone fully recyclable right now. For instance, super absorbent polymers (SAP) are derived from petroleum, which is both a harsh chemical and a nonrenewable resource. But while you need petroleum-based materials in the core of a bladder liner, pad or brief to absorb the urine, you most certainly don’t need it in the top sheet that sits directly against your skin, in the back sheet, nor in your packaging, and on and on. So we started there, removing chemicals, synthetic fragrances, dyes, and chlorine bleach everywhere we could while still maintaining superior absorption.

Bottom line:  We have a long way to go in this category.  But as we continue to move toward making products that are fully compostable and/or recyclable, our current product line coupled with our best-in-class partners across our supply chain, exist to bridge the inevitable gap. The result is a commitment to sustainable sourcing and design that’s leading our industry forward, and a first-of-its-kind product line you can trust to be gentler on our bodies and on our planet. We’ve designed our product line to incorporate the most sustainable, renewable materials possible without compromising on product performance, and we’ve eliminated harmful, unnecessary chemicals, replacing petroleum-based synthetics with 100% bio-based synthetics from upcycled sugarcane waste. Additionally, all our factories are certified carbon neutral and all of our packaging is made from fully recyclable Green PE and FSC certified, fully recyclable cardboard. We are committed to continuously improving, and in fact, our panty liners, pads and briefs are slated to be single-use plastic free by the end of the year! 

Q: What you’re describing feels like both an incredible innovation, but also a no-brainer. Why did it take so long for these changes to be made?

Alex: Well, to be fair, I don’t think that people necessarily thought it was impossible to design more sustainable incontinence products, but it’s certainly more expensive and entails disrupting complex, well-established supply chains and manufacturing operations. Brands are typically optimizing for profit and have generally been rewarded with an "if it ain’t broke don't fix it" model and mentality. We're here, on behalf of aging women everywhere, because the category is indeed broken and because we know we can do better. There is a better way. Frankly, there are surely multiple better ways for a woman to manage this utterly thankless condition. We’re excited to be shining a light on this fact and to be doing all that we can to move the industry forward.  

Q: What resources would you recommend for women looking to increase their eco-literacy? 

Mia: For us, EWG is often the gold standard, as we appreciate its unbiased approach and their dedication to being an accessible resource. They have multiple, comprehensive guides like their Skin Deep Guide (for personal care) or their Guide to Healthy Cleaning, as well as a Healthy Living App to help you decode labels on-the-go.


Want more on Eco-Literacy? 

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More from our Normalize This Series

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Normalize This: Sexual Wellness

Normalize This: Holistic Medicine

Normalize This: Mental Health

Normalize This: CBD

Normalize This: Women-Centered Health