Alumna's social enterprise trades landfill for learning

15 Jun 2016

A year ago UQ alumna and social entrepreneur Freeda Thong (Bachelor of Science ’13) didn’t know what a social enterprise was.

Her passion for the environment and for social equality led her to the inaugural IMPACT Social Enterprise Conference where she listened in awe to successful entrepreneurs who had made far-reaching impact through their social businesses.

One resonating theme at the conference was the union between innovative charities and business – and finding a sweet spot that created a model for social impact and business sustainability. The big names like TOMS offered inspiration. TOMS is a leader in social enterprise, offering one pair of shoes to a person in a developing country for every pair sold, restoring the sight of a person in a developing country for every pair of sunglasses, and assisting with the safe birth for a mother and baby in need for each bag.

Ms Thong’s dream to be a social entrepreneur was born, and shortly afterwards realised, through the creation of Ecopads Australia.

“Ecopads grew really organically. I never set out thinking ‘I want this to be a social enterprise’, I didn’t sit down and nut out which issue I was really passionate about,” Ms Thong explained.

“I just stumbled upon cloth sanitary pads and I became really passionate about them when I learnt about the huge environmental impact that disposable pads are having.”

“I then found out about the issue of period shaming in developing countries, and with my Cambodian background, my heart deviates towards the developing world and trying to make a difference over there from here in Australia”.

Disposable sanitary pads in 2010 were known to be the third biggest contributor to landfill around the world, taking 500-800 years to decompose. In a best-case scenario, modern biodegradable disposable pads take around 200 years to decompose. This was clearly a huge problem, but for Ms Thong, the solution started small ­– in her living room.

“It was really just a hobby to start with ­– I started sewing cloth pads at home for my friends and family, and wanted to send them overseas to help other girls and women abroad, but it wasn’t until I began attending Impact Academy that I understood the real potential of this business.”

Impact Academy is an accelerator program run by Peter Ball, a former banker, and is designed to support startup and early stage social entrepreneurs achieve sustainable and scalable impact.

Ms Thong says she owes the fire in her belly that pushes her to grow Ecopads Australia to the training and support she received at Impact Academy.

“This was when I realised I wanted to scale it up, and when I realised that it might actual be possible to grow it to the size where it could make the global impact that I really want it to make – for the sake of the environment and for the sake of women around the world.”

Just seven months after launching Ecopads Australia, more than 600 hand-sewn cloth pads have been sold and donated to customers in Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Sweden, Ireland and the United Kingdom. With a one-for-one business model, a pad is donated to a girl or woman in need for each one sold.

A partnership with Eco Femme – a social enterprise founded by a Sydney social entrepreneur and based India – has allowed for the distribution of Ecopads Australia’s cloth pads in the sub-continent.

Eco Femme ensures the donated pads are given to girls and women who can benefit from them, making sure they have adequate sanitation (such as access to water) for the cloth pads to be useful. Eco Femme also hosts corresponding workshops with these women about how to use cloth pads, about women’s bodies and about the myths and stigmas around menstruation.

In some communities in India it’s commonly thought that a woman is evil or impure when she has her period. In some cases menstruating women aren’t allowed to eat or wash in the same spaces as other people, leading to women being shunned from the community and causing young women to drop out of school. Period-shaming is a documented issue in many developing areas of the world, and is a problem that Ms Thong hopes to tackle with Ecopads Australia, through the education and empowerment of disadvantaged women abroad. But it begins at home in Brisbane.

“The root of this is awareness – to educate people about the environmental impact of disposable sanitary products and to educate about period shaming. I think a huge part of it is also empowering people to embrace their bodies. I know that a lot of women find it difficult to talk about their periods, not just to men but also to other women – we sort of cringe about it, and it’s certainly not something that’s spoken about around the dinner table. So we want to start a discussion.”

“One day cloth pads will be mainstream enough to appear on supermarket shelves, right next to the disposables, and women will need to ask themselves why they might choose one over the other, and to make a conscious decision about which produce they might choose. It comes down to making these sustainable products available so we can start that conversation.”

“Consumers seem to be increasingly aware of the environmental and social impact of products and the processes around manufacturing them, so we can hope this is a move in the right direction for us.”

In the future Ms Thong hopes to expand Ecopads Australia into the production of menstrual cups, breast pads and disposable nappies.

Visit Ecopads Australia or get in touch with Freeda Thong to find out more about this social enterprise.