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A Better Condom for Women, By a Woman (And Her Dad)

Most of us see condoms as a grab-and-go type of purchase. Meika Hollender, the 27-year-old co-founder of vegan and eco-friendly condom start-up Sustain, saw them as a business opportunity.

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Hollender comes with an inherent knack for eco-friendly products, as her father was the CEO of household products company Seventh Generation for 20 years. She teamed up with her dad last year to start the all-natural condoms brand in July. While selling safe-sex products with a parent is not exactly a natural career goal for most entrepreneurs, in a time when shoppers are hyper aware of ingredients in everything from juice to beauty products, Hollender’s products are filling a void.

Most condoms on the market are made with parabens and animal-based ingredients. Sustain, on the other hand, sells an all-natural, vegan product that also happens to be the world’s first Fair-Trade condom. Marketing specifically towards women, the brand has proven its concept—its already landed at retailers like Whole Foods and Fresh Direct, as well as many health stores in New York City, Hollender’s current location. Sustain also just landed a massive deal with Target.

Racked caught up with Hollender to learn about the safety implications that come from toxic condoms, what it's like to run a business with her father, and why she believes condoms should be prominently displayed at stores like Lululemon and Sephora.

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Photo: Sustain

Where did the inspiration to start a sustainable product come from?

I grew up totally immersed in the world of non-toxic products because my parents founded Seventh Generation. I worked for the company in college to help launch their fem-care line so after I had a very traditional marketing job right out of school, I realized I wanted to go back to my roots. I started talking to my father about starting a company together and we wrote a business plan.

So why condoms?

Coming from Seventh Generation, I wanted create a product that had the most positive impact possible. So when you think about condoms: we can’t live without condoms, they’re a critical product. But they are also harmful: they can have toxic chemicals and casein [an animal bi-product.] Sustain’s condoms are made from natural latex, which is the back of the rubber tree, and is a renewable resource, so we’re vegan, doing very little harm and creating very little waste.

How do you create and source your products?

We visited a handful of rubber plantations all over the world before finding the only certified Fair-Trade rubber plantation in the world that makes latex for condoms. The rubber industry is known to utilize a ton of child labor and toxic chemicals, but we found this amazing place in southern India where there are no children working and the bio-diversity is also very well kept and meets very high standards. We also found a manufacturer that was willing to work with us in order to prevent any carcinogens from being manifested in the latex during the manufacturing process because 90% of condoms sold in the US contain a carcinogen in the latex called nitrosamine.

Meika Hollender

Photo: Sustain

Do you think women care about eco-friendly condoms? It is a use-and-go type of product.

I think they do. We’ve come a long way in the past 10 years, in terms of the natural product world. Women are looking at everything from their cosmetics, to their food, to their cleaning products, and really thinking about what’s in them.

The other reason why I found condoms interesting was that they are very stigmatized among women. Women aren’t looked on in a positive light for buying and carrying condoms and I think that’s a real problem. So when we talk about sustainable condoms, we mean how they are made but also how they are packaged and how they are marketed. I found there was an opportunity to create a more female-centric product, because 40% of condoms are actually purchased by women.

What is it about condom marketing that you think turns women off?

Well, they’re not included in the conversation for starters. It’s all spring break, frat-boy 101. I mean, Trojan Man! Why not create a brand where we’re speaking to women? Why not have packaging that is beautiful, like the rest of their personal care products and health products? And in terms of a messaging standpoint, why not educate and empower women about why they should be using condoms rather than just talking about the act of sex?

How is your product different?

The number one thing is that I want women to buy condoms, period. Only 19% of sexually active, single women in this country are using condoms regularly and I think that's a huge problem. I wanted to create a product that looks cosmetic, so women can get more comfortable buying condoms, and not feel awkward or ashamed. I wanted to chip away that stigma. So from a marketing standpoint, we’re doing everything we can to create a brand that is empowering and exciting and accessible. We balance talking about sex with talking about reproductive rights, STDs, and the environment. We want to create a forum and a conversation around women’s sexual health. We really want to create a brand that is a beacon for this conversation and empowers women to talk about and feel good about getting on top of their sexual health.

How did you get the business off the ground?

So we did an initial friends and family round, raising about $3 million and then our family put in about $1.5 million. My dad, Jeffrey, has the background, experience, and contacts on the retail side and I do the marketing and e-commerce side.

(safe) sex on the beach via @thembh @wearepoolside

A photo posted by Sustain Condoms (@sustaincondoms) on

Do you feel optimistic about the industry space?

It’s a big business. It’s about a billion-dollar business in the US and we’re really just competing with Trojan and Durex. So I think for anybody who’s starting a new business, creating a category or going into a category where you really only have a couple players is usually a good bet because there’s more room to innovate and to differentiate.

Are you doing to be expanding the business beyond condoms?

We’re launching two new product lines this summer: a line of organic lubricants and a line of cotton, after-sex wipes. The goal with launching a new line of products is to generate more revenue but also to enter new categories because I have to be honest: selling condoms is not an easy feat! It’s a very taboo product, so I’m happy to expand our product line so that hopefully the conversation about lubricants or wipes will lead to condoms.

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Photo: Sustain

It is hard to be taken seriously as an entrepreneur when you tell people you sell condoms? How do you deal with that? Like, what happens when your elementary school teacher asks what you’re doing?

Yeah, I think about how to position what I do, because the joke is that I sell condoms and that’s also the truth! But I really think what I’m doing is so much more than that. I’m really on this mission to get women to get on top of their sexual health. And my dad always says that I have courage; because this is not something that a lot of young women would be comfortable doing.

What’s it like running a business with your father—and selling condoms, of all items?

I spoke with a lot of people who went into a family business and they all had very clear advice to never, ever do it. But I think it’s different for me because we are partners. He’s definitely the boss but we went into this together so we had to work out how to create a professional relationship and maintain a personal relationship to be business partners as well as father and daughter. That took work and we both stayed committed to keeping both of those relationships strong and healthy and evolving them. Because we made that investment up front, it’s definitely been more smooth sailing. Definitely more smooth than I ever expected!

What are some future goals for Sustain?

Well we’re sold at places like Whole Foods, Target, and Fresh Direct. I’m hoping for a really big drugstore chain, which will hopefully happen next year. But following that, I really hope condoms become part of the health and wellness conversation. I want to see our products sold at places like Sephora or Lululemon. I would love to see condoms and safe-sex products be treated as well as juice and vitamins and all the other things we’re doing to make ourselves healthy.

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