By Alden Wicker
Meika Hollender, co-founder of the new condom company Sustain, has such a tidy and classy West Village studio, it looks like it’s been decorated for a catalog shoot. There is a bit of tasteful framed artwork above the bed, and among the neat stacks of books above her desk, there are a couple examples of her company’s product.
In fact, her apartment looks barely lived in. Which makes sense – she’s been on the road constantly, successfully pitching her product to retailers. (Sustain is in Whole Foods and natural grocery stores across the country, after being in business just a year.) When I showed up, she had just gotten back from the Natural Products Expo in LA. She’s been going since she was a kid with her father, Jeffrey Hollender, who founded Seventh Generation long ago.
“It’s nice to catch up,” she said of hanging out with her peers in the eco-friendly products industry. “This generation of people, particularly women, are super supportive of each other, picking each other’s brains all the time, and helping each other out.”
I figured I could learn some cool things from someone who grew up with one of the most respected experts on sustainable living. So we sat down (me on the loveseat, her in a chair across from me) for a frank, stimulating, and wide-ranging discussion of sex positivity, her favorite fashion and beauty brands, and where she hangs out in the West Village.
I have to ask. When you were developing this product, and discussing what you want to see in a condom, were there some uncomfortable conversations with your dad?
We have a really open, great relationship, so it didn’t dawn on us that other people would think it’s awkward until we started raising money and some investors were like, “Whoa, this is really weird.” There are funny moments that I’ve talked about, like going into Babeland together to see if our product is on the shelf yet, and I’m like, “Hey Dad …” and the saleswoman is like, “What the fuck?”
We’re launching after-sex wipes in June, and my parents were like, “Why?” And I was like, “Well … trust me, there’s a need.” I’m not telling them about my sexual experiences, but there are funny moments.
Disposable wipes have proven to be a huge problem for city septic systems.
They’re cotton, so we’re not recommending you flush them. We just started designing the product and packaging. We haven’t thought that far along yet in how we’re messaging that. That’s definitely on my radar to figure out.
Living in New York, everyone here is always like, “What do you do?” What are some of the range of reactions when you tell people what you do?
The reaction is … a reaction. It’s not like I’m selling skincare. It’s immediately bringing the conversation into the realm of sex. And I’m a woman, which makes people even more uncomfortable, especially men. Women are very stigmatized when it comes to buying and carrying condoms. Up until six months ago in New York, you could be arrested for prostitution and condoms would be evidence. We’re such a puritanical culture, we’re so sexually repressed, yet sex is everywhere. People get what I’m doing and it ends up being very, “Good for you! Fight that good fight, but I don’t want anything to do with it.” “Love your brand, we wouldn’t partner with you.” It’s like I’m doing something wrong. I’m also newly single, so I’ve gotten some really interesting reactions, ranging from, “Do you need help testing your product?” to “Do you have a large size?” That’s not the norm, but it’s happened.
Meika Hollender, co-founder of Sustain Condoms
Have you figured out funny comebacks yet?
When people say, “Can I test your product out with you?” I’m say, “Well, condoms are a Class II medical device, regulated by the FDA, so testing has already happened.”
You totally outsmart them.
Yeah, like, “We hire people to do that, so we’re all set.” Sometimes it’s really hard because even some of my close friends who are guys are like, “You really can’t have condoms out in your apartment when people come over, because it sends a really bad message. You can have one or two by the bed, hidden, but not all over the place.”
I’m like, “Guys. First of all, this is my job. Second of all, that’s sending a slut message, versus, I like to protect myself and not get STDs?” How do we change that? It’s going to take time. It’s going to take more women buying and carrying condoms, and men seeing that as a good thing, instead of She’s a fill-in-the-blank.
The women get it. But then it’s like, “OK, best friend, can you take a photo and post it on Instagram?” “No way. What if my dad sees this?”
We’re all smart, we all understand safe sex is a good thing. Yet, another one of my friends the other day said, “I slept with this guy three times, we didn’t use a condom this time, but that’s OK, right?” I’m like, “Are you guys dating? Did you have a conversation about not sleeping with anyone else? Have you been tested recently?” She’s really smart. What the fuck?
We’re all part of this middle upper class. The usage of condoms is actually sometimes much higher for low-income people.
It’s like we think we’re immune because we’re classy.
And the people we’re sleeping with people are classy. God forbid we ruin the moment with someone we met at a bar at 2 in the morning. I’m sure you understand.
I do. I’ve had guys before like, “I can’t use a condom.” And I’m like, “Well, too bad for you.”
What does that even mean? I can’t use a condom. OK. 89% of single women will buy into that! Because 89% of single sexually active women don’t use condoms regularly. So they’ve decided that’s gonna work! Sorry for ranting.
It sounds like by starting this company you had to crash course yourself in all the issues surrounding sexuality and sex positivity.
I never thought twice about using a condom as a single person. I assume it came from how my parents educated me, and reinforced safe sex.
What is it like to suddenly be in such a prominent role? You grew up with this, but is it a learning curve?
Oh yes. I’m still on the learning curve. It’s very interesting having our two founders be so far apart in age and have such vastly different levels of experience. My dad is so knowledgeable, and he’s done this before. It’s good that I counterbalance him. Yes, I’m helping create our budget and going to meet with Whole Foods, and having these Big Person roles but this is new, this is exciting. I don’t mind going into the back end of the website and fixing things, and doing annoying tasks. And I know my dad won’t do that stuff. (Laughs)
Being in this dynamic of so much experience and no experience, I was really defensive at first because I felt really uncomfortable not knowing things. Why didn’t I know how to build our website, or how to deal with retailers? It was very unproductive. I embraced that asking questions is ok, making mistakes is fine. When you have really good news, that’s great, but you don’t stop and bask in the moment forever. When things go shit-ily, you don’t shut down and get really upset. It’s about continuing to move forward.
It’s a lot of responsibility but I’m very lucky I’m doing this with my dad because I’m not carrying it all on my own back.
So, why condoms?
My dad had always thought about making more eco-friendly products. But he wanted to create a product that had a net positive impact. When you think about a condom, yes you have to use energy to produce it. Yes, you have to ship it to the U.S. And yes, they don’t biodegrade, they create some form of waste. But when you think about the power of the condom in preventing H.I.V. and STDs, and allowing women to plan their pregnancies, and helping reduce the speed of overpopulation, it’s just amazing.
If you look at the statistics around women who have access to and use contraception, their lives are just so much better than women who don’t have access. We were really able to reinvent the supply chain and invent the most sustainable condom. But the other aspect is, it’s really hard to think of another product that is so critical. We can’t live without these condoms – well, we could but the world would be a scary place. For Earth Day our campaign is about connecting climate change and overpopulation.
Didn’t the UN just recently release a report on this?
Yes. There’s 200 million women in the world who want access to contraception. Imagine if we provided contraception to those women. 50% of pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned. When you have unplanned pregnancies, the children are more likely to end up below the poverty line. When we have too many people to feed, we depend on unsustainable agriculture practices. It’s a complex issue, but it speaks to the power of the latex condom!
You spoke earlier about the condom creating waste. You are producing waste when you use a condom, but there’s really no alternative. Have you looked into making it in a way that is biodegradable and still effective? Or is that not possible?
It’s not that it’s not possible. The reality is that condoms are an FDA-regulated product. Because we slightly altered our manufacturing process to prevent nitrosamine, which is a carcinogen, from occurring in the latex – we had to add a chemical to prevent it from occurring – we had to go back to the FDA, and that took a year. And that was a minute change. On the one hand, it’s good that it’s regulated, but what that means is that any change takes a long time. Right now we’re heads down, day-to-day, let’s get this business off the ground.
Speaking of waste, I didn’t know what to do with the outer plastic packaging …
It’s made from recycled plastic, and it is recyclable in New York City. Our packaging is not the most clear on that.
But it looks nice!
Yeah, because of our packaging, we got into retailers. We wanted to create something beautiful, that women would be excited to carry and pick up from the shelf. I don’t know the last time you’ve been in the condom aisle, but it’s not a pretty sight. They’re so male focused. Lots of purple, lots of black, lots of gold, lots of just … stuff I don’t even want under my kitchen sink.
I did have a little bit of experience, a couple years, at a brand design agency, focused on packaging for Fortune 500 companies. So that was the first thing I noticed. Where’s the brand that I want to buy? Where are the RMS Beauty or Tata Harper of condoms?
So what’s different about your condom from Sir Richard’s or L Condoms?
We’re actually the only Fair Trade-certified brand of condoms sold in the U.S. Another thing is a nitrosamine thing. As you heat and mold the latex, it forms in the latex. So nobody is doing it on purpose. I think it was the Reproductive Health Technologies Project [funded by Jeffrey Hollender] that tested most of the brands in the U.S. We’re one of two brands that don’t contain this carcinogen. They’re vegan certified, we’re vegan certified. So none of us use casing. I think the one-for-one model is great, but we are focused on the U.S. Ten percent of our profits go back to women’s reproductive healthcare organizations in the U.S. Mostly parts of the Planned Parenthood organization. We learned that there are 20 million women who lack access to those services here.
I want to talk about your life, because you live and breathe this stuff. You live in the West Village, so I want to hear about your favorite restaurants and bars.
Oh, this is fun! Well, I’m traveling a lot for work. But I started transcendental meditation so that’s something that stays consistent no matter where I am. There’s this really cool organization called The Path that just opened. They’re group meditation. And one of the locations is in the West Village. You sign up in advance and buy a ticket, and there about 100 people in the room. It’s really powerful and really cool.
My favorite bar is on my corner, Bar Sardine. No sustainable background there.
It’s nice you have Toby’s Estate right here on the corner.
Yeah, they’re brand new. I go there every morning. It’s where I get my chai latte. I really like this place Chalait, and they have matcha lattes.
Yum! What about restaurants?
One place that I love that I’ve been going to since it opened – and they’re friends of ours who own it – is ABC Kitchen. We’ll have a lot of lunch meetings there. The food is amazing. Another place is Jack’s Wife Freda which just opened in the West Village. We’re friends with the people who run it. Very healthy and lots of vegetarian options. I go to Life Thyme Market all the time.
How about fashion?
I have a love affair with Reformation, as everybody does now. They used to have one tiny little store on the Lower East Side years ago. So I got into them really early on, and the whole sustainability thing – I was like, perfect. That’s the number one company I have the most stuff from.
If you ever want resources, I have a whole section on my site.
How much research do you do? My friend Erin Schrode, who started Teens Turning Green, gets to the bottom of everything. She’s meticulous. But it’s work! Unfortunately, the way our country is set up, it’s harder to make those choices. I mean, it’s gotten much easier. I used to use makeup and deodorant that didn’t work for most of my life.
What deodorant do you use now?
I was talking to Into the Gloss yesterday and we were talking about deodorant for, like, ten minutes. I’ve gone through Tom’s, Alba, Dr. Haushka. Now I’m using Kiss My Face, which is working.
One more question: Biggest unsustainable habit.
Besides all my traveling? Oh! I’m no longer vegetarian. I was vegetarian for almost ten years. Vitamins, soy protein, whatever, I was exhausted for the whole time. I wasn’t anemic, so my doctors were like, “You’re fine, but you could try eating some meat.” I ate so much fish, but I was so tired. But it was my thing. Apparently the number one thing you could do to prevent CO2 emissions was not eating meat. But I wasn’t feeling good, and I tried eating meat, and felt so much better. I had to drink so much coffee, now I don’t drink coffee. Not a lot of red meat, and I’m very careful about where I get it. There are ways now to do it more consciously than it was ten years ago, with grass-fed and locally raised.
About the Author
Alden is the founder and editor-in-chief of EcoCult, covering all things sustainable in NYC and beyond, including fashion, beauty, food, and events. She’s been published in Refinery29, EcoSalon, xoJane, Well+Good, Huffington Post Green, Narratively, LearnVest, Societé Perrier, and Greatist. She also runs a blog about electronic music with her boyfriend called Under the Sound, and is a co-founder of the Ethical Writers Coalition. Check her out on Twitter at @AldenWicker and Instagram @EcoCult