In our next period powerful profile, we’re chatting to Libby who started up the Flow Free initiative. This is all about making period care more accessible, something that we are passionate about at TOTM. Here, Libby talks about her motivations behind the project and how she’s getting employers to start talking periods in the workplace!
Firstly, can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?
“Hello! I’m Libby and I’ve started an awareness-raising initiative called Flow Free. The aim of Flow Free is to encourage businesses and organisations to recognise menstrual products as essential items and provide them in their bathrooms for their staff, clients and customers. No one likes to be caught short, especially at work.
We reach out to companies and engage with them on this issue to encourage them to implement this change. We also encourage individuals to make these changes at their place of work and in doing so we are building a community of like-minded individuals.
As part of this initiative, I have created Flow Free boxes containing organic and eco-friendly tampons and menstrual pads from sustainable brands. The boxes are used as a tool to engage with companies and individuals to show the importance of providing menstrual products in their bathrooms.
During the day I work at a Sexual Health and Wellbeing charity for Under 25s called Brook and do some freelance work as a Project Manager and Marketeer.”
Where did you get the idea for Flow Free from?
“I’ve been passionate about normalising conversations around periods for a long time now. I was able to get menstrual products provided at a company I previously worked at after a (very awkward) conversation with my boss and from that point on, thought, ‘right, if I can make a change here, surely I can encourage others to do the same.’”
You recently set 50 people off with some of your Flow Free boxes. What was the idea behind this and how did that go?
“I wanted to get the word out about Flow Free and thought the boxes would be a great tool to use to engage people and spread the message. I used to work in tech, which as an industry is pioneering free menstrual products at work. I decided to tap into my network to see if anyone could help. I’d attended many events put on by the brilliant Geek Girl Meetup who are a global community for women interested in tech, code, start-ups and design and had built up a good relationship with them over the years. When I told them about my Flow Free idea, they were really supportive and suggested I have a stall at their annual conference.
At the event, my friends and I engaged with attendees about Flow Free’s aims and asked them to take a box and place it in a bathroom they thought needed it. They sent us their photos and I tagged the companies and locations of where the boxes had ended up on our social media channels, hoping to draw this to their attention. They ended up in a variety of places: from offices to airports and favourite local cafes, to name a few!
We’d had attendees contact us to say that the Flow Free box had started conversations at their place of work and in one case had been used in a meeting with their HR as a prototype! I’ve also had companies get in touch with me about the initiative. Additionally, I’ve also met with companies to talk about providing period products in their offices, so the results have been really positive!”
Why do you think that period products are often seen as non-essential items?
“I think it’s been a combination of factors that have led to this: Periods have been considered a ‘taboo’ subject since time immemorial and are also unhelpfully seen as ‘embarrassing’ to have (ever hidden a tampon or pad up your sleeve like periods are some big secret?). This has created a culture of secrecy around periods with the word often mentioned in whispers or in euphemisms. As a result of this taboo nature, people are unwilling to talk openly about something that’s so natural, especially when they’re at work. As a society, we prioritise and normalise having free tea, coffee and beers on a Friday at work over providing period products.
Combine this then with the fact that many people in power or decision-making roles often don’t have periods and are not part of the general conversation – both because they haven’t wanted to be but also because they’ve been excluded from it – it’s no wonder it’s not considered an essential item.
That dang patriarchy hasn’t helped either!
All these factors have helped our society believe that access to period products are not a basic need, let alone something they need to provide at work. Often people just haven’t really thought about it but sometimes all it takes is a conversation to point this out, which is something everyone can get involved with.
Luckily, especially for the last couple of years, we’re finally having a long overdue conversation around all aspects of menstruation.”
What positives do you think can come from workplaces and organisations providing free menstrual care?
“There are so many positives! Having this provision in place says to people with periods that their employer understands a basic need and natural bodily function of theirs. They’d be providing items which are essential and helping to limit the number of inconvenient period situations at work: no one likes being caught short or asking around the office for spares or fashioning a pad out of loo roll before you run out to the shop or ruining a perfectly good pair of pants! It also shows that they understand period products are no less essential than loo roll and soap. Just imagine if work didn’t supply loo roll and soap! No one has to carry around stacks of toilet paper or multiple bars of soap.”
Since you’ve started the campaign, what kind of things have you seen being provided for free by some organisations who don’t provide free period care?
“Air freshener, hand lotion, hand sanitiser, hair spray, dry shampoo, tissues deodorant, breakfast, lunch, snacks and alcohol!”
Your boxes contain organic tampons and pads. Was choosing eco-friendly period products something that was important to you?
“Choosing these brands is important to me because organic cotton is better for your body and the environment. We’re facing a climate catastrophe, so it’s never been a more important time to make environmentally conscious choices. Avoid brands that use single-use plastics for example. There are also so many reusable options available such as menstrual cups and period pants so if they work for you, great! Use them! This is a small change that people can make.”
If someone reading this is thinking about asking their workplace to provide free period care, what advice can you give them?
A great question! While this should be a straightforward conversation, I know from experience, it’s not always the case so here are some pointers:
Talk to friends/colleagues at work who you think would agree with you (hopefully that’s everyone) so you know the idea has support
Email or speak with a ‘decision-maker’ at work. An office manager or HR will be your best bet. If you are one of these, brilliant, go ahead and order them yourself
State the obvious.
Menstrual products should be provided because they are essential items. Menstruation is normal for a lot of people and so providing products to manage it, makes sense. Having periods is not something we opt into
• Give examples to use as leverage:
• If toilet paper and soap are provided as essential items, then menstrual products should be too
• Is there a budget for extras? Free breakfast? Drinks on a Friday? Tea & Coffee? While these are nice to have, they’re not essential (I know some will want to debate this)
• Are there non-essential items in your work bathrooms? Hand lotion, tissues, air freshener, deodorant, etc? Ask that essentials are covered if the nice-to-haves are provided
Help someone out.
Unexpected periods can happen at any time and so if provisions are in place, they help lessen the likelihood of an embarrassing period related situation at work.
If being a genuinely inclusive workspace is important, then providing these essential items sends a strong message that your employer understands a basic need for anyone with periods
Be a leader, not a lagger.
Mention other companies that are already providing menstrual products and suggest they follow suit. Google, Twitter, Spotify all have them, to name a few but it’s not just large companies! Your workplace could be the next one ahead of the trend
Go for organic, eco-friendly brands which are better for people and the planet
Challenge the “taboo”.
Remember, the worst that can happen is that it could be a bit awkward but at the very least it will give that person something to think about, you’re on the right side of history. Anyway, if you don’t ask, you don’t get, so go for it!
What’s next for Flow Free?
We’ve just started a new hashtag #CottonOn to get people to share images of bathrooms they see with menstrual products! We want to show it’s becoming normal and that other companies and organisations should follow suit.
We’re also working on an exciting project with the fantastic Bloody Good Period, more information on that to come soon!
Thanks to Libby for telling us all about Flow Free Initiative! You can find out more and support the project on socials. TOTM is also on a mission to make workplaces period powerful with the launch of our workplace boxes. If you’re keen to see free period care provided in your place of work, find out more here.