Celia Hodson: The social entrepreneur on a mission to end period poverty

First published by The Herald on 23 November 2018

IN HIS recent report on UK poverty, UN special rapporteur Philip Alston blasted the programme of welfare reforms the Government has put in place since 2010, with the roll out of Universal Credit in particular seen to be causing, rather than alleviating, hardship and suffering.

It is a trend that Celia Hodson can well recognise. Having had experience of the welfare system when raising her three children as a single parent in the 1990s, the Dunbar-based entrepreneur knows how important it is for people to be supported when they are at their most vulnerable, but also how hard it is to make ends meet while surviving on benefits alone. And, after witnessing the effects that drastic cuts to welfare spending have had on women and girls in particular, she and daughters Kate and Becky decided to try to do something about it.

The result? Hey Girls, a social enterprise whose mission is to eradicate period poverty in the UK, was born in January 2018.

“I had a conversation with my daughters about period poverty in the UK and how it was that we were living in one of the most-wealthy countries in the world but some girls still couldn’t get access to products,” she says.

“I was a single parent and brought my children up on benefits. Like all families that are hard up I managed my best but I experienced period poverty. I came from a lived experience and wanted to do something about it.”

The model of Hey Girls is simple: every time someone buys one of its products, whether it’s a packet of tampons or sanitary pads, a menstruation cup or reusable pad, it will donate an identical product to a partner organisation in the customer’s local area, with a small team based in Leith organising the matches and dealing with the logistics of distribution.

Individual customers can buy Hey Girls products online or in Asda or Waitrose stores, and the company, which as a social enterprise uses its profits to achieve its goals, will ensure the same item is delivered to a local community group or food bank for distribution. Corporate clients can do the same on a larger scale, with Ms Hodson noting that in that respect Hey Girls is benefitting from “an increasing market around period dignity”.

“Companies want to provide period products for their female workforce,” she says. “They buy from us and put them in the ladies’ loos and when they do that we match it with a local donation.”

Having spent her working life running social enterprises in England, India and Australia, Ms Hodson is well aware of the impact such organisations can make, which is why Hey Girls’ entire supply chain is made up of social enterprises too.

“We only buy from like-minded organisations,” Ms Hodson explains, citing the example of Haven Products, which supplies all Hey Girls’ packaging. “Ninety-two per cent of their workforce is disadvantaged in the labour market, whether it’s through a physical disability, because they are a returner to work, or they have mental health issues. Creating and maintaining jobs is really important for us.”

Not that finding like-minded organisations that can cater for all Hey Girls’ needs is an easy task, particularly as some of its products are manufactured in China, where it can be difficult for a small-scale buyer to get a clear picture of suppliers’ working practices.

“We start with a very long list of organisations that could make the products then we start asking questions and that’s when we start crossing them off,” Ms Hodson says. “Not many in China will let you come in to meet their workforce. When you think about it, we’re a tiny start-up, not a huge organisation buying gazillions of products, just an upstart wanting to see every part of their organisation. It’s quite cheeky but that’s the way we build our supply chain, by being honest and open. It would probably be cheaper, easier and quicker to go to mainstream suppliers, but we only want to work with people that have the same values as us.”

This is the same attitude Ms Hodson applies to negotiating distribution agreements, with any business looking to stock her products having to think again if they want to knock her down on price or restrict her distribution channels.

“When [Asda and Waitrose] said they would like the products but they wanted exclusivity I said no, because if I did that we’d never eradicate period poverty,” she explains.

“If anyone wants to look at the price – how low can we go – I tell them I wouldn’t be able to donate a box if the price is lower. Just by being very honest that this is a premium product, that we have lots of interested retailers, and that every time someone buys a product we together are donating a product, they get that that’s the right thing to do.”

The Scottish Government, which in August became the first government in the world to offer free sanitary products to school pupils and students in a £5.2 million scheme it said was designed to “banish the scourge of period poverty”, is also a big supporter of Hey Girls.

“They are a major partner for us,” Ms Hodson says. “We won a contract as a preferred provider through their Washroom Solutions and Sanitary Products framework. We had to go through a lot of hoops to prove we are fit to go on the framework but now we sit on it and any public sector organisation can go in and choose to buy their products from us.”

Hey Girls was also selected as a provider for a scheme run by anti-food waste charity FareShare, which after a successful pilot in Aberdeen was awarded £500,000 of Scottish Government funding to enable it to distribute period products from its centres in Scotland’s main cities.

With the business on course to deliver turnover of £1m in its first year, what drives Ms Hodson on is the desire to make a difference, no matter how small, in the lives of some of the most vulnerable people society.

“When I was experiencing period poverty I made do,” she says. “Some months you can afford products, some you can’t so you use toilet roll rolled up or you use products for too long. Girls are doing that now, they’re wearing one tampon or pad all day. You do the best and you don’t think about your own health; you just cope. The most important thing is feeding your children or paying your bills.”

The impact of Hey Girls is already being recognised, with the business seeing its products stocked nationwide by Waitrose and Asda within a few months of launch. It is close to signing another supermarket deal and is also in advanced discussions with a football club and construction company, both of which are interested in purchasing Hey Girls’ products to offer to their staff while at the same time having an impact in their local communities by way of the matched donations.

Next on the agenda for Hey Girls is education, with the business set to launch a training initiative at the start of next year.

“We have to do work around dismantling taboos around periods too,” Ms Hodson says. “From February we’ll be running training sessions for teaching staff and other groups so they can have positive conversations about what a period is, from if you haven’t started yet right through to perimenopausal and menopausal.”

Ultimately, though, Ms Hodson recognises that Hey Girls can only do so much, with radical changes at the policymaking level required if the UK is to ever stand a chance of eradicating period poverty.

“People’s lives are so vulnerable. There are people who are barely managing and living very fragile lives,” she says. “If there’s a blip it puts their budget onto a knife edge. I can’t see that changing any time soon and I can’t see period poverty going away overnight. Scotland is having a crack it but it’s not on the agenda at Westminster.”