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Aimee Marks is an organic entrepreneur
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Aimee Marks is an organic entrepreneur
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I'm reading
Aimee Marks is an organic entrepreneur
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"Do things that really inspire you because ultimately that’s where you’re going to have the greatest impact."
30 July 2013

Aimee Marks is an organic entrepreneur

Interview by Titian Linley
Photography by Titian Linley

Meeting Aimee...

Aimee Marks was once a teenage girl like myself, who found herself drowning in a sea of pink, blue and plastic, with no way to pull herself out of the synthetics and the bleach. The practical idea of changing the design of tampon boxes turned into the ethical, environmentally aware company TOM Organic, a company that I hadn’t even heard of before coming to intern at Dumbo Feather magazine.

The embarrassment of having to enter the health aisle for something that’s not deodorant or toothpaste has me at the ‘grab, go, and hope to god no one saw me’ approach and left hoping that when I get back home the product I bought was the product I wanted. I don’t even think about the product that I’m buying, let alone what it’s made out of! Aimee understands that a lot of women have a similar approach when it comes to buying their own products, so teaching women that not all the products they use are good for the environment is something she is passionate about doing.

Walt Disney once said “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” Curiosity led to me reading Dumbo Feather. Which led me to actually coming to Dumbo Feather for a week. That led me to doing this article. Curiosity led Aimee to bettering the health of women, the good of the environment, and the education of using organic products that help, instead of plastic ones that harm.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.

TITIAN LINLEY: This is meant to be short, so I’m going to have to cut out a bunch of my questions! I have too many. I kept thinking ‘Oh I don’t know what to ask!’ But my first question would be: What is TOM Organic?

AIMEE MARKS: It’s a product range of certified organic cotton female care products; tampons and pads that are made without any of the plastics, bleaches and synthetics that a lot of our competitors are made from. That’s the core of what the product is.

And what’s TOM to you?

For me, TOM Organic is about education and the community that we’re building around women’s health, women’s empowerment and basically leading the way from a mass market perspective. Inspiring women to make conscious choices when it comes to buying products and not compromise on their health and the environment. There are so many amazing products out there now so you don’t need to compromise.

Products like feminine hygiene for example, we buy monthly. It’s a grudge purchase.

We don’t take the time to stop and consider. I bet you’ve never read the list of the ingredients on the back of your tampon packets [laughs].

No, not really.

It was something that I came across and discovered at a young age, almost a year older than you. I was reading ingredients lists on the back of boxes and thought about how I never stopped to think about this and surely there are other women out there who haven’t either. It’s just about opening a conversation from a global perspective, around the choices we have available.

It sounds like a great initiative. Being organic and making sure the things that women are putting into their bodies are not doing harm. Something that has been on my mind since I heard about you guys is why call it TOM?

[Laughs] that’s half the reason. People stop and ask the question. It stands for Time Of Month. This acronym that’s quite a taboo topic, so when I was first creating it, I was younger and talking to a younger target market, and I found that people were hesitant to refer to the product as tampons. The idea was to actually rename the product itself. ‘Do you have a TOM? I’ve got my period.’ That was the initial motivation, but now it’s become something far wider than that. It’s more about how a brand makes you feel.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the Apple ad at the moment, but it’s that feeling, rather than how the brand looks or what a brand says. The name is one thing, but for us it’s about sharing a message around living a life that is uncompromised from a health and environmental perspective. It also comes from a branding perspective. It’s something that was single syllable, easy and quick to remember on a shelf. We’re competing against some of the biggest brands in the world.

The tampon aisle is a sea of pink and blue and all of sorts of weird names like ‘Libra’, and TOM seemed to cut through a lot of that noise.

What inspires you? Something like a book or a quote or a person that you met… just something that really gets you going?

There’s actually been a lot lately.

You go through cycles where you’re gathering inspiration. Typically that happens when you’re being faced with some challenges. You go back into your little hole and gather.

I’m reading Richard Branson’s book at the moment, Screw Business As Usual, and I think it’s quite inspiring. It’s a narrative that I’m familiar with, because at Small Giants, TOM and Dumbo Feather, we talk a lot about different ways of doing business and using business as a force for good, but hearing someone so mass and influential discover this new way of doing business, is particularly inspiring. The way that he communicates it in such simple terms that make so much sense is quite refreshing.

So he’s been really inspiring lately, and I think just empowering brands to not compromise on that message. That 360 degree, holistic approach to everything we do, that narrative has particularly helped me. It’s a very different business model.

We’re a very ethical brand that cares deeply about every action that we take, from manufacturing to people. The bigger companies are very different; our suppliers are very different, and we feel the responsibility to help bridge that gap and communicate to the public the work that we’re doing and actually empower them to support brands like us. Brands like Virgin are pretty inspiring.

So you were saying a little bit before about challenges. Being stuck in your own head. When you were starting out what were some of the challenges and hardships that you went through?

I think as a constant it was just every single day, something would go wrong. Every single day you knew that there was going to be something unpredictable, whatever it could be, was not going to go your way. But having something that I was so inspired by and passionate about, I felt this real responsibility of continuing to push through this constant movement of take two steps forward, one step back always, and it’s still the same way today. We just have more manpower behind it, so things move a bit quicker.

We have spent years carving a place for an organic feminine hygiene product on the supermarket shelves in Australia, and I won’t lie, it’s been a long hard road and there have been plenty of challenges along the way. Securing that first spot in the major grocery stores has been a huge achievement because it means that we’re contributing to changing the way that those retailers behave. There are a small, but powerful group of independent organic brands that are making their way onto the shelves in supermarkets and every single one of those is a testament to years of hard work and roadblocks, but together we know we are the change makers who in are business for all the right reasons and little by little we are making a difference.

So was there any time where you were thinking, This is too much, this is too hard?

Oh yeah, of course.

And just felt like you should cut your losses and throw in the towel?

There’d be days when I’d have to get out of bed and walk all of two metres to my desk, where it was set up, in my bedroom, studying business. We had knockbacks from the major supermarkets multiple times, three years ago, before we even got in. Obviously being able to finance something like this was really challenging in the early days and I was babysitting in my spare hours. But I think that there was never really a moment where I didn’t believe that it could work, because for me in my mind

it was so blatantly obvious that this product needed to be available for women globally.

I think more of the challenge was just that “how”. In answer to your question… I came close a number of times to really just feel overwhelmed and maybe that would have led to potentially giving up, but I just don’t think that was ever on the agenda. I would have found a way to make it work. Perhaps if it was another idea, or something that I wasn’t deeply connected to then, you know…

There are always going to be brands and people that try to ride on your coattails—copycats, hangers-on—but authenticity is the key to everything and if you’re transparent in what you do and you stick to a strong set of ethical values then you will always be at the front of the pack.

Consumers trust a label that says organic, and should be confident and safe in making that assumption. If not that, then we need to teach the consumer to ask the right questions so they can go out into the market and be confident that they have the tools to check that the product they are purchasing is what it says it is. Bodies like the ACO (Australian Certified Organic) are an integral part of that education—it can be as simple as looking out for a certified organic logo.

And what do you do to get away from TOM? Do you have time to just be you and just step back from the company? Is there just never a time where you’re not thinking about it?

To be honest there is very little time where the TOM isn’t in my mind because it’s just such an extension of all the things I believe in, and I don’t necessarily think that that’s a bad thing! I do lots of yoga and lots of walking and running with my dog and at those moments, that’s when I get a lot of clarity and I’m able to re-shuffle priorities and of course TOM’s at the forefront of that [laughs], but that’s a healthy thing and right now, where the business is today it needs me to constantly think about it.

Of course. I came across a quote by Margaret Mead yesterday and it said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” Do you think that your innovation of organic products could change the face of feminine hygiene products? Or inspire bigger companies to go organic, go green and ultimately make things safer for us, cleaner for us?

Absolutely. I think that if there was ever an end goal, then that would be it. At the end of the day we are talking to a consumer group of women who are using a product that is either plastic or organic. There have been a number of times where I’ve approached our competitors and we’ve had this conversation. And to be in complete agreement, I think that’s really the ultimate goal. Above that it’s about looking at the holistic supply chain. Changing the landscape of this industry and helping to change the world, I truly believe that we can.

Every single woman uses 12 to 15 thousand pads or tampons in her entire lifetime. Think about the environmental disaster and effect of those products. You know, if plastic products sit in landfill even for seven to 10 years verses a biodegradable product, absolutely, we are working at changing the world.

Even from a manufacturing perspective, cotton is the most water intensive crop. Think about the thousands of litres of toxic water that is spilling off into local communities that we could avoid. Also supporting local farmers in organic production, I think that that’s potentially really powerful as well. Imagine if the bigger brands decided that they wanted to do that. Imagine the impact that would have.

It would be massive.

I think it’s our responsibility to start to measure that impact, and start to challenge. Challenge our community to hit those goals. The power of voice is everything. And if I can add onto something I said before when you asked the question around starting and what were some of the challenges…

Of course, go right on ahead.

I think some of those challenges were gifts in disguise.

One of the biggest learning curves was to always be resourceful and having that creativity and that nature ingrained into the DNA of the business now with the team is really important. For example when it comes to marketing campaigns, it’s about thinking deeply about the stories that we want to tell and being creative around how we can access consumers and tell our story. Guerrilla marketing. It’s much more challenging in the approach and takes longer to get results that way, but I think it’s far more genuine and in the longer term it’s far more sustainable. And at least we’re challenging that now.

What about your philosophy?

I think not settling for anything other than greatness is really important in all aspects of your life. You shouldn’t have to compromise. From a business entrepreneur perspective or a career perspective just remember to live your passion.

Do things that really inspire you because ultimately that’s where you’re going to have the greatest impact.

Not wanting to compromise on happiness or health or the planet. That’s a key thing for me. Whether it’s through product, business or family, they’re all equally as important.

That was really inspirational. Especially for a 16-year-old like me. So thank you so much for doing this with me.

No thank you. Honestly every single extra person who helps to share our message is helping create change in this world. They really are.

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