Let's Talk About (Safe & Sustainable) Sex, Baby

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We turn up our noses at coffee that’s not certified fair-trade, regularly shell out serious cash at Whole Foods for organic produce, and categorically refuse to put any products on our faces that contain toxic ingredients with unpronounceable names (phenoxyethanol, triethanolamine, and the like). But when it comes to that most intimate of products, condoms, we seem fairly happy to live in blissful ignorance of all the bad stuff that’s going on inside (and that’s if we’re even using them).

Father-daughter (yes) duo Meika and Jeffrey Hollender created Sustain Condoms to change all of that. Jeffrey is the founder of eco-home products line Seventh Generation and Meika, a recent business school grad, pushed him to start Sustain. “My dad had this thought 20 years ago to make a sustainable condom,” she says. “But he put it on the backburner.” In the two decades since the original idea, the need for the product had only grown.

The rubber industry has a sordid history of supporting child labor and worker abuse and, for Jeffrey, the sustainability aspect was a major motivator. Sustain found the only certified fair trade rubber plantation in the world that makes rubber for latex for condoms to make theirs (fair trade means no underage workers, free healthcare, and schooling for employees and their families, higher wages and an all-around positive work environment). Socially conscious? Check.

They also discovered that, during the manufacturing process, a chemical called nitrosamine forms in condoms. This chemical is released from latex in hot or wet conditions (so, not ideal). Nitrosamine is a known carcinogen and it’s in everything from food to personal care products. Sustain cut that out. “It’s about the body burden,” says Meika. “You’re exposed to so many toxins every day, so why not avoid them when you can.” The condoms are also vegan, so checks for eco- and animal-friendly, too.

Though the sustainable and non-toxic factors were important to Meika, she says that her motivation came from something a little closer to home. “I have so many smart friends who would tell me they never used condoms because ‘he didn’t have one’ or ‘he was a totally clean guy’ or just ‘condoms suck’,” she says. “And then the next day at brunch they would be like, shit.” The fact is, only 19 percent of single women use condoms. Consequently, women in their 20s are among the highest-level contractors of STDs. Shit for real.

According to the women who Sustain’s founders polled, the real problem is the stigma associated with a female who carries condoms or has them in her bedroom. “Women feel like they’re going to be judged,” says Meika. “And to be honest, I’ve had very close guy friends tell me that they look at a girl who has her own condoms in a really negative way.” So in addition to making something that was good on the inside, they struck out to create a really beautiful product that people wouldn’t be embarrassed to carry in their clutches. “Our packaging looks like a cosmetic or a pack of gum,” Meika says. “It just blends in.”

And, beyond your corner drug store, you can find their wares on the shelves at Whole Foods (and other health food markets) and in every Michael Stars store in the U.S. “They’re our first fashion retailer, which is great,” says Meika. “We want to eventually sell in Lululemon and other stores where women have said they would feel more comfortable making these purchases.”

The 27-year-old, who not long ago ended a 4+ year relationship, says that the best part of her job now is being a living case study for her product. “There’s this funny moment every time I tell someone in a bar what I do for a living,” she says. “It opens the door for talking about sex right off the bat, which can be great or can be weird. Well, weird for them. Never for me. I’ve heard it all.” Being single, she says, she has been amazed by the fact that she is almost always the person asking for a condom—never the guy.

Naturally, this brings up the question of her dad: does she report her findings to him? Is that totally weird? “My family has always been close,” says Meika, “so it’s never uncomfortable to talk about, but it’s definitely funny.” She recalls a moment when they walked into a Babeland to scope out their offerings: “I just kept wondering what the sales associates must have been thinking when I’m like ‘Hey Dad, let’s go check out the condoms!’”

But, at the end of the day, she says she would much rather have an awkward conversation than none at all. “Our society is so sexually repressed even though we’re over-sexualized,” she says. “We’re not supposed to talk about sex. Not safe sex anyway.” So, Sustain’s goal is to get more people wearing good condoms, and change the conversation in the process. “I will always talk about sex. It’s normal, it’s natural and it’s healthy,” says Meika. “And it’s the fastest route to having better sex!”

—Victoria Lewis

Photographed by Tom Newton.