Erika Lau is a Malaysian sustainability advocate and aspiring wildlife conservationist. Growing up in Shanghai, Erika experienced heavy air pollution throughout her childhood. This sparked her interests in sustainability, climate change, and zero-waste living. In her university years, she curated Saving Gaea (@savinggaea), a platform dedicated to encouraging individuals to lead an ethical and environmentally-friendly lifestyle. Erika is also passionate about menstrual health and reducing period stigmatisation.
If you could describe your period in 3 words, what would they be?
My bloody buddy!
What would you tell your younger self before you started her period?
I would tell her that people leak through their pads all the time and not to be embarrassed by that. I would also educate her on reusable period products as these were never mentioned in my health classes!
Something that somebody has said to you that made you feel insecure - what would you say to them now?
I was once told by a family friend that I was the “ugly duckling” among all my mates. The comment had negative repercussions on my self-esteem, but it also led me to build on my other strengths. Looking back on it now, I would tell her, “Thanks, I appreciate the compliment!”
Tell us about your experience growing up in Shanghai, and moving to the U.K. What challenges did you face when you first moved here?
I grew up in an expatriate community, a mixing bowl filled with diverse cultures. Throughout my childhood, I watched Shanghai expand, commercialise and digitalise. When I moved to Edinburgh for university, my biggest challenge was figuring out how to do things by myself (set up a bank account, pay rent, etc.). I also struggled with understanding the Scottish dialect, but I am much better at it now!
Have you experienced any conflicts in terms of culture and sustainability?
Whenever Lunar New Year comes around, I always feel that my culture and ideas about sustainability clash. For example, it is the Chinese custom to wear a new set of clothes on 初一 (chu yi), as it symbolises a fresh beginning. However, the number of clothing items that we purchase and wear only once for this special occasion is outrageous. Given the detrimental impact the garment industry has on the environment, I prefer to re-wear 旗袍 (qi pao) or outfits that I already own.
"The number of clothing items that we purchase and wear only once is outrageous."
What would you say are the biggest differences you’ve noticed between East and West when it comes to attitudes towards periods?
The biggest difference I’ve noticed is probably the “rules” that people have to abide by when on their periods. In Asian culture, we do not consume cold foods like ice cream when bleeding, as it is believed that the coldness will cause our periods to clot or become clumpy. My Western friends are always confounded by this idea!
If you could pick one particular period “myth” that needs to end now, what would it be and why?
In my cloth pad workshops, a common misconception I hear is that reusable menstrual products are “dirty” and “unhygienic”. Period blood is not dirty. Our perception of “cleanliness” comes from decades of advertisement and marketing that has influenced us to believe that we need “fresh” and “fragranced” products. We have become attuned to this mentality that period blood is something to be kept hushed and out of sight. All period products, including the single-use ones, become problematic when they are not changed frequently. With adequate washing and drying techniques, reusable period products are just as safe, if not safer, than disposable ones.
"Period blood is not dirty. Our perception of “cleanliness” comes from decades of advertisement and marketing that has influenced us to believe that we need “fresh” and “fragranced” products"
What are your tips for someone who is wanting to be more sustainable or eco-friendly?
Do your research! We are fortunate to have information readily available to us online. Educate yourself by watching documentaries, having open conversations with friends and following amazing sustainability activists on social media. If you feel overwhelmed by the information, remember to take baby steps. Zero-waste living is an on-going journey and no one expects you to become meat-free or plastic-free overnight. Also, the sustainable habits that someone else practises may not always suit you, so pick what fits your lifestyle!
"Zero-waste living is an on-going journey"
Follow Erika on Instagram @savinggaea