Our resident women’s health guru Hannah Riley provides some insights into how period products are turning green in a bid to help the environment.
For as long as humans have been around, so too have periods. The way we deal with them, however, is a relatively new phenomenon. Plastic has permeated the design of femcare since the 1930s,1 but amid “meat-free Mondays” and metal straws, menstruation is finally enjoying its eco-friendly moment. The recent influx of innovators to the femcare market have their sights set firmly one thing: sustainability. It is little wonder: 200,000 tonnes of ‘environmenstrual waste’ are produced annually by the UK alone.2 However, despite the introduction of ingenious solutions to this plethora of period pollution, disposable menstrual products remain ubiquitous, occupying a colossal 70% of the market.3
Research shows that women are disproportionately more likely to ‘go green’,4 but clearly a more compelling catalyst is required for converting customers to sustainable femcare. This may come in a surprising form: the devastating impact of microplastics on seabirds and sea life are well documented,5 but surprisingly few people know about the profound effect that ditching disposables can have on the human body. So why do barely any of us know about this, and how can we change it?
We’ve been bleeding forever, meaning reusable period products have been around far longer than their throwaway sisters, the tampon and the towel. In fact, single-use period products only became available a little over 100 years ago.6 Until then, women (ever enterprising) would use pretty much anything ‘available and absorbent’,7 from scraps of fabric to tree bark, to soak up their menses.8 While the latter today seems eye-watering at best and dangerous at worst, stigmatisation was the ultimate catalyst for change in a world which views menstrual blood as something fundamentally insalubrious, a notion which stretches back as far as ancient Greece.9
Enter disposables. Ostensibly designed to liberate women thanks to their discreet nature, cleanliness and efficiency, disposable period items were, in reality, nothing more than a tactic employed by savvy marketers to ensure that women keep coming back to stock up each month. Decades of pervasive period advertising has culminated in convincing us that there is something inherently unclean about menstruation, resulting in reusables losing their appeal in comparison. But the (crimson) tide is turning.
When retailers Boots and Asda made the decision earlier this year to jettison names like ‘feminine hygiene products’ from their aisles, the praise they received was two-fold: not only was this a win for trans-inclusivity, but abandoning adjectives like ‘sanitary’ made strides in stamping out shame associated with the perceived sordidness of menstruation.10 Some, such as period educator Chella Quint, however, claim there is still more to be done: neglecting to highlight the ‘disposable’ aspect of the items actually takes us ‘three euphemisms deep’, thus obscuring the throwaway nature of ‘female hygiene products’.11
Those young enough to know better are catching on: research shows Gen Z’s shopping behaviours are ‘strongly influenced’ by brands’ commitment to environmental sustainability, with up to 90% making changes to be more sustainable in their daily lives.12 Influencer and OB/GYN Dr Jennifer Lincoln agrees: ‘[Gen Z] are the ones that are adopting these. They are on board [with] using period cups and period underwear’.13 As a result, the previously niche, eco-friendly femcare market looks set to grow by an estimated 15.8% by 2030.14
But so far, these companies enjoy only a fraction of the success enjoyed by the big period players such as Tampax and Always, indicating that if we are to get results faster, ideally every woman of menstruating age needs to be a part of the green period revolution. So what challenges must our environmentally-friendly newcomers in femcare overcome?
One of the main market barriers faced by sustainable femcare brands is that when ‘going green’ in other areas in life, the product is recognisably the same (an organic apple is still an apple, after all). But asking a person to adopt eco-friendly period products usually involves asking them to adapt to a whole new product, such as a menstrual cup or period underwear. To eliminate the need to convert customers to an entirely unfamiliar product, clever innovators at DAME invented the world’s first self-sanitising, reusable tampon applicator15 in their mission to reduce the 1.3 billion applicators disposed of annually in the UK.16
But their job is far from done. As Jesse Arenson from DAME explains, sustainable femcare brands face the challenge not only of educating potential customers, but also of convincing them that they need to be educated in the first place – most people simply aren’t aware of the issue. Over a third of British women (36%) surveyed in 2021 were unaware of the impact single-use period products have on the environment.17
This is all before the customer sees the relatively new brand as trusted: many menstruators feel an affinity with a brand and product they adopted during their teenage years, so they are reluctant to make the switch.
So, when it comes to women aged 25-34 (DAME’s main customer demographic), the impact on the environment isn’t what is motivating menstruators to convert to DAME’s brand. Instead, there is a rather more surprising incentive driving sales among millennials.
The new era in menstrual care could make our periods lighter, our cramps fewer, and reduce irritation, as 80% of DAME’s customers report.18 The science checks out: the vagina is one of the most highly absorbent parts of the female body,19 meaning the plastics and chemicals found in the synthetic fibres of non-organic menstrual products (thanks to bleaching and airtight wrapping) make their way into the bloodstream.20
According to a 2014 report by Environmental Health Perspectives, the results could be damaging our bodies.21 The truth is, we know very little about what our porous privates are soaking up, because, shockingly, manufacturers still aren’t legally required to list what’s in sanitary products.22
What we do know is that the vast majority of DAME’s customers report these potentially life-changing results after as few as three cycles. So, making the switch may transform your entire period experience, which could prove empowering for billions of women. But what will it take for these products to break through into the mainstream?
The bottom line is that costs need to come down. While the savings associated with sustainable menstrual products are thought to be around 75% of the cost of traditional femcare,23 the initial outlay cost for converting to sustainable products is considerable. For some people, the need to avoid this splurge by buying disposables once per month is simply more pressing.
But the price of the end-product won’t come down until reusables become the norm, explains Arenson. As things stand, newcomers to the market are the first to come up with the sophisticated tech required for manufacturing the products, meaning costs are high. Add to this the need to consider the full supply chain involved in manufacturing to avoid ‘greenwashing’, and you can easily see how the costs rack up. Securing funding could help, although this seems unlikely until there is greater diversity amongst venture capitalists, of which 90% are male..24 As things stand, companies run by men receive 93% of all venture capital funding,25 meaning that innovators in the menstruation market rarely get a look in.26
Until then, brands need to be smart about how they get their messages out: DAME took advantage of cheaper out-of-house advertising during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. Powerful awareness campaigns are required not just to educate the third of women who remain ignorant of the ecological implications associated with disposables, but also to boost the appeal of reusables. Finally, more stringent regulations regarding the materials used in menstrual care are necessary if we want to emphasise the negative effects on our bodies.
Our periods aren’t going anywhere, but the plastic associated with them certainly is. It’s time to address the last blind spot in caring for our planet, and maybe even have a more positive period experience in the process.