From rags to reusables: the evolution of how we make, market and talk about period products

This article is an edited transcript from the podcast – Easy Being Green? Lessons in sustainable business. Listen to the audio version on AnchorSpotify or Apple Podcasts.

As a teenager of the 90’s and a person who menstruates, I (as I’m sure many like me also do) remember the feeling of embarrassment when I got my period as a teenager at school. I remember the relief when I learned how to use tampons, because it was easier to push one up the sleeve of your school jumper and make a beeline for the girls toilets, rather than try to hide a rustling sanitary pad in the same way.

Back then, the talk around periods – in the public or between me and my school friends – tended to be laced with shame or embarrassment. Emotions that were backed up by the marketing around period products, that often insinuated menstruation was dirty and something to hide, and used antagonistic language to promote the ‘benefits’ of ‘discreet’ tampons that made you ‘feel cleaner’, or ‘slim’ pads that wouldn’t show through your jeans.

Advertising period products on TV was banned until 1972, but even when that ban was lifted, it wasn’t until 1985 that the word ‘period’ was used in a commercial, when a young Courtney Cox (best known for playing Monica in the popular TV sitcom, Friends) featured in an advert for Tampax, claiming the brand could “change the way you feel about your period”.

Coming up against double standards

Almost 40 years later and we have come a long way when it comes to how we talk about periods, period products and menstruation in general. But the journey to using more authentic language about something that 50 percent of the population experiences monthly hasn’t been without its critics and roadblocks.

In 2015, Miki Agrawal, the founder of “period-proof” underwear brand Thinx, came up against blockades when presenting new advertising creative to the New York City Subway’s advertising agency.

The ads featured an image of a halved pink grapefruit and a woman wearing Thinx period pants, with copy that read “underwear for women with periods”. Sounds pretty tame, right? Not according to the bods at the New York Subway, who told Miki her creative was “too suggestive” and would “be offensive” to riders.

In a 2017 case study shared by Inc. Magazine, Miki points out the double standard presented by New York Subway, a location plastered with breast augmentation adverts, also featuring grapefruits to depict a body part.

It was a case of breasts = good, vaginas = bad, according to the New York Subway.

Miki took her story to the press, garnering global attention and outcry on social media all over the world. The adverts were up in the subway by November that year.

The positive and negative influences of social media

While it’s fair to argue that social media has played a part in enabling more open conversations about periods, with the hashtag #period amassing more than two million uses on Instagram alone, that doesn’t necessarily mean social media platforms have caught up with the times when it comes to #MenstruationMatters.

Only two years ago in 2020, Facebook faced significant backlash after banning a Modibodi ad from its platform. The 60-second video was originally deemed to violate guidelines covering “shocking, sensational, disrespectful or excessively violent content”.

After “review and consultation” with its teams – and another public outcry on its own platform – Facebook allowed the ads to be shown in their entirety.

Modibodi’s Kristy Chong told Women’s Agenda at the time that the ad’s mission had been to help break down taboos around periods.

“We’re pleased to share that Facebook has reconsidered its position on our 60-second film, so we can continue our mission to open people’s minds by taking the stigma out of what is a perfectly natural bodily function for women,” she said.

Eco-friendly product innovations continue the conversation

It’s not just the way we talk about periods and period products that has changed over the years, but also the products themselves.

Reusable period products, such as menstrual cups and period-proof underwear, have seen growing popularity in recent years.

2020 data from market research firm Mintel found that 15 percent of people who menstruate opted for environmentally friendly products. With UK retail sales of intimate hygiene, sanitary protection and adult incontinence products projected to grow to £544m in 2025 and consumers turning towards more eco-friendly, but still convenient options, it seems every brand and it’s dog has launched a range of period-proof undies.

In 2021 high street fast fashion chain Primark, somewhat controversially, released a range of £6 knickers which they touted as ‘the perfect replacement for single use period products’. Jumping on a trend? Yes. Sustainable? Most definitely not. It’s almost impossible to plausibly link ‘fast fashion‘ and ‘sustainable’ in any way. But good try, Primark.

“The problem with the fast fashion business is the amount of product that’s being produced and pushed every day can never been sustainable.”

– Aja Barber, writer and fashion consultant.

Independent brands leading the way

When it comes to successfully mixing sustainability with innovation, it is often the smaller brands that are quietly making waves behind the scenes. LUX founder Preeti Murli launched her range of organic, plastic-free and fully biodegradable period pants in 2018, after struggling to find similar online following the birth of her first child.

“Our motivation for launching the business stemmed from our family’s personal experience to go organic. With most products, it was as simple as perusing a label to understand the product’s ingredients and how it was made, which is then followed by a decision to either continue or discontinue using the product. Period products, however, were totally opaque. No published ingredients. No way to identify how the product was manufactured,” says Preeti.

Curiosity led Preeti to dive further into the subject, eventually finding herself in the annals of the National Institute of Health (NIH) USA.

“I learned that more than 95 percent of mainstream period products are made from plastic, essentially rendering the humble period pad or tampon a single use plastic. But that wasn’t the end of it. Plastic in intimate-use products had a severe and adverse reaction on women’s hormonal health, by disturbing the key feminine hormone, oestrogen, which in turn could impact periods in the short term, and even fertility in the long-term.”

Considerations when developing sustainable reusables

Preeti wanted to develop products that were both safe for women using intimates, but also for the planet.

“For our period underwear, we started with material selection, by reviewing materials to assess their ability to absorb efficiently. We eliminated materials like TENCEL/LYOCEL, which often masquerade as renewable sources, but are contentious. Next, we whittled down the materials to those that can be certified organic. Ultimately, organic cotton proved the winner,” explains Preeti.

LUX period pants are made from 100% Organic GOTS Certified Cotton. Source: www.luxstore.net

With the materials decided upon, the next priority for LUX was its supply chain.

“We selected material from supply chains that were duly certified as being ethical and ensured we collaborated with a family run manufacturer who paid their employees a fair wage,” Preeti explains.

LUX now offers two types of organic period products – menstrual or period pads, and reusable period underwear. The brand’s organic period pads are wholly made from organic cotton, although Preeti tells me that while the trims are currently made from elastic, her team is working towards using biodegradable trims for the next batch. The brand’s period underwear, however, is made from 100% organic cotton.

“That means not just the gusset, but the entire underwear is made from organic cotton,” Preeti explains. “This was borne from from my desire to create a product that would be convenient and safe, even to use postpartum. My own experiences with rather large period pads after the birth of my first child was my impetus to create this product. Once used, it just needs to be rinsed in running water for a few minutes, and then put into the wash like normal underwear.”

LUX period underwear can be reused for up to 50 washes, which – if you have a set of underwear for each monthly period – will last someone with a 28-day cycle almost four years.

Once you are done with your LUX period underwear, it can be disposed of with household waste and – here’s the best part – it will biodegrade both aerobically, as well as anaerobically. This is important, because most landfills are so tightly compacted, they do not let much air in. They are fundamentally anaerobic, which means many ‘biodegradable’ products won’t degrade without oxygen, but LUX period underwear will.

Earlier this year, Australian business turned global industry leader, Modibodi also launched its own range of biodegradable period and pee-proof briefs. The new range was created using a blend of TENCEL™ and Merino wool, which – according to Modibodi, is “scientifically proven to break down into nontoxic substances at the end of their usable life” and can be washed over 100 times, which is the equivalent to more than eight years of periods when washed once a month.

Pants and cups – change this subheading

Another period product that has seen a resurgence in recent years is the menstrual cup. Although they have been available for many years, as far back as the 1930s in fact, menstrual cups have historically not been as popular as pads or tampons. Since 2014, searches for “Menstrual Cup” have been steadily increasing, only slowing down at the end of 2021. Perhaps because – like many reusables – everyone who wants one has got one, and with one cup touting a lifespan of ten years, the market might need to wait for the next generation of people with periods to decide their time for a cup has come.

As conversations about menstruation becoming more normalised, people who menstruate – and their partners, families and friends – are becoming more relaxed about talking about the intricacies of the experience. Including how to use a menstrual cup – which can be tricky at first, but no more so than learning how to use a tampon. From personal experience, once the technique clicks, it feels very liberating. I have had many conversations with friends, my family and my husband about my cup. No taboo or embarrassment in sight.

Are reusable period products more expensive?

From the user’s point of view.

The rise in popularity of reusable, eco-friendly and toxin-free products has been driven by increasing awareness of the environmental impact of sanitary towels and tampons, when discarded in landfill or worse – down the toilet. Most sanitary products are made with plastic, which means they can take up to 500 years to break down.  In 2017, the Marine Conservation Society reported a large number of period products were washing up on British beaches, including pads and single-use plastic applicators.

Many mainstream single-use period products also contain nasty chemicals that leak out in and enter the biosphere, and into our bodies.

According to Ami Zota, an assistant professor of environmental health at George Washington University, tampon chemicals are absorbed by the vaginal mucosa, and from there are able to pass almost directly into our bloodstream. This may raise a woman’s exposure to phthalates, a class of suspected endocrine disrupters which have been linked to developmental issues like lower IQs and higher rates of asthma.

But another reason to choose to reuse is financial. Although the initial outlay for a cup or a set of period pants can feel quite hefty, over time you are saving money, particularly if you are in a country that charges tampon tax.

Some countries have abolished tampon tax, including Australia, Canada, India and – only last year – the UK . But still, period products are subject to a state sales tax in 30 of the 50 US states, despite efforts to ban the tax country-wide.

I worked out how much, on average, I spent on period products every month before I switched to reusables. It worked out at about £9.65 per month. That’s £125.45 per year. If I start my periods at age 13 and go through the menopause at age 51, I’d spend £4,767.10 on period products.

Now, let’s look at if I used reusables for that whole time. Say I use 6 pairs of LUX period pants each cycle for the nighttimes and one menstrual cup for the day times, I refresh my stash of LUX pants every 50 washes (or four years) and buy a new menstrual cup every 10 years, I’ll be spending about £1,285 for the entire lifetime of my period. That’s a saving of £3,482.10.

From a business point of view

A challenge for many small sustainable businesses, or small businesses that are keen to move into the ‘green’ space, is that to pay workers fairly, use quality and sustainable materials, and give back to the planet can equate to a higher price point for the end product.  For Preeti and LUX, looking after the planet was a non-negotiable in her business journey.

“It’s important that a business starts as it means to go on. We only have one planet to call home, no matter how much Elon Musk insists that Mars can be called home. It hasn’t been easy. Every decision ultimately has a cost, which makes our product more expensive than our competitors. The key challenge has been educating our customers as to why we sell our products at the price point we do. However, in time we are certain our customers will see the benefits of our precise decisions and the volumes in sales will help compensate,” Preeti says.

“Be true to yourself and what you are trying to accomplish. Always start as you mean to go on. Never take no for an answer, if you have the conviction then you must have the courage and the follow through. Finally, being sustainable is not easy, you will often be pit against behemoths, but keep sharing your message and educate your audience.” – Preeti Murli, Founder, LUX

Of course at the end of the day, the quality of a product will speak for itself. As the old adage goes “buy cheap, buy twice”. A good quality product that lasts longer than a poorly made one will, in time, have a positive impact on a person’s pockets, as well as on the planet. And in the case of LUX, on a person’s wellbeing.

As Preeti reports: “We have collated some incredible reviews from customers and in some instances we have seen how much we have influenced their life. One customer explained how her night sleep had been disturbed since she was 11 years old, as she suffered from endometriosis. She was plagued with pain and could never find a comfortable position to sleep in and also had to change her pads several times each night. In her early thirties she discovered our products and finally found a product that she could wear and sleep through the night. She could find more comfortable positions to sleep in to help manage her pain. It’s stories like this that keep us going.”

From rags to reusables

We’ve come a long way in a short time when it comes to period products. From homemade menstrual cloths and belts, to today’s super comfortable and stylish period-proof underwear. From talking in hushed tones, if at all, about our ‘time of the month’, to openly discussing techniques for using menstrual cups with our friends. From a ban on the word ‘period’ in TV commercials, to break-through advertising depicting the realities 50 percent of the population face once a month.

Periods are a part of life for all of us. They indicate the start of the menstrual cycle, which itself is an essential element in the continuation of humanity. Periods shouldn’t be painful – although for many, they are – but they are certainly often uncomfortable, so having access to products that create comfort and a feeling of security during that time of the month is essential. The growing market of reusable and organic period products that protect both the planet and the health of the people using them, offers an eco-friendly option and extra peace of mind in our choice of period product.

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Charli Ferrand Higgins

After a decade working for global and boutique PR and Marketing agencies in Sydney, with clients that included some of the biggest consumer brands in the world, Charli returned to her homeland of the UK in 2017 and decided the time had come to use her professional skills and experience for good. She has since split her time between supporting passionate, purpose-driven small and medium-sized businesses to grow through conscious content marketing, managing and editing the planet-positive content hub Earth Collective (weareearthcollective.com), and hosting the podcast Easy Being Green? Lessons in sustainable business for SMEs.

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