Going with the sustainable flow
Gender inequality and period poverty
On March the 8th, the world celebrated International Women’s Day. This day marks a time to celebrate the achievements of women in the political, economic, social and cultural spheres.
More widely, it is a call for greater attention to women’s rights and gender equality. There are many to highlight but one of the main inequalities women face is pay. In the United States, women are paid 17% less than men.
Many companies celebrated International Women’s Day on social media, demonstrating their support for the cause. In response to these posts, someone created a Twitter bot that would retweet a company’s post alongside their gender pay gap, highlighting the need for action and not just words. I found that brilliant!
Gender inequality exacerbates discriminatory practices and cultural taboos, which can prevent women from meeting health and hygiene needs in the case of menstruation. More widely, period poverty refers to women unable to access period products due to financial or social constraints. Beyond the health risk, period poverty can impact the education and wellbeing of women.
The financial and environmental cost of periods
The cost of having a period over a lifetime is estimated to be £4,800. These costs are associated with purchasing period products such as tampons, period care to alleviate pains from cramps as well as any foregone revenues when women aren’t able to carry out daily activities due to intense pains. Beyond the financial cost, what is the environmental one?
Similar to many other goods, plastic is everywhere in period products. Tampons are wrapped in plastic, applicators are made of plastic and pads use synthetic materials for their absorbent capabilities. It is estimated that pads and tampons are made up of 90% and 6% plastic respectively.
Most period products generate vast quantities of waste. Every year in the UK, pads, tampons and applicators generate 200,000 tonnes of waste. The issue with waste generation is accentuated when menstrual products are flushed down toilets as it can create sewer blockages.
There is a wide range of environmental considerations when you analyse the products. Products with fragrances contain thousands of chemicals and cotton is a pesticide and water intensive crop. These ecological concerns result in 5.3 kg of CO2 being emitted with a year’s consumption of menstrual products. It sounds small but you can imagine how the emissions scale with global consumption.
At this point in the article, you would be right to question why a 22-year-old male is highlighting the negative impacts of period products. My objective is to understand the environmental impact of these products and explore what the safer alternatives, both for women and the planet, are.
Better products for women and the planet’s health
There is a wide range of solutions to reduce the negative impact of menstrual products on women’s health and the planet:
- Pads and tampons made with organic cotton will reduce women’s exposure to harmful chemicals and pesticides. Additionally, organic cotton can reduce energy consumption and water usage by 72% and 91% respectively.
- Using reusable tampon applicators. Imagine how many single-use plastic applicators would be saved!
- Menstrual cups can last up to 10 years. Although there is an upfront cost, this can lead to substantial financial and carbon savings.
- Reusable period underwear can be used many times. It is recommended to check if the underwear does not contain any antimicrobials as they can be unsafe additives for women’s health.
One of the companies supplying sustainable period products is Dame. They are on a mission to ensure that period products are sustainable, acceptable and accessible.
The company provides reusable tampon applicators, reusable period pads, and organic tampons. Their products are free from toxins, chemicals, bleach and plastic, a win for people and the planet.
Their reusable applicators have prevented more than 6 million single-use tampon applicators from becoming plastic waste. They have also removed plastic usage, replacing it with compostable and biodegradable tampon wrappers when it comes to packaging.
To reduce its impact on the environment, Dame started by measuring it. I was amazed at how open they were about their effect on the environment as a company.
“Almost every way in which we’re set up as a society currently relies on this abuse of carbon. In fact it’s impossible to participate in the modern economy without being complicit in this abuse, and that includes us at Dame.”
When measuring their emissions, they found that 70% of Dame’s footprint is associated with the use of disposal of products. This holistic assessment at the corporate and product-level helps them understand how to reduce their environmental impact and give guidance to their customers on how to use Dame products responsibly.
Dame wants to include periods in the popular stories and portrayal of women and increase education around periods when it comes to acceptability. They are on a mission to normalise periods and part of this work was done through their bus ad, highlighting a picture taken by one of their customers, Demi.
“Periods have been erased from the idealised version of a woman, and here’s Demi putting them right back.”
To top it all off, Dame is a Certified B Corporation. That means they meet the highest standards of environmental and social performance, legal accountability and transparency.
It’s obvious that following this article, you most likely won’t be having a conversation with me about how to have a more environmentally sustainable period and you would be right not to do so as having not experienced them, I know nothing about periods.
However, I’m sure that starting conversations around sustainable period products with women and learning from those who have used them would create ripple effects of positive impact. It will be vital on the path to democratising access to period products while decoupling this growth in access with increases in emissions.