We’ve looked at the underwhelming sanpro products that dominate the market today, and the less-than-ideal health and waste concerns that surround them. So, what’s currently being done to reduce risks and transform menstruation products?
The Industry Today
The sanpro industry is a ‘mature’ market which means that it has reached a point where it doesn’t grow much, and there is an obvious reason for this. We ALL already have to use the stuff. There is no need for the industry to lure us in, or convince us that we need to buy their products. We’re sold. If you have a uterus that bleeds for a significant proportion of the month, and you don’t have the luxury of a seventeenth century lady to ‘lie in’ or claim migraines with suspicious regularity, you gotta stop the flow. We are talking about an industry in which there are thirty million customers GUARANTEED. The industry, then, is characterised by fierce competition between brands, the biggest dogs in the kennel being Procter & Gamble UK Ltd (Always, Tampax), as well as Kimberley Clark Holding Ltd (Kotex), SCA Hygiene Products UK Ltd (Bodyform, Tena), and Lil Lets UK Ltd (obviously Lil Lets). All scrapping with each other to be granted regular proximity to your vulva.
It saddens me to the pit of my uterus to have to tell you what you actually already know: that this fierce competition for your menstrual attention has not, in fact, been the catalyst for an interesting variety of consumer-friendly sanpro. In fact, the most exciting developments in this hugely wealthy industry over the last forty years have been plastic applicators, and pads with wings. That’s it. That’s the best they can come up with.
Thanks to the patriarchy, the technical innovation age is yet to catch up with women’s most basic needs. It’s undoubtedly related to how little women are represented across the board – even in industries directly marketed to us, like beauty and sanpro, CEOs and decision makers are overwhelmingly male. And as we saw in Part 2, silence prevails around women’s health, bodies and needs in society; hardly a situation that encourages burgeoning innovation.
But there is hope. Eco-friendliness is a growing concern amongst consumers, according to Euromonitor’s recent report on the sanpro market in the UK. While in the monitoring period from 2009 to 2014, eco-friendly alternatives to tampons like the Mooncup weren’t making statistically significant market headway, they’ve predicted that’s going to change over the next five years. WEN campaigned for pharmacists to stock the Mooncup only a few years ago, and it was roundly dismissed as a batty and outlandish fringe product. So to see it tipped for this kind of success is really encouraging.
And it’s not just a good moment for menstrual cups. These last few years have seen a weird and wonderful array of period products enter the market place. Here is a by-no-means-definitive list of some products that have got us at WEN excited, for being innovative, environmentally-friendly, and using new technologies to make menstruation more bearable, if not outright fun.
Absorbent underwear: so simple. How many people have ever had to throw away a pair of knickers? Everyone. Literally everyone who menstruates. How much easier would the run-up to your period be if your pants prevented leaks? As soon as you’ve thought of it, the idea is so blindingly, breathtakingly simple that it is inconceivable that women’s underwear is not absorbent already.
Several companies have walked into this open market over the last few years: Dear Kate, Knix, and with the most fanfare, Thinx. Through a combination of controversial ads on the NYC subway, gender-inclusive strategy manufacturing boyshorts designed for trans-masculine people with periods, and a social enterprise helping women manufacture and sell reusable sani-pads in Uganda, Thinx has had shipments selling out faster than they can have new orders made.
Some have scorned the reusable pants trend, labelling them ‘period nappies’. But many users swear by their absorbency, and it’s great that there’s a new, environmentally-friendly option out there for people who may not want to use tampons, menstrual cups, or pads for whatever reason.
Fertility and reproductive tracking apps have proven to be hugely popular, second only to running apps as the most downloaded in the US. Even so, when Apple Health came out in 2014, it completely neglected anything to do with female reproductive health, attracting widespread criticism.
Apple has since added its own reproductive health app, Clue, which can track ‘menstruation, ovulation test results, sexual activity, spotting, weight, cervical mucus quality, and basal body temperature’. And there are a range of increasingly sophisticated apps outside of Apple Health that can help you to connect with your period cycle in similar ways. From fertility and ovulation trackers like Kindara, to apps like The Flow, which are less focused on pregnancy and more on helping women understand the phases of their menstrual cycle, there’s definitely something for everyone.
However, these ‘smart’ trackers have also come under fire for being less than accurate. Some products have even been accused of being hoaxes. The Loon Cup was advertised as a ‘smart’ menstrual cup on Kickstarter, and was supposed to come equipped with Bluetooth to send a text to your phone when it needed emptying. It was also promised to give you details about your menstrual health by analysing the colour, texture and quantity of your flow. Whether the idea of getting texts from your vagina delights or horrifies you, it enticed enough people into more than tripling Looncup’s original funding targets.
However, it’s looking increasingly likely that these promises were too good to be true. At first, updates from the Looncup scaled back the product’s hi-tech features – such as the cup having Bluetooth. Then, the company seemed to fall of the face of the earth, leaving backers high and dry. You can read more about the troubling saga here.
There definitely seems to be a long way to go before we can use our smart phones to take care of our periods for us. But there are positive signs to suggest that innovations are headed in the right direction. More female CEOs and developers are entering the sanpro industry than ever; Clue, The Flow, Mooncup and Thinx are all female-fronted, to name a few. Menstrual Hygiene Day (28th May) was founded in 2014 by German-based NGO ‘WASH’, intended to raise awareness, break taboos and improve innovation with a view to sustainability. It has become a global initiative, with all brands mentioned in this blog as partners. There is more demand, more money and more possibility for technological developments in the industry than ever. As innovation continues, we get ever closer to empowering more women on their periods with something that might at least be a little more exciting, and hopefully more sustainable, than winged sani pads.
In our final Environmenstrual blog post, we’ll be looking at how to take action to help spread the message, raise awareness, push for sustainable alternatives, and pressure the sanpro industry into healthier and greener practices.
With thanks to Emmett Roberts