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Bringing period products into the sustainability conversation

Photo Credit: Getty Images

When you’re co-leading a business, it’s important to find time to unwind in a non-work environment. So when Ed asked me to come to a panel discussion on ending plastic periods last week, I thought it was awesome that he was asking me to attend such an event and I took it as the perfect opportunity for some forced bonding time (isn’t he lucky?). Spoiler alert: he’s now convinced our menstrual cycles have synced.

Despite period products still being branded as “discreet”, recently I’ve witnessed increasingly open conversations around periods, flows and vaginas at events from panelists and audiences alike. Such fun! Conversations about sustainability and the environment should be happening in tandem more than ever.

Left to right: Arizona Muse, Alec Mills, Ella Daish & Kate Metcalf.

The eclectic panel comprised of Alec Mills, co-founder of DAME, Kate Metcalf, co-director of WEN, environmental activist, Ella Daish and, was hosted by model Arizona Muse at London’s Conduit Club. Three key themes arose during the talk: Reluctance, period poverty and the role of government and big brands.

Reluctance

Mintel conducted research that found 49% of women in the UK were concerned about the environmental impact of period products but only 7% of them were doing something about it. This disparity shows a reluctance for women to change their habits. The blame of course, shouldn’t be placed on women themselves. So why is there a reluctance? 

  1. Not many women are aware of plastic in the period products they use (more on this later). 
  2. Women don’t know where to buy more sustainable products.
  3. The stigma around using a menstrual cup. Some people who menstruate would prefer not to physically see their blood and pour it out to clean the cup. 
  4. Until recently, the menstrual cup was the only sustainable option. 80% of women in the UK use an applicator and would prefer not to use a menstrual cup. Everyone’s body is different and there should be a choice for every person who menstruates. 

With all this in mind, if there was greater awareness of the negative impact period products have on the environment, as well as a range of sustainable options readily available, women would be more likely to use them. 

Period poverty & the role of the government

It was apparent to most in the room that the government isn’t doing enough to tackle the issue of period poverty. The Tampon Tax is not due to be phased out until 2022 and is still classed, and taxed (at 5%), as a luxury item. It’s no wonder Plan International UK found that 1 in 10 girls are still unable to afford sanitary products (2017), and with a woman experiencing approximately 500 periods in her lifetime, that’s a huge ongoing problem. 

Even the government’s recent – and highly praised – announcement (I even tweeted about it) to provide free period products in schools has unearthed a new issue: an underlying hypocrisy between what the government says and what they do. 

Another recent announcement has been their commitment to reduce single use plastic in schools. However, what they have failed to acknowledge is that the new influx of free period products into schools all contain plastic

In an attempt to appease 2 sets of campaigners – climate and period-equity activists, the government is effectively whitewashing one with another, relying on a lack of cross-over or communication to vale their lack of cohesion or conviction. 

The need for big brands to shift their attitude

Photo Source: Ella

When it comes to educating young people who are menstruating at school, big brands like P&G and Lillette are the source of most educational information. Yet as commercial companies with a product to sell, surely there’s a conflict of interest that to date has gone unchecked? 

With silicone menstrual cups costing approximately 80p to make, big brands are making an enormous profit on the user. It’s all about the bottom line and these brands aren’t willing to purchase organic cotton which is more expensive. In the 1980s, every major manufacturer of tampons at the time faced lawsuits, with P&G facing more than a thousand. They pushed it too far and made the materials too synthetic, causing huge numbers of cases of toxic shock syndrome (TSS). 

Manufacturers are still not obliged to list the ingredients on tampon labels which perhaps adds to the reluctance of users to switch to a more sustainable brand because they’re unaware of the sheer amount of chemicals that are going into their bodies. The terms “Fragrant” or “Parfume” are used on packaging to hide the thousands of chemicals within that some women are totally unaware of. 

With supermarket shelf space being guzzled up by these same brands, there is an imperative need for the government to take action and ensure a percentage of shelves are reserved for sustainable period products. Giving people who menstruate a choice was a common thread throughout the panel discussion – whether that’s based on cost, sustainability or brand. As of right now, it seems that supermarkets and health brands are favouring profitability and big business over choice and sustainability. It’s only thanks to the campaigning efforts of individuals like panellist Ella Daish that this is starting to change, most recently with Aldi plastic tampon applicators.  

So, what can we all do to tackle the issue of unsustainable period products?

  1. WEN have an environmental week of action in October ‘20 for you to attend.
  2. Continue the flow of conversation around this topic. Talk to your peers and sign Ella’s petition (almost at 200,000 signatures).
  3. Stop using plastic period products! The DAME team will be happy to know that I have recently signed up for my monthly subscription (and have actually saved money).

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ActivismEnvironmentalismWomen's Rights
Lauren Kay-Lambert

Lauren Kay-Lambert

Lauren has always taken an interest in helping others, whether that’s through non-profit work, fundraising, campaigning, running as a local councillor or organising large-scale charity events. She graduated from the University of Exeter with a degree in Politics and Sociology and is particularly passionate about women and girls’ global rights. As Director or People and Partners, Lauren manages the team, ensuring their wellbeing is at the forefront of everything she does. Lauren makes sure that all partners are happy and that projects are running smoothly. She also supports on new business and all finances of the company.

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