Shaking up Menstruation – the beginning of Monthlies.

Posted on: 21 September 2015

I hate getting my period. It’s messy and inconvenient and it hurts! And actually, there are loads of other things I don’t like about it too. Like the idea I shouldn’t let people see I’m carrying a tampon to the toilet and the environmental impact of all the waste it creates. So I’ve decided to do something about it. Monthlies sells environmentally friendly period products, on a subscription basis to be delivered through your letterbox to track your cycle. The aim is for all menstruators to have safe, healthy periods free from prejudice, so Monthlies will give 20% of profits to causes supporting women’s health and empowerment in the UK and around the world.

I’ve been delighted that people have started getting in touch and asking questions about Monthlies. Many of them have been prompted by the deliveries of huge boxes marked “Tampons” to the office (I would be curious too!), while others have seen posts online and wanted to know more. One of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked is “how did you think of that?”. Other variations of this question include “What made you decide to set it up?” or simply “Tampons? Really? Why?”. This is usually accompanied by some contortions of the eyebrows of whoever is asking, which I still enjoy as much as the first time. Sometimes I struggle to articulate it clearly, because Monthlies seems to me to be a culmination of thoughts and ideas which have been bubbling in my head for months now. But it can be boiled down to some key themes, so please, read on… (You’re welcome to appreciate my brand new product shots too, I just had a fun evening in with a white pillowcase, excessive lighting and a lot of boxes of tampons.)

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I want to swap bad products for good ones

This is the simplest way I can summarise my interest in the environment, social enterprise and products which leave as little impact as possible on our planet. I wanted to find a product which we have to consume and get people to swap one which is harmful for one which is gentle on the world and on their own health as we’re at it.

One month, as I reached the supermarket shelves to stock up on menstrual pads, I realised this could be it. Nothing on the shelf claimed to be good for the planet, it all seemed over-marketed, patronising (I’ll come to that later) and yet, at that point in time, essential. While there are great options like menstrual cups (and I do recommend trying one), some people are not convinced and even those who are often use disposable products to guard against leaks. Belt and braces, as it were.

So, I’d found a product I resented for its necessity and its negative environmental impact, and I decided to find a better way. Or to invent one.

Where does all the money go?

After my initial anger at the products on offer (yes, my emotions may have been driven by my hormones that day, and no, it’s not ok for anyone else to suggest that), I began thinking about the financial structures in place around period products. I’m a bit odd like that.

My theory goes like this: the major tampon brands are owned by even bigger, multinational brands. Tampax, for instance, is owned by Proctor and Gamble. Proctor and Gamble is run by a man named Alan. Lots of people around the world own shares in Proctor and Gamble. Based on global wealth distribution, I think it’s a safe assumption that the majority of shares are directly or indirectly held by men. So when I pay for some tampax, the profit made by P&G goes to pay Alan, and to pay his shareholders. So my period just made rich men richer… I know that’s how business works most of the time but it doesn’t have to! We can choose to disrupt the system.

Some periods are truly dreadful.

I’ve had a few dreadful periods in my time, requiring plenty of painkillers and even days off work at times. But I’ve been reading recently about truly dreadful ones.

Women after the Nepal earthquake, who had no period products and were forced to sit in dirty clothes soaked through with their own menstrual blood and were then, because of the social stigma, isolated from their communities, even their families. Or girls who miss school every time they have their period because they don’t have any provisions for it. Even here in the UK, there are homeless women who cannot get pads at any hostels because no-one has thought to donate them. This isn’t nice to think about. But things can be changed.

One of the best businesses I’ve come across is AFRIpads, who employ and train women in Uganda to produce washable cloth menstrual pads, which they sell to health charities who distribute them to girls across East Africa. This means the women get skilled employment and a fair wage and the girls get to go to school without interruptions to their education. Monthlies will give a portion of all profits to causes like this, instead of lining rich men’s pockets.

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Why do we have to whisper about them?

When I was 10, the girls in my class were given a talk on periods. The boys were sent to do crafts in the next room. The teacher told them it was a secret lesson for the girls and they weren’t allowed to be involved. I was annoyed because I didn’t get to do crafts but all the boys did and I felt this lesson was something to giggle embarrassedly about. WAIT — we’re taking about a normal bodily function!

About half of the people in the world get nose bleeds but we don’t whisper about them or pretend it’s all just blue liquid, not blood. This is silly, patronising and ultimately dangerous. Blood is red. So my logo is red. And they’re period products, so lets call them that, and acknowledge that by calling things “sanitary” products, there is an unspoken implication than to menstruate is otherwise unsanitary. It isn’t.

The best example of this attitude I have faced happened when arranging a business bank account. I explained what my business was doing, only for the man on the other end of the phone for pause for a minute then say, “Umm… I don’t want to sound offensive but… do you want to talk to a female advisor about this?”. *Facepalm*. “I would like to talk to your best advisor about this”, I responded. He put me through to an (excellent) female advisor.

Convenience is King

Having decided there must be a better way, the hard work began. How would it be better and what could I really do to make anything change? After some research it turned out that there was a great company called Natracare making environmentally sensitive period products. That’s good, I thought, because I don’t know the first thing about opening a tampon factory.

Now, how could I get more people using Natracare products and also give some profit to these causes and break negative stereotypes about what we can and can’t say about periods? I can make it easier for people to buy these than to go to the shops and buy their usual ones. If I can price them competitively and get them direct to people, as well as giving them exactly what they want each month — maybe even pre-empt their cycle so they never get caught out — then people will buy these because the service is so good, regardless of the principles behind them.

It doesn’t matter what the stimulus is for each individual, whether it’s the environmental aspect, the desire to break down taboos, the causes we can support, the health benefits, the convenience or to stick a finger up to big corporates. What matters is that any one of these stimuli can enable all the rest.
So that’s what Monthlies is doing, one step at a time.

If you want to keep up to date with progress, please take a look at my pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Sarah Hewett

Sarah Hewett is the founder of Monthlies and currently works at Innocent Drinks. She has recently published her first book, 'The Student Fundraising Handbook'. In 2012-13, Sarah was on the Worthwhile graduate scheme, working for Oxford Hub.

Tags: Environment & Sustainability, Social Action, Social Enterprise


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