Andrea Yip is a design strategist and public health practitioner, also a friend of Red Dot Project’s, who created and crowdfunded the Period Coloring Book: a book about the experience of menstruation for different types of people and bodies who menstruate. Below is a link to and a copy of her research entitled “Rise of the 100% Organic Tampon”. Yip discusses the growing interest in organic menstrual products that are chemical free, in context of the larger menstrual health and equity movement. She addresses the growing conversation surrounding the need for greater transparency - on part of companies - in regards to the safety of their menstrual products being offered for sale. Her research surrounds the disclosure (or rather lack of disclosure) of ingredients used in the production of said hygiene products.
Rise of the 100% Organic Tampon
Over the last few years there has been a growth in the number of menstrual care companies that focus on providing North American menstruators with 100% organic cotton tampons and pads.
The surge of interest and enthusiasm for organic cotton period products has been enabled by a growing public conversation about menstrual health and equity, and a demand for greater transparency and safety when it comes to period products. This movement has even united health advocacy efforts across the public and private sectors. For instance, companies and health advocates continue to protest the “tampon tax”, taxes that are applied to “feminine hygiene” products. These groups argue that menstrual products are basic necessities like food and medical supplies, and that taxes make these items less accessible and affordable. Canada saw major progress in this debate with the removal of government sales tax on feminine hygiene products in 2015.
More recently, leading Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) companies have come under fire for failing to fully disclose the ingredients they use in the production of their menstrual products. While regulated in the US (by the Food and Drug Administration) and Canada (by Health Canada), tampon and pad manufacturers are not required to disclose their ingredients. Some health advocates have expressed concern that undisclosed and potentially unnecessary chemicals (e.g., toxins, dyes, synthetics) in these products may be putting menstruators’ bodies and health at risk. The current industry leaders in North America, Kimberly Clark (Brands: U by Kotex) and Procter & Gamble (Brands: Always, Tampax), were pressured to disclose their ingredients in 2015 after intense protests against the companies. Advocacy groups have since helped introduce new bills to congress in order to promote greater transparency around product ingredients.
With many consumers starting to question product safety and trust with traditional CPG companies, many startups saw an opportunity: Offer menstrual products that are chemical free, with nothing to hide.
Enter the organic cotton tampon and pad.
Mind you, we are not just talking about cotton, but certified organic cotton. According to Natracare, this means that the cotton is fairly traded, ethically made and grown without the toxic pesticides used in conventional farming. Organic cotton is also biodegradable and friendlier to the environment compared to its synthetic counterparts.
A wave of companies have entered the tampon/pad business: From startups to established CPG companies who are expanding their product lines in order to compete.
WHO’S SELLING 100% ORGANIC COTTON MENSTRUAL PRODUCTS?
Since 2014, there has been an emergence of female-led startups like Lola, Cora, This is L, Aunt Flow, Tampon Tribe, Kali box, Athena Club, Conscious Period (now defunct), Ellebox, and Easy that offer consumers 100% organic tampons and/or pads.
During this time, some health and wellness companies have expanded their offerings to include organic tampons and/or pads including, Sustain Natural, Thinx, The Honest Company and Brandless.
Maxim launched in 2008, Naturalena Brands which produces Veeda launched in 2012, and Corman SpA which produces Organyc launched in 2009 (Corman USA relaunched Organyc in 2016).
And finally, there are industry incumbents who launched decades earlier including, Seventh Generation (established 1988) and, a predominant leader in the space, Natracare (launched 1989).
WHAT DO THESE COMPANIES HAVE IN COMMON, AND WHAT HELPS THEM STAND OUT?
Subscription based, at your door delivery: Most companies have direct-to-consumer ecommerce models, offering subscription-based services that deliver menstrual products to your door. This way, a person will never run out of menstrual products, and can more discreetly purchase and receive them in the comfort of their own home. However, there are a handful of companies including Seventh Generation, Organyc and Natracare that are primarily sold by big-box retailers like Walmart and Target.
Customization and recommendations: Sustain, Cora, Tampon Tribe, and Lola let users create custom shipments of period products by type (e.g., liner, pad, tampon), quantity and absorbency. This means that a user can end up with an assortment of products in a single shipment. For instance, Lola and Tampon Tribe allow users to specify the precise number of regular, super and super+ tampons they receive in a single box. Sustain Natural and Cora use a brief questionnaire to help users identify products that best suit their period. Sustain users build a custom “Period Kit” based on length of period, product preference (pads, liner, tampons), quantity, and absorbency. Cora users receive product recommendations based on the length of period and absorbency.
Modern look and feel: Many companies, particularly startups, have stripped away the overly pink tones, neon colors and excessively “feminine” look and feel of traditional menstrual products, replacing them with branding that feels relatable, modern and, in some cases, more gender and age inclusive. In particular, Cora, Lola, and Sustain have strong, simple and memorable branding (see below).
Premium experiences: Cora stands out from its competition by offering a “free signature kit” with sleek, reusable packaging for holding/carrying tampons at home and on the go. Ellebox and Kali offer luxury items like chocolate or candles, designed to elevate the monthly period experience.
More than a business
Social responsibility: Many companies are on a mission to create social impact. They argue in favor of ingredient transparency to protect women’s health, citing safety concerns with traditional menstrual products. Many also feel compelled to fight for menstrual equity at home and abroad. For instance, This is L, Cora, Kali, Tampon Tribe, Aunt Flow, Easy and Lola engage in initiatives to provide tampons and pads to menstruators in need. As previously mentioned, some companies actively engage in health advocacy efforts. For instance, Sustain Natural, a B Corp, has been on the forefront of fighting the tampon tax.
Female leadership: Conventional menstrual product companies like P&G and Kimberly Clark have dominated the industry in North America for decades, and were founded by men. Compare this to the current generation of ‘for women, by women’ companies. This shift signals women taking greater ownership and leadership over the menstrual health industry. Several of these companies have received substantial funding: Lola ($11.2M), Cora ($6M) and Sustain ($2.5M).
Manufacturing partners: Many companies partner with menstrual product manufacturers in the US and overseas. Interestingly, several startups source from the same overseas manufacturer. This has implications on how these companies need to differentiate themselves when selling a similar product.
Prices vary: Organic tampons and pads are generally less accessible and affordable to the average consumer compared to their conventional counterparts. And across organic cotton products, the cost for tampons and pads varies. For instance, a quick scan reveals that the unit price for regular tampons with applicators can range anywhere from $0.30-$0.92 USD (calculated before S&H or taxes). Let’s say that I am located in Manhattan, NYC (Zip 10001) and I want to purchase a single box/package of regular tampons with applicators and have them shipped to my door:
Note that for some companies, S&H may differ by state and is often free with bundled purchases for those who can meet a minimum spend. Credit card and Paypal are standard forms of payment. Also, most companies do not ship to Canada — if they do, prices will likely differ. Assuming the products are more or less equal in quality, you can start to see which companies offer the greatest value based on the quantity of tampons they offer.
Now let’s compare the price of organic cotton tampons to that of conventional tampons. From a quick scan below, conventional tampons sell anywhere between $0.11-$0.16 per tampon before tax and S&H. Using the same zip code, let’s say that I purchase a single box/package of regular tampons with applicators from a few different online retailers:
If we assume a menstruator using tampons requires 20 tampons per cycle and has about 12 cycles in one year, that totals 240 tampons per year. Using the low and high end unit prices for organic cotton and conventional tampons calculated above, we can estimate annual tampon cost:
The difference in annual cost for having a period as a tampon user differs dramatically if a menstruator is using organic cotton vs. conventional tampons. Organic cotton may be prohibitively expensive and not an option for many menstruators, particularly if they are paying for products pay check to pay check.
HOW DO MENSTRUAL PRODUCT COMPANIES COMPETE?
Menstrual products and technologies have experienced little innovation over the last few decades: the field is ripe for disruption. When it comes to innovation of tampons and pads, companies have been laser focused on creating patented technology and improving incremental features like shape, absorbency, flexibility, aesthetics and comfort. With shifting social attitudes, existing products like organic pads/tampons, menstrual cups and disks, and period underwear have gained widespread social acceptance and mainstream popularity.
Today’s organic cotton companies assume that custom features and technology of the tampon/pad are less important to their consumer. Instead the selling point primarily focuses on ingredient transparency. As a result, there is less differentiation around the product itself. It is no surprise then that several companies share the same manufacturing partner.
The popularity of organic cotton products speaks to a broader evolution in the way we think about women’s health and rights. While marketers have traditionally targeted young menstruators in order to build a lifetime of brand loyalty, today’s companies amplify health and safety concerns and women’s empowerment as a way to compel menstruators of all ages to switch to organic cotton. However, by assuming consumers are less brand loyal, companies will need to stand out in order to compete in a market with comparable and sometimes identical organic cotton offerings. With similar product, cost, and operations, customer experience, branding and marketing may be the differentiating and ultimately winning factor.