Rise of the 100% organic cotton 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 newer startups to 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?

Consumer centered

  • 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.

Cora kit: Taken from Cora.Life website

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).

Operations

  • 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:

Total cost (USD) of regular organic cotton tampons with applicators, ranked from lowest to highest

Brand No. tampons per box Price of box Tampon unit price S&H Total cost including S&H, tax
This is L 10 $4.95 $0.50 $2.00 $6.95
Athena Club 18 $5.00 $0.28 $2.50 $7.50
Maxim 16 $4.99 $0.31 $2.99 $7.98
Tampon Tribe 16 $8.00 $0.50 $0.00 $8.00
Brandless 10 $3.00 $0.30 $5.00 $8.00
Natracare* 16 $7.56 $0.47 $0.00 $8.23
Sustain Natural 12 $8.95 $0.75 $0.00 $8.95
Veeda 16 $9.97 $0.62 $0.00 $9.97
Lola 18 $10.00 $0.56 $0.00 $10.00
Organyc* 16 $4.79 $0.30 $5.99 $10.78
Ellebox 16 $10.99 $0.69 $0.00 $10.99
Thinx 8 $6.00 $0.75 $5.00 $11.00
Seventh Generation* 18 $5.99 $0.33 $5.99 $11.98
The Honest Company 16 $6.95 $0.43 $5.95 $12.90
Kali 32 $16.00 $0.50 $0.00 $16.00
Easy** 15 $6.98 $0.47 $9.31 $16.29
Cora*** 36 $33.00 $0.92 ? $33.00

*Price from Walmart.com, includes sales tax

**Price converted CDN to USD

***Cora price based on cost of a box of 36 mixed tampons shipped every 3 months, after payment for an introductory kit. Ongoing S&H costs not clear.

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:

Total cost (USD) of conventional tampons with applicators, ranked from lowest to highest

Brand No. tampons per box Price of box Tampon unit price S&H Total cost including S&H, tax
Dollar General 36 $5.50 $0.15 $3.99 $9.49
CVSHealth 40 $4.89 $0.12 $5.49 $10.38
Equate* 40 $4.47 $0.11 $5.99 $10.46
Tampax* 40 $5.47 $0.14 $5.99 $11.46
U by Kotex* 34 $5.47 $0.16 $5.99 $11.46

*Price from Walmart.com

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:

Annual cost (USD) for tampons with applicators

Type of tampon Tampon unit price (low, high) Annual cost of 240 tampons (before S&H, tax)
 Conventional $0.11 $26.40
$0.16 $38.40
Organic cotton $0.30 $72.00
$0.92 $220.80

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.

Making the Period Coloring Book

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Last year I crowdfunded and published a Period Coloring Book. It’s exactly as it sounds: It’s a coloring book about periods.

Growing up as a sexual health educator, I’ve always had a keen interest in this space. I’ve heard a lot of period experiences and stories over the years from clients, strangers, friends, and family. Years ago, I started sketching out some ‘menstrual imagery’ in my spare time. As I sharing some of these images with friends, I was encouraged to pull them together into a coloring book.

The drawings started out as a personal art project. When I decided to bring this work into the public domain, it was important for me to consider the meaning and representation of these images to others. This forced me to think through the consequences of what I chose to include or not include in the finite pages of the book, and made me more critical about my decisions. I found a healthy balance between what I had initially started to create with illustrations, and how I wanted to see them come together as a book that could resonate with a diversity of experiences and people.

To bring it to life, I learned about what it takes to promote and publish a book. Having seen numerous successful indie projects fundraise through crowdfunding, I thought this would be a great way to cover the costs of publication. I started my crowdfunding campaign in November 2016 with a goal of $2,500 USD. After 30 days, I raised just over $5,000.

I often get asked what I learned from my experience creating this book. Below I offer my high level takeaways:

  • Strategic crowdfunding  >  As a crowdfunding novice, I did my research months before the campaign. After sifting through online advice and interviewing people who had run successful campaigns for similar products, I built my own crowdfunding strategy – from costing/sourcing services and materials to perks, fulfillment and shipping. My goal was to keep my promises simple and fulfill them. I planned for several scenarios where things would go well above, below, or just meet my expectations. It was important to be honest with myself in terms of what I could achieve given timelines, costs and workload. 
  • Opening up a conversation about menstruation  >  This project reminded me that there are many ways to start a meaningful conversation about menstruation, and a coloring book just happens to be one of them. I hope that the book adds to a larger conversation about periods, and that the more resources we have to do so, the better. I have met people who love the book, people who don’t care for it, and those who just don’t get it. Putting something out into the world, especially about menstruation, in such a public way was humbling, and left me open to praise, criticism, internet trolls, and everything in between. It was important for me to expect this range of responses and leverage them in the most productive way possible. And, I think I am better for it. Receiving such warm response for the book was validating, and the thoughtful feedback I gained has only pushed my thinking for the next thing I work on.
  • Getting the word out  >  Through my own background research and some amazing supporters and introductions, the Period Coloring Book gained traction with Teen Vogue, the Huffington Post, Metro, Bustle, Thinx, and Clue. It also caught the attention of some companies that I have admired for their work in sexual health like Lunapads and Natracare who very generously donated to the campaign. Publishing these articles at the launch of the campaign (and throughout) offered the work some credibility and exposed the campaign to those well outside of my social networks. 
  • People are amazing  >  I asked for a lot of help and advice throughout this journey. From feedback on the illustrations to the person who shared the campaign with a friend on Facebook to each and every campaign contributor, I was incredibly grateful for the support I received. It always amazes me how many people are actually willing to help if I simply ask. The generosity and support of those around me, particularly feminist activists and allies, made the book possible. I cannot emphasize this last point enough!

I’m also thrilled to see the book being used as a meaningful tool for dialogue and advocacy. Recently, the Calgary Sexual Health Center (where I worked as a sexual health peer educator growing up!) purchased books for use in their girls programming. Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a vibrantly fierce and compassionate period activist who has been on the forefront of the menstrual equity movement, was an early and kind supporter of the Period Coloring Book and recently wrote about us in her 2017 release of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity — essential reading for everyone interested in periods.

I’m excited to see where else the Period Coloring Book will go…

If you’re interested, you can order the book here: PeriodColoringBook.com

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