Social Enterprise Showcase: Eco femme – a cloth pad for true empowerment

Eco Femme’s cloth pads make periods healthy, dignified, affordable and eco positive, for both urban and rural India.


Every year, over 45 billion pads are dumped in landfills, only in the United States and Canada (we don’t have India numbers, but it is safe to assume they are similar). The plastic in a pad takes 500 years to degrade (as opposed to biodegrade, which is doesn’t!) By using plastic laden feminine hygiene products, each year we add the equivalent of 180 billion plastic bags to our waste stream.

On the other hand, menstruation is not cool. The taboo associated with monthly periods in India causes the greatest harm to the health, livelihood and dignity of women. Horror stories still abound of women using all kinds of unsanitary materials – from ash to husk, mud, dried leaves, even sharing cloth pads – in the villages, and health infections that arise due to this.

Ecofemme kills both problems with one cloth pad – calling itself a women’s empowerment project. Rising from rural India and reaching the world, it promotes menstrual practices that are healthy, dignified, affordable and eco positive. Kathy Walkling from the organization tells The Alternative more about Ecofemme.

It is also estimated that an average woman throws away approximately 125 to 150kg of sanitary products in her lifetime.

How did it all start?

“When I moved to India to live in Auroville 15 years ago, one of the first things that I found myself having to contend with was how to dispose off my sanitary waste. In the west, there is at least the appearance that these products go “away” when tossed into a bin, but in India it was obvious this was an illusion. I felt like a fugitive lurking around in the dark, looking for a place where I could dig a hole – usually in baked earth- to bury used pads. Throwing them in a bin for others to handle or burning them with their plastic liners was even more unthinkable! How DO local women here manage? I wondered.”

“While visiting family in Australia, I came across a washable (i.e. re-usable) cloth sanitary napkin. It was made of colourful soft flannel cotton for absorbency and was worn like a disposable pad with wings that fasten under panties. I bought my first washable pad, and from the first day of use , became a convert. It was actually comfortable to wear, and, in an odd way, felt quite wholesome— in handling these pads, I felt a little more connected to my body and this earthy cycle. But what really clinched it was that I could actually make a difference through this small personal choice to re-use and not add more waste to a already choking planet.”

Cloth washable menstrual pads are simple to stitch and can be done so by any rural woman with a sewing machine and basic tailoring skills.

Tell us about the Auroville Action project, to provide rural women a safe, eco-friendly solution for periods

Starting from the question of how local Indian women manage, our Eco Femme team, formed in 2009, began to research rural women’s experiences of menstruation. It was a revelation to learn the extent to which Indian women experienced hardships each month, all rooted in a lack of basic knowledge about their monthly cycle and lifestyle restrictions which left them feeling impure and socially ostracized.

We learned about the products they used and found out that disposable sanitary pads were rapidly replacing the traditional practice of using cloth because of the belief that they offered a more hýgienic, modern and convenient way to manage menstruation.

We learned of a national Government scheme that was about to start giving heavily subsidized disposable pads to girls to improve menstrual hygiene. We did the math and realised just what this meant–up to 360 million disposable pads, all containing plastic, being dumped or burned each month!

Eco Femme went on to design a range of cloth washable pads with Indian women (both rural and urban) users in mind. These products have become an entry point for us to make a positive difference.

We have a core team of 2, and an extended team made of women tailors, partners, ambassadors, volunteers and more.

How big is your team that executes on this vision?

There are 2 women members in the core team –Jessamijn Miedema and myself. We take the overall responsibility for the day to day management of EcoFemme and also set the direction it will take–including everything from communications and relationship building with customers, product R&D, sourcing raw materials and ensuring production flows, accounts, media interface, and project planning and development. There is an extended team, which includes:

• Women tailors: 15 women who are members of the Auroville Village Action’s self help groups have undertaken advanced tailoring training and stitch Eco Femme cloth pads.

• The Auroville Village Action Group and its director Anbu Sironmani have been partners from the beginning; they advise us on educational content and conduct educational training programs on menstrual hygiene management.

• Volunteers: we have a floating team of volunteers who manage outreach and other programs for us

• Ambassadors: we have a growing network of international and Indian ambassadors who share about the project and help us develop sales outlets.

How would you describe your business today, in terms of size and revenues?

We are a small social enterprise. We have a small paid core team and the women tailors who get paid per piece. Otherwise we have a lot of student and volunteer support. Last year—our first trading year—saw a turnover of approximately 8 lakhs.

People really like our Pad for Pad program, where a cloth pad purchase ensures a girl in rural India gets one. Others buy our products to be more positive towards the environment.

How do you measure your impact?

We see the difference we have made through the following:

Livelihood: Economic independence is a key to women’s empowerment –to be able to generate their own income and thus have independent purchasing power does change women’s lives. Cloth washable menstrual pads are simple to stitch and can be done so by any rural woman with a sewing machine and basic tailoring skills.

Education: We are conditioned to believe that menstruation is something to be kept secret, to be ashamed of and to hide—even that menstrual blood is ‘dirty’. But why, when periods are the stuff of life? Eco Femme has designed a number of educational modules for different target groups which provide a safe space to learn about the menstrual cycle and its part in reproductive health. These modules also go deeper, inquiring into restrictive cultural taboos and examining how this thinking is kept alive. We work with NGOs, schools and colleges to deliver educational programs for women throughout India, we have reached out to over 1000 women all over the country so far.

Waste reduction: For each woman who switches from using disposable sanitary napkins to cloth re-usable, there is a significant impact on the environment. A single woman would use approximately 120 disposable sanitary napkins a year. Our products last for 5 years, and ideally, a set of 6 cloth pads will be sufficient for a cycle (and can be re-used for 5 years). Therefore for 6 washable pads, the waste from approximately 594 disposable pads has been reduced.

How has customer response been? What kind of customers come in today? 

We spend a significant amount of time explaining the product and its attributes to women—this is a new product on the market, and, as it concern intimate health, women need to be reassured about how to use and properly care for cloth pads, so as to ensure good health. We have seen a slow response in India from women – mostly, only women who are environmentally aware are drawn to use these products. Women are also reluctant to spend the time needed to wash the cloth pads, although some overcome this obstacle when they understand the amount of non biodegradable waste conventional products create. The international response has been better as there is already a growing awareness about the health and environmental impact of sanitary products in the west.

Where do you go from here? 

We work on a few fronts:

We plan to expand our education and outreach work. We hope, in this way, to spread the use of cloth pads, and especially to reach girls who are not getting access to any products.

We are planning to develop a premium organic range and develop market expansion internationally.

We are working on videos that can help transmit our core message about sanitary health and waste. We are also working on building an ambassador network for a grassroots peer-to-peer ambassadors project to spread the word. This is for both urban and rural women.

What have been your personal takeaways and lessons on this journey?

I’ve learnt that social enterprise is a complex journey and that it requires patience and perseverence. We are not just trying to sell a product. We are trying to raise awareness and spread a message and change is slow. I have also seen the power of working together with others who share common value, and I think we really need to leverage these networking opportunities.

How much do consumers value the sustainability aspect of your offerings as opposed to others?

In the west, it is quite clear that customers really like our Pad for Pad program, which means they contribute financially towards a cloth pad for a girl in rural India. This is an aspect of social sustainability that is really appreciated. Most customers are also attracted to the environmental benefits of using our products as the primary motivation for purchasing and using the product.

What have been the most effective ways to reach out to and engage consumers?

I think we are still discovering this, but, basically, it seems to be word of mouth – peer-to-peer communication. We have never done formal advertising. We write to companies in the west who sell alternative menstrual products and this is building customers. In India, media attention has been helpful. Facebook has too. We want to start a blog very soon.

What have been your biggest challenges in this field?

Time! There is always so much to do, not enough money to pay professionals, so we end up doing it all, often under time pressure and probably not as well as professionals could manage it. We have worked with professionals and that was also not always easy— we sometimes felt misguided as they did not really understand the ground realities of our work. We also get flooded with advice –so many people want to help us, and yet it is sometimes difficult to make sense of what is the right focus for us.

In general, the whole subject of menstrual hygiene has big players – multinationals that promote a particular message of convenience over the message of what is inside the products and their environmental impact. It sometimes feels like a David and Goliath story. We are small compared to the multinationals and don’t have the capital to play the field on that level.

The Social Enterprise Showcase is a series of profiles on mission-driven enterprises that are working on social, environmental and cultural development challenges across India.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shreya Pareek is a development journalist who is passionate about grassroot change and sustainable living. Follow her on twitter @shreya08 more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shreya Pareek is a development journalist who is passionate about grassroot change and sustainable living. Follow her on twitter @shreya08 more

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