For as long as there have been women, there have been periods. It’s just taken a few millennia, give or take, to shake off the stigma of basic reproductive biology and acknowledge them publicly. And we’re sharing that knowledge, in tweets and in open discussion. Not only is period talk no longer taboo, but a documentary on period shaming won an Oscar this year.
What was once whispered is now shouted in today’s world of social media, #MeToo, and looming climate disaster. These movements are changing the very nature of how women manage their periods, according to a new study that took perhaps the first look at what’s behind the surge in nondisposable period products like reusable cups and menstruation panties.
My company, Shelton Group, discovered that 40% of women who expect to have a period in the future are using or considering using reusable period products. Twenty-three percent of women say they’re considering making the switch to non-disposables, and 17% of women say they’ve made the switch to using non-disposable period products.
Tellingly, the nearly 20% of women who have switched to reusable period products are largely between 25 and 34 years old. Those considering changing to reusables are generally younger, mostly 18 to 24 years old. So it’s largely young women–millennials and generation Z–driving this movement to ditch traditional disposables in favor of reusable products. Above any other factor, these women cited environmental and health concerns as the impetus for their switch.
Greater concern for impact on the environment and waste reduction correlated strongly with the decision to commit to using reusable products to manage periods. Yet nearly all women in the study indicated some worry for the fate of the environment, and “plastic waste in landfills” ranked as the top environmental concern about disposable feminine hygiene products among all respondents.
That spells trouble for the famously stable traditional feminine hygiene market, as women already aware of environmental impact turn that concern into action. To get a sense of market size, consider that in North America alone, women use an estimated 12 billion menstrual pads and tampons each year.
Of course, that means 12 billion pads and tampons are disposed of each year in North America as well. While often overlooked, traditional pads and tampons carry a massive environmental footprint: The average woman will use and throw away up to 14,000 tampons in a lifetime. Discarded products, packaging, and applicators add up to around 300 pounds of waste sitting in landfills and oceans per woman.
It makes sense, then, that the generations most desperate to confront the effects of climate change are also the ones taking control of their environmental footprint when menstruating.
The shift in favor of reusables is also fitting for the #MeToo era, where women are standing up to tell stories they once hid from view. Disposable period products are by nature quiet, discreet–they can be tossed quickly, leaving no evidence behind of their existence in the first place. Reusable period products, in contrast, are loud, present–they’re on the shelf whether in use or not, a marker awaiting your next cycle.
A handful of reusable period products have been available to consumers for decades, but to little commercial success. Yet the market has exploded in recent years, as companies respond to growing consumer advocacy and demand for accountability. Foresight into these movements is paying off. Launched in 2015, Thinx period panties sold half a million units in its first year. By year two, it had brought in close to $40 million in revenue, and in 2018 made the top 20 on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing companies in the U.S.
Such rapid success from a new player in the stable feminine hygiene market should be a harbinger of coming market disruption for consumer products across the board. Companies heavily reliant on disposables should be planning to evolve to meet consumers’ changing priorities, reimagining their brands and strategies. In just a few short years, the women trashing tampons and pads for good will be the older generations, and younger generations will see reusable period products as the norm. It’s not your mother’s period–or your mother’s world–anymore.
Suzanne Shelton is president and CEO of Shelton Group, the nation’s leading marketing communications agency focused exclusively on energy and the environment.