Sustainable Menstruation in India: “Greening the Red” by Rashi Rathi (F’18)

by jtijssen
Sep 21

While surveying women about their menstrual management practices in Bengaluru, India, I was surprised to learn that more than 80 percent of the respondents were concerned about their environmental footprint from using disposable sanitary napkins. An unexpectedly large number of those surveyed used menstrual cups in order to reduce their solid waste. Taking my cue from these results, I began to reach out to commercial and non-profit organizations that work in the field of sustainable menstruation. My focus was on tech-based solutions that such organizations use to improve the menstrual hygiene market in India.

The term “sustainable menstruation” encompasses menstrual management practices that are healthy and leave little or no impact on the environment. Disposable sanitary napkins take between 500-800 years to biodegrade because of the specialized plastics and polymers used in their production. Additionally, Indian waste workers are typically ill-equipped to handle medical waste. A national estimate puts the amount of menstrual waste created per annum at 113,000 tonnes. Finally, improperly disposed sanitary napkins are one of the leading causes of clogged drains and toilets all over the world.

On the other hand, products such as menstrual cups, cloth pads, and period panties have a much smaller impact on the environment because they are reusable over many years. They are also typically less expensive over the long-term for consumers, though there is an upfront cost to be made. I was able to speak with the founders of three popular sustainable menstruation brands in India over the summer: while SheCup exclusively sells menstrual cups, Stonesoup and Boondh sell both menstrual cups and cloth napkins.

While all three organizations sell similar products, I found that they leverage technology for their sales and operations in diverse way. SheCup, a non-profit, was the first mover in the menstrual cup market in India approximately a decade ago. As the demand for menstrual cups was nascent at that point, they decided only to sell the cups through e-commerce websites. Stonesoup has been able to extend its base across India using the popular messaging application, Whatsapp. The organization curates all-women Whatsapp groups that give new users real-time advice and feedback on using menstrual cups and cloth napkins. Boondh, a relatively younger organization, has been able to conduct sales at a national scale, despite having a smaller workforce, because all of its operations are automated.

I was also fascinated by the role of technology in enabling a sustainable menstruation movement in India--SheCup, Stonesoup and Boondh are affiliated to Green the Red, a national campaign of eco-warriors that advocates for and spreads awareness about sustainable menstruation products. By educating consumers, they are able to effectively bridge the information gap between suppliers and users in the Indian menstrual health market. While Green the Red hosts numerous events and training, I found that the easiest way to reach out to them was through their website and social media pages on Facebook and Twitter. These pages invite questions and comments from thousands of users across the country, who want to have healthy and more environment friendly periods.