Eco Femme is a global women’s empowerment initiative. They promote and revitalize menstrual practices that are healthy, dignified, affordable and eco positive. Eco Femme was founded by Kathy Walkling, Jessamijn Miedema, Anita Budhraja, and Anbu Sironmani at Auroville in 2010. Kathy Walking, co founder, pens down the journey of Eco Femme.
The Initial Days:
In 2010, the founding Eco Femme team, Kathy Walkling, Jessamijn Miedema, Anita Budhraja, and Anbu Sironmani, was motivated to help the Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG), an NGO in Villipuram District, Tamil Nadu, transition from being a donor-funded organization to a self-sustaining one. The team hoped to find a way to simultaneously create livelihood opportunities for women members of AVAG’s self-help groups and to financially support AVAG’s work with rural individuals and communities. Members of the team were familiar with the concept of washable cloth pads, a form of menstrual hygiene management (MHM) popular among eco-conscious women and a traditional form of MHM around the world. Kathy had been making washable cloth pads for her own personal use and for other Auroville community members after she was faced with the fact that there was no ‘away’ for her used tampons when she first moved to India 15 years ago. The decision was made to produce washable cloth pads through tailoring units run by members of women’s self-help groups for commercial sale and export. Developing this venture naturally raised questions about MHM practices among rural women in Tamil Nadu; Eco Femme partnered with AVAG to conduct research on this topic in the form of individual surveys with rural women. The results of these surveys indicated that menstruation is a multi-faceted part of life involving complex linkages between social, cultural, economic, environmental, health, religious, and gender issues; one aspect could not really be talked about without the other, and the respondents wanted to talk. In response to the survey results, Eco Femme and AVAG hosted focus groups and seminars on menstruation in which multiple forms of menstrual products, including washable cloth pads, were presented. Eco Femme realized that women and girls were providing unsolicited favorable responses to the washable cloth pads. This positive response inspired formal product testing of washable cloth pads among rural women and girls in Tamil Nadu to see if they would be practically, as well as theoretically, accepted and to explore creating a rural market for washable cloth pads.
In light of the positive findings through the pilot study, the Eco Femme concept quickly expanded beyond an export project to address the need for eco-friendly, safe, and dignified menstrual hygiene products in India, too. The motivation to grow beyond an export project also came from the government scheme to provide free disposable pads to adolescent girls and the harsh reality of the environmental health problems this creates. There were many different partners involved with the creation of Eco Femme – Upasana, who helped with pad design and a loan for material procurement, the women whom we worked with for our pilot study. Auroville was and continues to be a rich supportive and nurturing support soil for our initiative.
Many partners and people helped us along the way as the idea developed and took shape; community members through AVAG and at Pitchandikulam were invaluable parts of our focus group discussions, seminars, and in providing access to government schools. We worked with the Socio-Economic Development Center unit of Synovate, an international market research and product testing company, to develop the pilot study; the Palmyrah’s Worker Development Society was a key partner in our pilot study, providing field workers to administrate surveys and study participants. SEDAB (Sustainable Enterprise Development for the Auroville Bioregion), an initiative supported by the Indian Government’s Ministry for Rural Development, then helped us to set up training and stitching facilities. Early on we became an investee of the incubator Unlimited Tamil Nadu; they supported us with coaching and providing a support network of social entrepreneurs to tackle business questions that we had–having not much background in business ourselves. In the beginning we were also helped by Village Outreach Society Canada and UK. We found financial support for our educational work from Saphara, an NGO which supports cultural exchange between Ireland and India and highly values education for adolescents.
As the wheels turned, an operational model became clear: the women tailors would stitch high quality cloth pads and they would be sold to stores and individuals around the world at a profitable price; international sales would include an additional 80 RS which would allow Eco Femme to ‘gift’ a pad to an adolescent girl through a holistic menstrual health education program (gifted pads would be grouped together to make a kit of 4). In this way as our international sales would grow so would our impact on the ground in Tamil Nadu, through the Pad For Pad Program, and eventually other states. Additionally we would provide washable cloth pads at a subsidized rate to women who cannot afford the premium rate. These subsidized pads are available upon request or when requested from NGOs working with women and girls. There have been lots of logistical and production hurdles in terms of sourcing the right types of materials, trial and error with different patterns and procedures, and keeping ahead of the whole process.
In January of 2014 we entered a relationship with Dasra, an organization that proactively brings philanthropist and social entrepreneurs together to enhance their change making abilities. This relationship has given us much needed business development support and has served as a great way to connect to other organizations working in this field. We continue to remain rooted in the Auroville community as our office is based here and we engage with and find inspiration from the diverse individuals who we live and work with here.
Eco Femme washable cloth pads are sold in 14 countries around the world and in 12 cities across India. The Pad For Pad program has been running for one year, and as of August 2014 we have reached 1,400 girls in 8 different schools in and around Auroville. We have also worked with 3 implementation partners to offer our menstrual health education session and to distribute washable cloth pads beyond Tamil Nadu. Our work impacts all those who encounter our pads or our advocacy, either on line or in stores. In May 2014 Eco Femme was a partner for the first global Menstrual Hygiene Day, initiated by WASH United; this partnership brought us in touch with other organizations working on menstrual hygiene around the world. Eco Femme’s contribution to this global day of awareness was the creation of a document featuring 28 questions to spark conversation around menstruation. Eco Femme has also taken a lead in advocating for safe disposal of used sanitary products and participated in a workshop on Sustainable Management of Organic and Sanitary Waste in Pune. Increasingly we have seen that advocating for the rights of sanitation workers who are forced to clean up used disposable sanitary pads, or to unclog sewage lines blocked by products that have been flushed, is an important part of our work. We feel it is important to share the stories of sanitation workers as it sheds light on yet another area in which the menstrual hygiene products we use have consequences on people and the planet long after their ‘convenient’ use.
Our work directly impacts the women who stitch the pads, offering them a livelihood, and all the women and girls who use our pads. Over the past three years we have sold approximately 34,000 washable cloth pads effectively replacing about 4 million disposable products. Our work truly has a ‘ripple effect’ impact. Often we hear stories of one woman switching to our pads, but it doesn’t stop there: she informs her friends and one by one they switch too. Through a partnership that developed with the organization Krya, which makes environmentally friendly soaps and cleaning products, Preethi, the founder of Krya, was inspired to make a Facebook group for women on the topic of sustainable menstrual practices in India. We believe that the biggest impact we can have is putting into perspective what a national switch to DSN will mean for a country like India and ensuring that women and girls from all backgrounds and all around the world, have access to and information about eco-friendly menstrual hygiene products.
Environmental benefits that Eco Femme products offer
Menstrual products, especially leading brand disposable pads, present a number of threats to a safe, healthy environment. Most pads are made from LDPE plastic polymers, bleached wood pulp, and super-absorbent gel (polyacrylate). The organic material (wood pulp and any cotton present) often contain dioxins and furans; dioxin is a byproduct of the chlorine-bleaching process that makes organic materials white and furans are present in organic materials that have been sprayed with pesticides. Because pads are almost entirely plastic they take an estimated 500-800 years to biodegrade. Though incinerators are attractive because they seem to make used pads ‘disappear’ most incinerators produce toxic ash and emissions; if plastic polymers are not burned at an appropriate temperature (above 800 degrees Celsius) they release asphyxiates and irritant gases into the atmosphere. Furans and dioxins are highly carcinogenic and toxic air pollutants. Exposure to these emissions and/or resulting ash may cause adverse health effects to the immune, nervous, endocrine, and reproductive systems. Washable or reusable menstrual products bypass a lot of these issues, but they require a clean, reliable water source.
Other health-care waste management products and baby diapers present the same challenges for communities and municipalities. However, menstrual products are so widely used beyond medical facilities that the adverse effects of their disposal directly impact schools, neighborhoods, and public facilities. It is estimated that 432 million pads are used each month across India. In light of all this, washable cloth pads offer a reusable option to replace the highly polluting disposable pads; since they are made of natural materials (with only a very thin layer of plastic leak-proofing) they are much easier to ultimately dispose of when they are rendered not suitable for use (after ~3-5 years of use per pad) and the flannel in our pads is un-bleached. Further, washable cloth pads produce much less upstream waste as they are not a petroleum-based product.
It is becoming increasingly clear to all stakeholders involved that government schemes to distribute disposable sanitary napkins to women and girls around the country are not succeeding due to: poor and undesirable quality of the pads produced, staggering waste disposal challenges which inevitably lead to community health problems (as pads are often thrown into water bodies—which clogs them and pollutes the communal water source; burned—releasing harmful dioxins and producing toxic ash; or left to fill up public toilets rendering them unusable). Further, studies reveal that the majority of rural women and girls are already using cloth to absorb their menstrual flow; the potential for introducing a reusable cloth pad that is specifically intended for menstruation seems like a good one at this moment of time, given the challenges and failures presented by current schemes offering disposable pads.
We started with the mission of developing livelihood opportunity for rural women; we’ve been able to do that for a very small group of women. In this course we have realized that we can make a significant impact in terms of environment conservation and tackling the waste problem that India will face if DSN continues to grow in popularity as it is now. Advocacy has thus become an important part of our work. It’s a slow, patient journey to reverse the mindset that cloth is old fashioned and unhygienic. Menstruation in Tamil Nadu, across India, and in fact around the world, is a multi-faceted part of life involving complex linkages between social, cultural, economic, environmental, health, religious, and gender issues. And one area cannot be understood in isolation from another.
We’ve developed a number of partnerships that keep us running: we have regular buyers across the world who sell our products in brick and mortar stores and in online stores. We have grown relationships with residential schools and other institutions to run our Pad for Pad program beyond Tamil Nadu. As of now we are focusing on streamlining production and increasing our international sales in order to expand our Pad For Pad program with strong qualitative and quantitative monitoring and evaluations as an essential component of it.
In addition to the expansion of international sales and our Pad For Pad program, we look forward to producing an organic cotton range of washable cloth pads, cloth baby diapers, and establishing our own online store. Through our educational work and our many focus groups sessions we have realized that it’s not just what we teach, discuss, and share, but how we teach, discuss, and share. We hope to provide an example of a socially responsible business that offers an integral and radical approach to menstrual health education through the revitalization of traditional menstrual hygiene practices, such as cloth use, herbal remedies, and body wisdom for girls and women. Our products, educational programs, and overall messaging encourage critical reflection on mainstream media messaging around menstruation, the stories we have been told about our bodies from all sources, and the way we live with our selves and our earth. We believe that current work on menstrual hygiene in India and around the world has opened a potent space for reflection on the very nature of development work and what it means to be a sustainable business. We hope to fill this space by being a locally inspired and guided initiative that allows women and girls to live healthily and with dignity, armed with information about their bodies, and in tune with their own inner wisdom and power.