Comfort and cost, but not the environment

Shashwat Diesh overheard his sister complaining about rashes from pads. He couldn’t understand why women with her income didn’t have access to better products. He along with Aqib Mohammed (both co-founders of Azah) conducted a survey with a sample size of 300, and over 50% had suffered period rashes.

“We looked at the products in the market and realized they used a lot of cheap raw material and harmful chemicals that caused skin irritation,” he says. After some material research and time spent on design, they launched Azah, a pad with a soft, organic cotton top layer. Azah, priced at Rs 240 ($3.5) for a box of 12 pads, has over 12,000 regular customers, and while it isn’t biodegradable, it promises to be in two months.

What does the market demands?

Pads are far from the ideal sanitary product, but it’s what the market demands. “We thought of sanitary pads first because Indian and other South Asian women still don’t want to use invasive products. It is more cultural conditioning than anything else, but it is difficult to change,” says Swathi Kulkarni, co-founder, and CMO of Mumbai-based chemical-free sanitary brand Nua. Launched in May 2018, it claims to have acquired 60,000 unique customers with 50% residing in tier-II and tier-III cities.

Then there’s the minority of tampon users in India. Globally, the tampon market share is predicted to attain an overall value of $6.34 billion by the end of 2025, according to market researcher Transparency, and some companies have seen the opportunity in India. While Sirona sells tampons, Floh, also a digital-first market entrant, launched in May 2018 as ‘India’s leading tampon brand’.

Floh claims a 40% monthly growth, with founder Gauri Singhal stating that 50% of its orders come from tier-II and tier-III cities. Early this year, Floh introduced an ‘all-natural, cramp-free’ period patch. “Besides, the sanitary napkin is a monopolistic category,” says Singhal. A view Sirona’s Bajaj echoes when he says pads aren’t conducive to much innovation.

Most women still favor the pad, and in a comfort-led market, they’re only willing to be environmentally-conscious if the product ticks all the other boxes. “The environmental impact of disposable sanitary pads, or for that matter of any other product, is not yet a big purchase influencer for most Indian consumers,” says Dutta of Third Eyesight.

The P&G vow

P&G aims to be able to recycle absorbent hygiene products (AHP) in 10 cities by 2030, according to its latest sustainability agenda. In the long term, it hopes to use 100% renewable or recycled materials for all products and packaging. Mostly because it contributes to the problem. Quite a bit.

However, there are a few brands in the market that sell biodegradable sanitary pads, often at steep prices. These promise women an eco-friendly solution without the hassle of adapting. Laura O’Connell, communications officer at EcoFemme, though is quick to caution. “We are concerned about this type of product because often ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ menstrual products need very specific conditions in order to be broken down. If you dispose of them in a plastic bag [they] cause just as much harm as conventional disposable menstrual products,” she says.

As such, FMCGs producing disposable sanitary pads are also making an attempt to recycle the waste they add to the landfills. “We have committed to establishing an Absorbent Hygiene Products Recycling facility… India will be the first country outside of Europe where we will launch this,” promises the Whisper spokesperson. “The technology upcycles sanitary waste to deliver high-quality secondary raw materials such as recycled cellulose, recycled plastic, and recycled superabsorbent.”

The rural question

While FMCGs are quick to promise waste-management solutions, they’re less keen for a change of tack.

“In reducing the margins between sustainability and affordability, it is important to consider that a large percentage of the population still do not use the right products to manage their menstrual hygiene—which can pose significant health hazards in the long run,” says Manoj Gadgil, Marketing Director, Johnson & Johnson.

For the newer brands, rural markets, which FMCGs have access to, are still a distant dream. “Distribution and dialogue are a challenge and something that small brands will only be able to address with investor funding and government support,” says Bajaj of Sirona who also admits that he has written several letters requesting the government to switch to cups in its awareness programs.

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