I first experienced reusable sanitary napkins in 2012. We were new parents keen on raising a green, sustainable baby. Somewhere in the middle of the night when I was flushing poop out of a reusable cloth diaper and congratulating myself on the disposable diaper I had just saved, I asked myself why I could not make the shift myself to reusable cloth pads.
It certainly had to be easier to adopt compared to a cloth diaper, I figured.
My searches online led me Kathy Walking and Eco femme. After several email exchanges to allay my concerns, I bought myself a few of Eco Femme’s pads. When I tried them out the first time, I could not believe how good they felt compared to a disposable pad. Like most disposable users, I did not know things could actually get better and was mentally conditioned to accept discomfort as a part of menstruation.
With time, my understanding of my body and my menstrual cycle has deepened thanks to the cloth pads I use, many of which are courtesy Eco Femme’s pioneering work in India.
The genesis of Eco Femme
Kathy Walking became a cloth pad user, 12 years ago, when she moved to India to become a part of Auroville. In the absence of a waste collection system, she had dig pits herself to bury soiled napkins. This deep connection with her complete cycle (from use to disposal) led to her exploration of reusable cloth pads. Kathy then started to create her own cloth pads for herself and her friends at Auroville.
As Kathy’s business grew, she began working with Auroville Village Action group to understand how local women managed their menstruation. This exploration led to the formation of the eco Femme project, which drew from Kathy’s designs and her existing cloth napkin business, and added a strong social component of women’s empowerment integrated with rural development.
Eco femme today consists of a 12 member team, including members from 7 Self help groups from Auroville village Action group. The eco Femme Project started in 2010, and is a proudly social enterprise, following fair trade principles with its employees and tailors, and spreading the message of safe and sustainable menstrual management among both urban and rural women.
Working along with Kathy is the energetic Jessamijn, who has answered most of my emails and queries for this post. Jessamijn also has a deep connection with sustainable menstruation: her mother had stitched washable menstrual pads from old towels for the women living in her neighbourhood in Sumba, Indonesia!
Over to Kathy and Jessamijn for the post. To improve clarity and readability, Jessamijn & Kathy have answered our queries in the first person for this interview.
Washable cloth pads are beautiful…
They touch on so many aspects (psychological, social, economic and environmental) of life of women around the world. As a social enterprise we have the freedom to work in an integral manner on the (largely) taboo subject of menstruation, and reach out to women who do not have access to information and products to manage their menstruation. For example, we raise awareness among school girls in government schools and gift them pads (donated by international pad users) through our educational programs
Washable cloth pads are also better for your body…
Washable cloth pads are made of cotton and are (with appropriate care) better for your body than the plastics (primarily) of which disposable pads are made. Many women and girls get irritations and infections from disposable pads, also because plastics generate more heat than cotton. The bleaches used for disposable pads generate dioxins which are known to be carcinogenic.
And of course, washable pads are so much kinder on the environment and the people who manage our waste
Cloth pads generate less waste as they last at least 75 washes. Disposable pads are use & throw, and take approx. 500 yrs to decompose! Burning, land fill and littering of pads result in tremendous air and ground water pollution which evidently also influences our health. Disposable pads also impact the lives and health of people working in waste. For example, disposables flushed down in toilets cause sewages to block. Unblocking these systems is done by people who immerse their bodies into the sludge. Using cloth pads also helps to dignify their lives!
The picture to the left shows Kathy at a meeting with conservancy workers of the Arunthathiyar community. Many women from this community handle bio medical waste like used sanitary napkins without any protective gear. They commonly suffer from infection related to the handling of this waste – they risk being infected from blood borne pathogens from soiled sanitary napkins apart from possible infections micro organisms like E Coli, HIV and staphylococcus.
Our cloth pads are tested for quality and are pre cut for consistency
Eco Femme pads are made of cotton flannel on the top and inside for comfort and absorbency, leak proof laminated cotton is used at the bottom to prevent leakages. These fabrics are pre-cut to provide consistency.
At our partner-NGO, Auroville Village Action Group, 24 women from related self help groups have learnt advanced stitching; they stitch Eco Femme’s pads (7 full time jobs) as well as other products. This provides those living wages and aims to enhance their personal development. The final pads undergo two rounds of quality control, once at the tailoring site and a second time at Eco Femme’s office before it journeys to our customers.
The final pads that we ship out to customers and retail partners are comfortable, absorbent, easy to wash, leak proof and beautiful: pads to be proud of!
We guarantee that our pads will last for atleast 75 washes.
We have a wide range of pads for different needs: panty liners, day pads, day pad plus and night pads for light to heavy and night flow. Each size is similar to disposable equivalents in terms of absorbency/duration.
The biggest hurdle to adopting a cloth pad appears to be around its care
There are many big myths but we very often hear people say that washing pads seems much work, which it really isn’t. When you soak them in cold water, the washing is a quick job.
Also, the use of disposables is no less work. They use up a lot of natural resources and someone has to dispose them. If you put them in a landfill, you are feeding plastic to the soil. If you burn them, you are polluting the air.
So actually if you think about it, washables are overall much less work.
A reusable pad works as well as, sometimes better than a disposable pad
You can use a washable pad as long as (or slightly longer than) a disposable plastic napkin before changing to the next. Because it is made of cotton (instead of plastic) the pad is not hot and sticky. You fasten the buttons on the wings of the pad under your underwear, which makes the pad stay in place and the leak proof layer gives us that bit of security that we often want to have.
We have replaced 4 million disposable products (through our sold and donated pads) already through our work.
We are growing steadily and it is inspiring to us that this growth is more and more taking place in India. Our focus is Menstruation and we will continue to work in menstrual education and providing alternative menstrual products.
Our education efforts revolve around opening up conversations around menstruation for women & girls, that is respectful of culture while providing a safe space for women to question their menstrual experience, social restrictions and product choice. These conversations build trust and community, and they are vital for reproductive health, as many of the women we work with do not have access to regular checkups, and are unaware of their body’s natural biological functions, i.e. what is considered normal or healthful and what is cause to seek medical attention.
We are working on a module based educational curriculum which can be applied to different contexts and settings. As of April 2013 we have modules that focus on how to work with uneducated adolescent girls and women as well as a module targeting educated young women that explores linkages between menstrual products and health, environment and media – this module has even been adapted for use on college campuses in countries like USA and UK. In the coming year, we plan to develop more modules including how to work with adolescent boys and plan to make this body of knowledge available through training of trainers programs from end of 2014.
At the same time we are also developing products that are connected, such as washable nappies for babies – so keep tuned!
Can everyone afford reusable pads? We ask, can people afford to ignore reusables?
We often do not realise how much we are spending on disposables. I suggest for everyone to keep track of that and do the math yourself. On an average -given with 75 washes per pad (equivalent to 4 yrs), using a total of 8- your payback time is 2 yrs.
But yes, reusables demand a longer time frame. You don’t think about tomorrow but of the years ahead. Apart from a financial benefit, you need to ask yourself what it means to have the possibility to make a change by choosing an environmentally-friendly and healthy product?
With our Pad for Pad program we supply pads that are donated by international customers to girls in government schools; this is free of cost to them. We further offer pads through NGO/institutions/Self Help Groups at a subsidised price (only the cost of material and stitching) for giving access to those women who cannot afford the pads against the commercial prices. If women are willing to use internal products, a menstrual cup is also a great option to explore: they are a very affordable, health and environment-friendly option too.
Krya thanks Kathy & Jessamijn, and the whole team at Eco Femme for the great work they do, for spending their time in answering our questions and for kindly gifting us a cloth pad starter kit for the Krya giveaway.
Support Eco Femme’s work:
Please show your support for Eco Femme’s work in menstrual education & sustainable menstrual management by “liking” their Facebook page and inviting your friends and family to this post and their page.
If you would like to experience Eco Femme’s natural reusable pads for yourself, please read more about the variants available on http://ecofemme.org/product/premium-pads/ . Once you have decided what you would like to buy, please visit : www.ecofemme.org/buy for online shopping options or addresses close to you. Eco Femme pads are available in 15 countries around the world, including India, from brick and mortar as well as online stores.
If you need more convincing, and would like to read more about the problems of disposables, start here:
- Here’s an introduction to the world of reusables
- Here’s where you can find out more about the dangers presented by disposable sanitary products
- Here’s a piece chronicling a Man’s perspective on Reusables and Disposable products
- And here’s the first part of our Interview series: this is an interview of Lakshmi Murthy of Uger Pads, Udaipur
- Here’s Anita chronicling how she shifted to reusable cloth pads.
We are going to be giving away 3 cloth sanitary pad starter kits to 3 lucky people: each kit will come in its own reusable cloth bag (for you to shop with) and will contain samples of the Krya detergent along with instructions to wash and care for your cloth pads.
If you would like to win one of these starter kits, all you need to do is this. Follow our posts and updates in this series and tell us one reason why you would like to make the switch to green your period. Head over to our Facebook page to enter now.