November 22, 2022
By Period Dignity Team
As awareness grows around the environmental impact of our everyday choices, more and more of us are choosing to spend our money on more sustainable purchases. But with companies cottoning on to this fact, many are engaging in the practice of greenwashing, misleading consumers into believing that their businesses or products are more sustainable than they really are. It’s happening everywhere, including the period care industry.
We have never had so much choice when it comes to managing menstruation. But with a lack of consistent education on periods, especially about sustainability issues, knowing what’s best for our bodies and the planet can be tricky. In recent years, we have witnessed a boom in new period products appearing on the market, with many claiming to be more environmentally-friendly than conventional plastic-filled products. However, as with all industries, greenwashing is taking place. Clever marketing and imagery can dupe even the most eco-conscious of us sometimes. So, what should we look out for?
Firstly, are the ingredients labelled? If not, there’s probably some hidden nasties they don’t want you to know about! Sustainable period products should contain just a few natural ingredients such as cotton or bamboo. Be wary of jargon or long complicated scientific names, especially ones beginning with ‘poly’ (this usually means plastic). If you don’t know what it is, do you really want it in one the most absorptive parts of your body?
Describing the full product
You can often spot greenwashing when a product focuses on only one sustainable feature. For example, individual components (e.g. core) may be labelled as organic or plastic-free but this doesn’t necessarily mean the whole product is! Truly sustainable products will use very clear language, describing all components and packaging. If anything causes doubt, chances are there’s some greenwashing going on.
Words such as “green” or “eco-friendly” used without evidence to back them up mean nothing! It’s very easy for companies to paint a green image with a cleverly-crafted description but clear accessible data which proves any sustainability claims is vital. For example, Some brands will describe that their packaging contains “recycled materials” without giving a percentage and it could be pretty low!
Ethical practices of the business
Most of the household-name brands we know and buy are owned by the same few multinational companies. Whilst several of the conventional period brands have launched organic ranges, these are often highly greenwashed and channel profits into businesses which promote other toxic and environmentally-damaging household products.
There has been a recent rise in the use of plant-based plastic, especially in tampon applicators, which you might reasonably expect to be better for the environment. However, testing by Greenpeace Research Laboratories revealed that ‘plant-based’ plastic applicators were chemically identical to their oil-based counterparts, all of which were made of non-biodegradable polyethylene. Moreover, only 20% of the materials in a product are required to be renewable in order to have the ‘plant-based’ label. Therefore, something you think of as being derived from plants, could be 80% synthetic!
What about reusables?
Reusable period products can be a great way to reduce your footprint of menstrual waste however, not all are as sustainable as you might think. For instance, many reusables – especially pads and pants – contain synthetic fabrics such as polyester (i.e. plastic), which won’t biodegrade. Fibres from these will shed onto your skin and down the drain every time you wash them, adding to the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans.
Conventional period products can contain a cocktail of chemicals, from pesticides to dioxins and fragrances. Even if brands are transparent about their ingredients, there may be chemical residues remaining from the manufacturing process, which they don’t report. Recent research has exposed the presence of harmful substances called PFAS (known as “forever chemicals”) in multiple brands of period pants, showing that even seemingly sustainable products can hide potential hazards.
How to choose a sustainable period product
Now you know what to be wary of, here are some of the sustainable green flags to help you in choosing a period product that’s good for you and the planet:
- 100% organic, plastic-free and biodegradable (ideally suitable for home-composting) materials
- ALL ingredients and percentages of material mixes listed for product and packaging
- Certifications and data to back up any sustainable claims e.g. GOTS, B Corp, FSC, Oeko-Tex
- Vegan-friendly, not testing on animals or linked with companies which do
- Transparent ethical policies for the whole business, not just environmentally but socially too – for example, Grace & Green is a living wage employer and donates products to support those experiencing period poverty
- Small independent business with sustainable ethos which prioritises people and planet
It can be a minefield choosing products that are truly sustainable. We hope this guide has helped you to understand some of the greenwashing issues in the period care industry and empowered you with knowledge of what to check for. If you have any doubts about a product’s impact and have capacity, contact the company and ask for those credentials! The more pressure we put on companies, the better chance we have for change.
Greenwashing can be disheartening and not everyone has the privilege of time, energy or money to investigate the credentials of every brand, so many stick with the products they know. This is especially true for those experiencing period poverty, for whom just getting enough items to manage their flow each cycle can be a challenge. Therefore, it’s up to all of us to share information with our friends, family and community to help normalise periods and spread the word about reliable brands.