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Red Tent Revolution  by Jeanie Keogh
Red Tent Revolution

Twenty-two years ago, Madeleine Shaw (photo, left) struggled to find a solution to the uncomfortable bladder infections she experienced brought on by the o.b. tampons she was using. Unable to find a suitable replacement, she created Lunapads, a line of washable cloth menstrual pads, in 1993.

Today, Lunapads is of one of two successful women-run companies in Canada that are making waves in the world of menstrual care. The other door to the modern red tent is being held open by Diva International, a company that has been revolutionizing periods since 2001. Francine Chambers is president and co-founder of Diva International, which manufactures the DivaCup, a menstrual cup that collects blood in a small, funnelshaped silicone device. From its humble beginnings, when the product was sold in local health food stores, it has made notable headway into more mainstream markets. After years of tweaking the design of menstrual cups, Chambers, who runs the Kitchener, Ont.-based company, has been joined at the helm by her daughter Carrine Chambers.

The growing popularity of these innovative menstrual products signals a rapidly increasing demographic of
consumers who have created a word-of-mouth coalition to change the way menstruation is approached.
Today, the companies are working together to meet an increasing consumer demand for healthy, environmentally responsible menstrual products. Lunapads and the DivaCup are seeing their efforts pay off, not just financially but in terms of changing attitudes.

“We don’t think about competition in business the way a lot of companies do,” says Madeleine Shaw, Lunapads’ creative director. “We’re doing what we want to do and meeting the needs of people who love our products and our message.”

The message is that girls and women can feel better about themselves, be healthier, save money, reduce waste, help change negative attitudes about menstruation and, in so doing, create more customers for the DivaCup and Lunapads.

“Women who have changed to the DivaCup, within a few cycles, are very passionate about it and usually share it with their friends, family, any women they come into contact with,” according to Sophie Zivku, communications and education manager for the DivaCup.

Customer devotion is also in plentiful supply at Lunapads, which has gone from selling one product a day in 1993 to dozens of orders per day in 2014. The company, which has customers in 40 countries, has an ambassador program that offers incentives for its passionate users to promote Lunapads to new customers. It has established a wholesale Lunapads business, diversified its manufacturing process with new textiles to offer higher-performance products and branched out to distributors in Germany and Italy.

Shaw and Lunapads CEO Suzanne Siemens also lead United Girls of the World, a registered non-profi t society that supports education for girls in developing countries. Through its Pads4Girls and One4Her programs, United Girls provides cloth pads and underwear to girls in 18 countries. Young girls in developing countries often miss school—and future opportunities—because they don’t have menstrual products. In 10 years, Lunapads and United Girls have supplied over 200,000 girls who previously often lacked even a pair of underwear, resorting to using tree bark, mud, old blankets or even digging small holes in the floors of their homes during their periods.

The effort to do business differently has paid off with a fl ow of publicity. O magazine, Cosmo, Glamour and Shape have published stories on the DivaCup, and Lunapads has been featured by CTV, the Vancouver Sun, the National Post and Chatelaine. The two companies share a deep bond of mutual respect (Lunapads has been a distributor of the DivaCup for over a decade), and the two recently collaborated to provide 443 students at a Ugandan school, for young single mothers who are survivors of sexual assault, with AFRIpads washable pad kits (AFRIpads are a Uganda-based pad-making
venture modelled after Lunapads).

The DivaCup’s owners are passionate about women’s health and the environment. The silicone product boasts that it contains no latex, plastic, PVC, acrylic, acrylate, BPA, phthalates, elastomer or polyethylene and is free of artificial colour and dyes. It’s appeared on a billboard ad in Times Square in New York, is sold in 27 countries worldwide and has recently expanded into Mexico and Peru.

Available in hundreds of stores in Canada, the DivaCup has sold over a million products since its inception.
The 12-hour protection it offers and the reusable option are also reasons for its popularity.
“A lot of women who aren’t necessarily comfortable with using tampons actually fi nd greater success with the product because the DivaCup fi ts very differently,” says Zivku. It is an especially attractive option for athletes who want to avoid the hassle and extra challenge of having to do product changes every couple of hours.

Shaw adds that Lunapads customers generally fall into two major groups: young, health-aware, environmentally and socially conscious individuals, and the aforementioned group when they become
cloth-diapering mothers. Many mothers, Shaw explains, experience an ecological consciousness shift when they become aware of the disposable diaper waste issue; this leads them to use reusable products for their menstrual needs. A third group to which Lunapads will soon reach out is women with incontinence, or bladder leakage.

By using reusable products, consumers can not only save money but can also help divert an estimated 17,000 tampons or pads (the number used over a woman’s lifetime) from landfi lls. Sustainability aside, Shaw stresses that what has allowed Lunapads to better compete with disposable product performance is effi cacy.

“You can be as green or as feminist as you want to be, and if the products don’t work then no one cares,” says Shaw.

Still, success has meant not just creating effective products that inspire consumer trust and brand loyalty, but supporting a broadly based menstrual community. Lunapads’ blog goes beyond period health, encouraging discussions on subjects ranging from natural fertility methods to media commentary.

Company blogs serve as online portals on women’s health, with links to articles on toxic shock syndrome and other complications resulting from the use of disposable products. Additionally, the companies have promoted Detox the Box and No Secrets—campaigns in the U.S. aimed to force traditional pad and tampon producers to disclose their products’ ingredients. In addition to rayon and polypropylene, conventional pads and tampons are often made from cotton, which is produced under pesticide-heavy conditions. When textiles undergo bleaching to make them white, dioxins, which are a carcinogen, are created. Health-related problems associated with conventional products include bladder infections, yeast infections and even immune system repression.

Building greater awareness about the benefi ts of natural menstrual products is one of the biggest challenges facing the companies. It’s not just about brand awareness but also a conviction that women should feel positively about their periods and positive about themselves. Shaw kicked off a rites of passage event for girls aged 10 to 12, called G Day (G is for girls), in Vancouver last April. The event brought together 250 girls and featured presentations and activities to strengthen self-esteem and create connection among young girls at a crucial time in their lives. The second G Day took place in November, and events are planned for Toronto and Victoria, as well as Vancouver, in 2015. “G Day seeks to counter the current climate of social competition by focusing on the commonality of experience that girls at this age are all sharing,” the G Day website explains.

“By cultivating this bond and sense of sisterhood, we remind them to care for and respect each other, to resist bullying, model compassion and stand up for themselves and one another.”
“It’s such a special time of life,” Shaw explains. “If we can honour it and resurrect this notion of honouring the transition from childhood to adolescence, then we’re offering an experience that can support them as they move into their teenage years.”

Despite product popularity, however, both companies still come up against the antiquated notion that periods are unsanitary, undesirable or even disgusting. Because Lunapads and DivaCups require users to have direct contact with menstrual blood, many girls and women in our hands-off, fear-based society are uncomfortable with reusable products.

“We do our best to promote positive period talk or menstrual talk because that’s where to start,” Zivku says. “The initial ick factor is defi nitely something we come up against with women of all ages, not just the nine-to-12-year-old girls but also women in their 30s and 40s. It’s untraditional—you have to actually interact
with what you’re doing every 12 hours. It’s not just an out-of-sight, out-of-mind experience.”

It’s an attitude Shaw is also committed to changing. “There is still this really powerful taboo around menstruation. If you’re going to use a reusable product, you’ve got to be in there, you’ve got to touch it and interact with your menses, and our social conditioning is contrary to doing that. It basically teaches us that you need to get it away from you and out of you as quickly as possible,” says Shaw about the psychological forces she is up against.

Nowhere is this social conditioning more evident than in public bathrooms. “If you walk into a public restroom, they have these huge things that are the size of a mailbox on the floor … and you put your used whatever you’ve got in this tray. Basically, it looks like a bomb-disposal unit,” Shaw says.

The unconscious message is that menstruation is a biohazard and Shaw says girls and women need to resist being ashamed of menstruation and, by extension, their bodies. “It has everything to do with the
fear around sexuality and women’s bodies, and we need to expose it.”

Diva International is also expanding the dialogue by educating health professionals about menstrual cups.
“There are also health professionals and educators that were unaware of it. Or they were aware of the concept but didn’t really understand how it worked, or how to position it, or how to clean and care for
it,” Zivku says. If increased sales figures are any indication, these companies are already changing these attitudes. In so doing, they’re also educating consumers about the health and environmental benefi ts of environmentally friendly menstrual products, improving respect and awareness
for fertility cycles, and mother nature’s cycles, too.

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