It’s a man’s world?

A century ago, when many of the consumption norms for our modern society were being laid down, women as consumers in their own right were still somewhat on the periphery. Those who saw the potential of including the ‘other 50%’ were pioneers and are still, in some cases, household names today.

Ian Bell, Head of Tissue and Hygiene Research - Euromonitor International

H G Selfridge for example saw lack of female toilets in public places as a barrier, included them as part of his design for his flagship department store on London’s Oxford Street (opened in 1909), subsequently reaping the benefits of middle class female patronage. Although straightforward by today’s standards, the introduction of such facilities was in its day ground breaking, allowing Edwardian women to venture out (often unaccompanied), and allowing his store to tap into a new breed of consumer, who significantly had their own incomes and were keen to spend and ‘socialise’ in the new model department store. Forward 20 years, and the position of women as mass market consumers was normalised in part by the efforts of Edward Bernays. When approached by US tobacco companies on how to encourage female tobacco consumption, Bernays looked to end the taboo of women smoking by promoting smoking in public as empowerment, in keeping with the developing feminist movement, ‘torches of freedom’. Today it seems absurd that female consumers were anything other than central to the consumer goods industry, as they now account for 60% of apparel sales for example, while in beauty and personal care this figure is even higher, touching 80% in many instances. The role female consumers play is even more significant when ‘assisted purchase’ is considered. Even in men’s grooming, women typically play a pivotal role in making purchases; everything from shaving products to deodorant, their influence is loud and clear. While a whole range of industries, ranging from home care to packaged food and now even automotives can point to having an increasingly female focus, there are few industries which have the same influence on female lives as the hygiene industry.

Sanitary protection plays a pivotal development role. While the tobacco industry funded great public statements of female independence (torches of freedom, as mentioned before), the hygiene industry has developed, often quietly, in its own way. Taking sanitary protection as an example, its ubiquity, even invisibility, belies the impact the category has had on helping women become more independent, enter the workforce, generate their own incomes and develop into the consumers that other industries are currently courting in order to keep their heads above water in the current economic malaise. While this is true of the developed world, looking further afield there is still much work to be done, especially in the emerging markets of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where it can be argued that a combination of social taboos around menstruation and a lack of supply of sanitary protection is a persistent block to broader female emancipation and upward social mobility. With modern hygiene requiring incomes of US$3 per day, this still leaves a billion women in the developing world with limited access to this essential product grouping at best. Is there more the industry can do to foster wider availability of sanitary protection products in the deve- loping world?

Not just a matter of convenience. Looking at Sub-Saharan Africa and India, both regions remain extremely undeveloped, with average spending on sanitary protection well below US$1 per female consumer, compared to US$18 in more developed countries. In India, this figure stands at just US$0.3 per year, with usage very much limited to middle and high income consumers in urban areas. In rural areas in particular, supply is practically non-existent, with women largely relying on cloths and rags as an alternative, which entails its own health implications.

Broader implications. While scarce supply is a reflection of poor distribution and lack of personal income, its influence on schooling is significant. Social research carried out in Sub-Saharan Africa estimates absence associated with menstruation to be 50 days per year, making girls more likely to fall behind in education, and to drop out of secondary education, re-enforcing the vicious circle of poverty and a lack of social mobility. In India, the Arsha campaign, which has been taken up by a number of regional governments, is evidence that there is some political will to help provide subsidised and even free sanitary protection to schoolgirls to help reverse this cycle. Manufactures have also looked to up the social sustainability ante. Procter & Gamble, for example, launched its “Always keeping girls in school” campaign in association with UNICEF, to provide girls in South Africa with puberty education and a three-month supply of Always Ultra sanitary towels. With SCA and Kimberly-Clark also having introduced similar initiatives over the years, there is nothing new here, but perhaps the stage is set for a more concerted period of action. With sustainability now the central pillar of corporate development, with many setting ambitious targets for 2020 and beyond, the stumbling block for hygiene products remains their disposable nature. With environmental sustainability focusing on ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ and with bio-based products seemingly still some way off, the industry must be aware that social sustainability is their strongest hand. Indeed, with social sustainability becoming more formalised under proposed EU legislation - and will ultimately have its own set of metrics - the social side of sustainability should be championed by the hygiene industry like no other.

Have social sustainability initiatives gone far enough? Although well intentioned, initiatives to improve sanitary protection availability in these most challenging geographies requires not only a market-based approach but one that ties in with economic reality for the sub-US$2 per day ‘consumer’. With the likelihood that incomes in these areas will not reach the prerequisite threshold for modern sanitary protection consumption for decades to come, there may well be a third way. There are examples where even low level investment in local manufacturing and selling models could provide social sustainability currency, as well as help develop consumption culture, which could pay off in the longer term. This view is backed by the SHE foundation, which suggests that financial aid has no real long term effect on development, and instead actively supports local women to start their own businesses, producing sanitary pads from local raw materials such as banana tree fibre (http://www.sheinnovates.com/index.html). Other inspiring examples can be found in India, where entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham developed a towel-making machine that turns wood into sterilised sanitary towels. To date, his start-up company has sold 600 machines across 23 states, each producing up to 3,000 units a day, and are largely operated by local women. This is a project that could well be replicated in other regions if backed by the right investment for equipment and training (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/jan/22/sanitary-towels-india-cheap-manufacture). Similarly, Swedish industrial design students have developed a method to turn water hyacinths into sanitary pads, in the area around Lake Victoria in Kenya. Water hyacinth is an invasive weed and poses a threat to the local ecosystem and ultimately to livelihoods. The use of water hyacinth to manufacture sanitary products in one of the poorest regions in Kenya is yet again proof that enterprise with a local focus can deliver innovative solutions.

One size fits all. While these few examples are very different, they do give hope that provision of affordable sanitary protection is not out of reach for women, even on the lowest income bands. Sanitary protection is a key product category, which can influence female opportunities in education, work, social mobility and ultimately income. The development of current cottage industries into more mainstream ventures - although a potential management nightmare - could well prove to be a winning hand and an immensely positive story which the sanitary protection industry could champion. While earlier the development of women as another front in the consumer economy still has resonance today, we could well be saying something similar about the hygiene industry in decades to come if we grab this contemporary ‘torch for freedom’. *

  • Illustration by Guido Scarabottolo
  • Illustration by Guido Scarabottolo
  • Illustration by Guido Scarabottolo
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