November 21, 2019

Interview with Ecofemme, India based women-led social enterprise

Eco Femme is a women-led social enterprise founded in 2010. Based in Tamil Nadu, India, their goal is to create environmental and social change through revitalising menstrual practices that are healthy, environmentally sustainable, culturally responsive and empowering.

Ecofemme makes cloth pads which sell in approximately 24 countries around the world. Ecofemme is a social enterprise working both ‘for profit’ and ‘not-for-profit’. Profits from the international sales (those outside of India) fund their non-profit work, providing women and girls in India with access to menstrual health education and free or subsidised cloth pads through their Pad for Pad and Pads for Sisters programmes.

We had the opportunity to chat with Ecofemme, about their mission, cloth pad advocacy, work in India and more.

Interview with Laura O’Connell, Communications Coordinator for Ecofemme

Can you tell us a bit about the history of Ecofemme?

Laura: In 2000, Kathy Walkling started a first incarnation of Eco Femme almost immediately after “discovering” cloth pads.

(Kathy) “I assumed that other environmentally conscious women in Auroville may also find the product interesting for the same reasons. I began a small production with the idea of making the products available to women in Auroville because it just felt like the right thing to do. Not only did many women say they appreciated the products but some women were even inspired to start selling the products in their home countries (mostly in Europe). Within a few years, I had a small “business” that had grown completely organically.”

In 2009, Kathy was working with a grassroots development NGO called Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG). They were looking into possible projects that could lead to livelihood creation for rural women and it was then that she began to dream of taking this project to another level – to market cloth pads stitched by rural women. She felt confident that if they actually tried to sell the pads (at least overseas), that it could work out on a larger scale. At this stage  Jessamijn Miedema had joined Auroville and they quickly discovered a common interest to work together on developing a project producing cloth washable pads and integrating more elements like livelihood creation and education on menstruation as they had discovered through reading and some field based research, that menstruation was also a subject that women were poorly informed about and did not always handle in a healthy way. Together they co-founded Eco Femme in its current incarnation as a social business in 2010.

What led to the decision to create a company for cloth pads?

Laura: Developing Eco Femme naturally raised questions about Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) practices among rural women in Tamil Nadu; Eco Femme partnered with Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG) to conduct research on this topic in the form of individual surveys with rural women. The results of these surveys indicated that menstruation is a multi-faceted part of life involving complex linkages between social, cultural, economic, environmental, health, religious, and gender issues; one aspect could not really be talked about without the other, and the respondents wanted to talk. In response to the survey results, Eco Femme and AVAG hosted focus groups and seminars on menstruation in which multiple forms of menstrual products, including washable cloth pads, were presented. Eco Femme realised that women and girls were providing unsolicited favourable responses to the washable cloth pads. This positive response inspired formal product testing of washable cloth pads among rural women and girls in Tamil Nadu to see if they would be practically, as well as theoretically, accepted and to explore creating a rural market for washable cloth pads.

In light of the positive findings through the pilot study, the Eco Femme concept quickly expanded beyond an export project to address the need for eco-friendly, safe, and dignified menstrual hygiene products in India, too. The motivation to grow beyond an export project also came from the government scheme to provide free disposable pads to adolescent girls and the harsh reality of the environmental health problems this creates.

“Why Make the Switch” Poster Series: Ecofemme

In the growing space of innovative feminine hygiene products it is female founders often leading the way, with personal experiences lending insight to product development, design as well as increased needs for advocacy and awareness. What are the thoughts at EcoFemme about this synergy of female insight and business development?

Laura: We see it as a crucial development in closing the gender gap. We see real value in women-led business and our (entirely female) core team benefits from a more nurturing, sensitive work environment – we’re regularly complimented on how well bonded we are as a team. Having said that, we have also been very lucky to work (and continue to work) with some amazing men over the years too. 

Our brand is doing lots for women and people in general!  

  • Firstly, our products are GOTS certified (Global Organic Textile Standard) which ensures that all the people involved in the production of our pads, from the cotton fields all the way up to the finished product to are ethically treated and paid.
  • Our Pad for Pad programme provides menstrual health education to school girls (under the age of 19) here in India and as part of that, following an indepth product analysis of the main products on the market (disposable pad, tampon, cloth, cloth pads and menstrual cup), we offer the girls a set of 4 cloth pads and a storage pouch as a free choice at the end of the session. This empowers the girls to make their own decision about what products to use. See more in our Pad for Pad video.
  • Our Pads for Sisters programme is similar to Pad for Pad but is available to women over the age of 19. The pads are not given for free but are offered at a cost price of 120 rupees or a subsidised price of 50 rupees per pad (this is the amount we have found many economically disadvantaged women are willing to pay themselves). Access to menstrual health education and the opportunity to purchase the pads for themselves empowers them to take ownership of their choices. See more in our Pads for Sisters video
  • Our menstrual health education syllabus is the result of years of research to ensure we cover the topic with sensitivity and respect. It’s not about simply giving pads away but in having a real conversations with women and girls. To critically look at the different products on the market and to empower them to make an informed choice about what product they choose to use. See more about how a Pad for Pad session is conducted in this blog article.
  • Customers are often commenting on how amazing it feels to make the switch to our pads, there are health benefits to switching as well as the obvious environmental benefits and long term financial savings. A common response is the wish to have known about cloth pads earlier and I thin that this is partly what drives our educational work.
  • We have a growing worldwide network of brand ambassadors who freely promote Eco Femme and the topic of sustainable menstruation. We are proud to have have not only women but men and transgender people in this network and we work closely with them to provide support in their efforts to spread the message further. We also hold yearly ambassador workshops to further support and educate our ambassador on our work and ethics.
  • We provide menstrual health education training for organisations who partner with us in the Pad for Pad and Pads for Sisters programmes and for individuals not currently associated with our programmes but who would like to conduct educational programmes in their communities on Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM). 

The market for eco-friendly feminine products & hygiene is currently in a stage of really dynamic growth & innovation Where do you see EcoFemme in this global network of brands for eco-menstrual products?

Laura: We see ourselves as leaders in the market for cloth pads within India. We have seen a number of our ambassadors and acquaintances set up their own brands in the past few years which we think is great! We’ve never been a competitive brand, preferring people to make an informed choice about what product they use. We realise that everyone is different and as such, different people prefer different products or brands. I think our position on a global scale is much smaller, although we’re happy that our products are widely available worldwide.

I see EcoFemme’s hashtag #clothpadrevolution on Instagram & I love it!  I personally fell in love with using cloth pads when I made the shift.  What is your perception of what the Cloth Pad Revolution is (or can be)?

Laura: Thank you! We’re proud of our hashtag and feel it encapsulates our core values. To reclaim ownership of your choices, especially those which concern your body, is a revolutionary act. We see a growing number of people joining that revolution whether it be by becoming vegan, or making more sustainable, ethical product choices. In reality, it’s not just a cloth pad revolution but a sustainable menstruation one but that is not as catchy 😉 It’s amazing how passionate people tend to be once they switch to cloth pads or a menstrual cup – there is a desire to share this knowledge with your friends or family and social media provides a useful way to do it, especially if you feel shy to bring it up in person.

“Why Make the Switch” Poster Series: Ecofemme

What is the eco-friendly beauty & feminine care community like in India?

Laura: It’s growing quickly. I think that the eco friendly movement is great. For example the buzz around Earth Day this year has been amazing. I feel there could be concern about ‘greenwashing’ with brands jumping onto the eco bandwagon. I think it’s still important as a consumer to check out the ethics and values of a brand to ensure they are really as eco friendly as they claim to be.

What is EcoFemme doing on a local, community-based level in terms of brand awareness? Globally?

On a local level, we regularly hold educational sessions within Auroville for female workers, we have a weekly drop in session at our office where people can come and learn more about our work, we often attend events and markets and hold workshops where people can learn how to stitch a cloth pad for themselves. We also collaborated with our friends at WasteLess(another Auroville based unit) on a set of informational posters that are in all the public toilets and guesthouse toilets to raise awareness of the impact and harm of disposables. On a global level, we have a fantastic group of brand ambassadors based around the world who help us to raise awareness and we have stockists around the world who also help spread this message.

How do you think that providing accessible & sustainable feminine care products to can change the future for women’s bodies & lives.

Laura: Absolutely yes! Many people (including myself) have experienced more connection to their cycle and their bodies after switching to reusable products. Generally, reusable products have less chemicals in them so there are real health benefits to switching too!

What is it like working at EcoFemme? 

Laura: I love it. I’ve been on the team for 5 years now and when I joined we were just 5 people. Now we’re about 20! At our office we strive to create a welcoming, fun, caring, and creative atmosphere in which to work productively and be together. Our weekly team meetings start with sharing something a team member has found inspirational and beautiful over the past week, and we always love to have a good laugh, too! We are always happy to welcome visitors, groups of students, and interested individuals to our Open House hour and to arrange information sessions to learn more about our work. In this way we try to always keep an open door, as we are often pleasantly surprised at how just the right person walks through at just the right time! While we are each focused on our specific areas of work, we also value learning together as a team about each person’s work and related global movements, news articles, documentaries, books, and resources of interest. This helps us create a balanced work environment with structure that allows us to meet our goals and grow as a business and the fluidity to bring our full selves to our work and receive fulfillment in return. 

“Why Make the Switch” Poster Series: Ecofemme

Ecofemme mission statement: 

Eco Femme is a global empowerment initiative. Rising from rural India, reaching out to people around the world, we promote and revitalise menstrual practices that are healthy, dignified, affordable and eco-positive.

At the Ecofemme website, the truth of menstruation being an experience transcending all humanity’s various ways of dividing groups is highlighted. How has your mission & advocacy for menstruation as a common denominator been received locally & can you share any powerful advocacy & awareness moments in EcoFemme’s history?

Laura: I think our mission has been received well although it always requires a big conversation, often people see the return to a cloth product as returning to the past, especially when disposables are seen as a sign of wealth and progress and breaking away from the ‘drudgery’ of washing. We’re very aware of approaching this topic sensitively and because both the co-founders are Western women, we are careful not to embody the ‘western saviour‘ approach which is a common problem when working in a developing country. I think because we’re a mixed team (around 7 nationalities at present) and we’re all based here, that helps to approach the topic with the cultural sensitivity needed. We’re not saving women and girls, we’re providing the education necessary for them to make their own choices about what they use.

One special moment was when we interviewed some of the girls that received a menstrual health class some time after their class to see how they remembered what they learnt. One girl proudly shared that she is the one who all her cousins and friends get sent to when they get their first period since she can help educate them on what is happening.

Visit Ecofemme at https://ecofemme.org/

Feature & Interview by Annika Lundkvist at Pacific Roots Magazine Editorial Desk

Editor’s Note

Welcome! Launched in Summer 2019, Pacific Roots Magazine is a platform devoted to global issues of animal advocacy, animal sanctuaries, environment, green city initiatives, veganic agriculture, sustainability, plant based food & more. We welcome you along for the journey as we explore, learn & develop further awareness about this home we call Earth.