The UK government has pledged some of the £15m from the “tampon tax” to the fight against period poverty (the lack of access to sanitary products due to financial hardship). Projects that tackle sexual violence, address social exclusion among BAME women and improve mental health and wellbeing will receive funding over the next two years. Although the money will be a welcome boost to these projects, the underlying problem of taxation on menstrual products remains.
The multinational companies which make these products have slowly started to accept that they have a responsibility to their consumers and are getting involved with awareness raising charity campaigns and providing free products to schools. But this is where the alarm bells should start ringing.
A report by the charity Plan International UK has highlighted the issue of period poverty and the lack of effective education on menstruation aimed at both girls and boys. It also provided broader recommendations in what it called its “menstrual manifesto” – one of the first documents tracing young peoples’ experiences of menstruation in the UK.
The report highlights the need to listen to girls and to include marginalised groups – such as menstruators with disabilities, those who are homeless, refugees and the transgender community – in the discussion. Another one of its key recommendations is to look at the role of multinational corporations in both period poverty and “period shaming”.
While the focus, rightly, is on governments to address period poverty, multinational corporations play a huge role in how we perceive menstruation and the cost, health and environmental impacts of menstrual products.
Ending the stigma
Multinationals such as Proctor and Gamble (which owns brands such as Always and Tampax) make 28% of their net sales from “baby, feminine and family care”. They therefore have a responsibility to provide clear information on their products about the ingredients and opt for responsible advertising that doesn’t promote stigma around menstruation. Advertising plays a big role in young people’s understanding of menstruation and of the products available.
The first advert to depict menstrual blood in 2017 was seen as a big marketing risk, rather than a more accurate representation of a healthy bodily function.
Martina Poulopoti, the global brand communication manager for feminine care at Bodyform and Libresse parent Essity, said the reception of the advert by media and consumers was positive overall and the advert’s directors reported receiving personal emails from people thanking them for the ad. Good advertising could help educate young people at key times in their lives.
US academic Chris Bobel argues that multinational and pharmaceutical companies develop and market products which “exploit women’s body shame”. Products such as femfresh – and the marketing of items as “sanitary” and for the purpose of “feminine hygiene” – reinforces the idea that periods are unhygienic. Meanwhile, using the term “feminine products” excludes transgender menstruators.
There have also been concerns raised over the chemicals used in menstrual products and the lack of research in this area reinforces the low priority previously given to menstrual health by pharmaceutical and multinational companies.
Education not advertising
Education is clearly an issue. For example, the Plan International UK report included stories about how some young people interviewed for their report believed that periods were blue. It is also another area where corporations have an unexpected role. The provision of free products or samples to schools by the major companies – while a useful step in enabling access to products – comes with several concerns.
Activist Chella Quint has pointed out the way in which product placement and branding limits young people’s access to impartial advice and information. If education is provided by organisations which market products using language which reinforces the idea of keeping periods “hidden” and “discreet”, is it any surprise that 48% of young menstruators (and 56% of 14-year-olds) are embarrassed by their periods?
And if the companies are only promoting their own brands, then information may not be provided about more long-term, cost-effective options. Menstrual cups and reusable pads are more environmentally friendly and sustainable products. These are gaining popularity in the UK and globally.
Initiatives by major supermarkets to pay the tax on menstrual products – and so reduce the cost to consumers by 5% – demonstrate some sense of corporate responsibility. So do campaigns such as Always’ #endperiodpoverty (which donates one pack to schools in Africa for every pack of Always Ultra sold in the UK) and Bodyform’s pledge to donate 200,000 packs to those in poverty by 2020. However, they do do little to address the underlying issues and some argue they are simply examples of advertising opportunism from the companies in question.
As US academic Elizabeth Kissling argues, corporations are still selling the same products, but are packaging them differently – in a way that co-opts and capitalises on the current menstrual activist movement.
The menstrual manifesto says companies should abide by a set of principles in their engagement in schools. They should also provide packaging which states the material used and its environmental impact and work with the Advertising Standards Authority to provide accurate and positive portrayals of menstruation. But this is where they should stop. It should be up to the government and schools, not private companies, to provide the right information to young people about menstrual products.