Tampons and sanitary napkins confront the demands of health, safety and environmental concerns.
Consider the numbers: Tampons are used by approximately 73 million women in the United States, according to findings in the proposed Robin Danielson Act, which was presented in the 112th Congress in 2011, and an average woman will use as many as 16,800 tampons in her lifetime.
That's not counting all of the sanitary pads and liners that contain polyethylene plastic, a petroleum-based material considered a pollutant in the production process.
Other sources estimate the average woman will dump 300 pounds of feminine hygiene waste into the environment during her life. The Keeper, a Cincinnati-based menstrual-cup manufacturer, illustrates the disposable problem on its website, www.keeper.com/photographs.html, with more than enough tampons to fill a dump truck.
As leading manufacturers market technologically advanced products to women in developing countries, the numbers of feminine hygiene waste will explode exponentially. This comes as the Obama administration is focused on climate-change solutions, and the public is increasingly interested in responsible environmental practices.
All stakeholders, especially women who care for the health and well-being of their families, will be compelled to weigh their purchasing decisions against their ecological footprints.
"Women the world over are patronizing organic, biodegradable and eco-friendly products that are safer not just on the skin, but also to the environment," says Global Industry Analysts, based in San Jose, Calif., in its report on the global market for feminine hygiene products.
Retailers, especially those positioned as health-and-wellness purveyors, are assessing their feminine hygiene merchandising and stocking, or are considering natural alternative choices, say industry observers.
Los Angeles-based research company IBS World, which tracks feminine sanitary paper products at the manufacturing level, acknowledges a trend toward organic and natural products. "These products remain a niche product category, however, and are primarily sold through e-commerce channels and natural food stores, which has inhibited their potential growth," IBS World notes.
Possible toxic substances contained in traditional products that are made of cotton, which some say is sourced from genetically modified and pesticideladen crops, and rayon, a synthetic fiber, are at issue. These products also can contain surfactants, adhesives and additives (synthetic fragrance).
A big concern is trace amounts of dioxin, a known carcinogen, found in tampons. Rayon is made from cellulose fibers derived from wood pulp. Dioxin is a byproduct of bleaching wood pulp that was used in tampon manufacturing. Many of these substances have leached into groundwater, streams and lakes.
Progressive Grocer asked consumer goods manufacturers to discuss what recent actions they've taken to lessen their environmental impact.
Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble (P&G), maker of Tampax, Always and the Radiant Collection, the last of which was introduced last year, is the leading manufacturer, with 37 percent of the napkin and tampon market, according to market researcher Mintel in Chicago.
"The innovative product technology we used to design and manufacture our upgraded Tampax Pearl tampons reduced the material needed to bring it to market by over half a million pounds per year," the company says. That's the equivalent weight of 170 automobiles, according to P&G. "Our work to redesign our Always Thick product has resulted in approximately 5 percent material usage reduction compared to existing product, all while delivering superior performance."
P&G says it has increased reuse of its manufacturing waste. "Two of our manufacturing sites are zero-landfill sites; all of our manufacturing waste at these sites has beneficial reuse," the company reports.
It's been three decades since P&G pulled its superabsorbent Rely tampons off the market following a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report of increased risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a potentially fatal bacterial illness, from higherabsorbency products.
While manufacturing has changed since the TSS outbreak in the late 1970s to chlorine-free processes, questions on the long-term effects of using conventional products still arise.
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) renewed the tampon health safety debate by reintroducing the Robin Danielson Act, legislation that would direct the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct research to determine the extent to which the presence of dioxin, synthetic fibers and other additives in tampons and related products pose a health risk. That effort died in committee.
The Food and Drug Administration today regulates tampons as medical devices, and generally deems them safe.
While there may be trace amounts of dioxin present in tampons (nondetectable to 0.1 to 1 part per trillion) from environmental sources in cotton, rayon or rayon/cotton tampons, the agency considers the risk of adverse health effects from small trace amounts "negligible."
A P&G representative says the company welcomes questions on the safety of its products: "Our Always and Tampax products continue to meet the FDA's expectations of safe and effective products sold in the U.S. Our scented products are clearly labeled so that women who choose to avoid scented products can select unscented Always and Tampax products confidently."
Manufacturers and retailers also face slowing segment sales as aging female baby boomers reach menopause at the rate of 6,000 a day, according to some estimates. This is reflected in little or no growth in the U.S. sanitary protection segment.
That appears to be why Johnson & Johnson is looking to sell most of its feminine hygiene business, including Stayfree and Carefree pads and O.B. tampons, because the New Brunswick, N.J.-based company views the segment as a "low-growth" area, according to a Reuters report.
For the 52-week period ending Dec. 30, 2012, combined total sales of sanitary napkins, liners and tampons reached $2.6 billion, up 1.4 percent, according to SymphonyIRI Group. Dollars were offset, however, by unit volume falling by an equal percentage across multiple mass-market channels.
Supermarket sales of $629 million, which represent a quarter of the dollar volume, appeared to lose share to drug stores or mass merchandisers, with dollar volume off 1.4 percent and unit sales down 2.5 percent, according to the Chicago-based market research firm. Overall, drug store sales of $590 million grew a minimal 1.0 percent, but unit volume fell 5.3 percent.
Growth of natural and organic feminine hygiene products, a fraction of the consumer packaged goods volume in the sector, is faring much better across various channels, except for natural tampons, which took a significant sales dive at specialty retailers and conventional grocers, according to the latest statistics from SPINS, based Schaumburg, Ill.
At natural and conventional supermarkets combined, sales of disposable sanitary pads were up 9.6 percent on volume of $5.9 million for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 19, 2013.
Reusable pads, totaling $1.6 million, grew 13.3 percent during the same period. Tampons, however, plunged 22.7 percent, shrinking to $6.4 million, according to SPINSscan natural and conventional data.
In the natural supermarket segment, which excludes Whole Foods Market, tampons grew by 7.9 percent to reach $3.3 million in sales.
"There is a perceivable shift taking place today, in which women are moving away from tampons toward sanitary pads. This is likely due to the enhanced features pads offer today, including increased performance and discreteness," says Theresa White, senior executive officer at Greeley, Colo-based Natracare, which markets a line of natural and organic products.
White, along with others who sell eco-friendly alternative products, says that while their products have been concentrated at natural health food and specialty stores, they're aggressively pursuing mass-market channels.
"Our growth lies with conventional supermarkets," White says. "With almost half of all organic products now being sold in conventional supermarkets, expanding organic and natural offerings not only drives this trend, but increases conventional supermarkets' sustainability points in the process."
Chains carrying Natracare products include Fred Meyer, King Soopers, Wegmans Food Markets, H-E-B and Tops Markets' new Orchard Fresh concept store in the United States, as well as Loblaws in Canada.
Something Completely Different
A handful of menstrual-cup manufacturers are trying to expand their distribution by positioning their products as cost-effective, safe and environmentally sound.
The latest ads from Mooncup, a U.K. brand that's sold in the States under the MCUK acronym, pits the environmentally savvy Mooncup team against the uncaring tampon team. "We got love for the earth while you make her ill," says the Mooncup rapper in a commercial featured on the product's website, www.mooncup.co.uk/mcuk.html.
John Szustaczek, director of sales and marketing at Kitchener, Ontario-based Diva International Inc., said same-store sales of the DivaCup are up 14 percent to 16 percent. DivaCup, a reuseable silicone product that retails for $35 and $40, is sold at Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods. San Antonio-based H-E-B has recently expanded distribution of the DivaCup, and leading drug store chains and Minneapolis-based Target are testing demand online, Szustaczek says.
Diva International is supporting the brand through social media and full-page ads three times a year in leading women's magazines. The company is also running 35,000 commercial spots during the year on the Times Square billboard in New York City.
The Keeper, meanwhile, has been selling its latex rubber brand since 1987, mainly through online and individual sales affiliates. In 2006, it began selling a silicone menstrual cup, called the Moon Cup, which is not the same as the U.K. brand. "Our cups are economical," a spokeswoman says, "and with global warming and environmental concerns, this is the perfect time to expand our product distribution in retail."
"With almost half of all organic products now being sold in conventional supermarkets, expanding organic and natural offerings not only drives this trend, but increases conventional supermarkets' sustainability points in the process."
—Theresa White, Natracare