From world-beating menstrual cups to ‘duvet days’, Aotearoa is at the forefront of new thinking about menstruation. Reweti Kohere speaks with period product businesses about the progress already made – and what work remains.
When Hello Period started in 2017, “no one would write a story on us,” says co-founder Robyn McLean, whose period products business is best known for its menstrual cup. Now, menstruation is starting to become an everyday conversation for students and teachers, workers and bosses, children and parents – a far cry from the shame and embarrassment that periods used to automatically elicit even a decade ago. McLean is heartened by the progress she sees. “The change in that five years is massive.”
The prominence of sustainable, reusable alternatives best defines New Zealand’s world-leading status. This year, Hello Period’s menstrual cup was ranked number one by US-based fashion and entertainment publication Cosmopolitan, in its “Holy Grail Beauty Awards” – the only sustainable period product chosen by the judging panel. In 2020, Aotearoa period underwear company AWWA received funding and mentorship from Coralus (formerly SheEO), a global female business network providing interest-free loans to selective women-led, women-owned ventures by members pooling together their monthly financial donations (Hello Period received the same backing in 2018). And period product business Organic Initiative (OI) in 2019 cracked the $4.3b US feminine hygiene market when giant multinational retail chain Walmart agreed to stock its range of 100% organic, biodegradable single-use products. Co-founder Helen Robinson at the time told the Herald that supplying Walmart was a coup for OI “because many markets look to the US for what they do and that then is a Trojan horse into other markets”.
It’s no small feat that periods are starting to be acknowledged more in Aotearoa, says Miranda Hitchings, the co-founder of Dignity, a social enterprise helping improve period equity since early 2017. “That’s such a massive thing because, from that, action can happen.” Action like businesses supplying period products in workplace bathrooms, the government-funded rollout of period products in all schools and kura until 2024, and the removal of gendered packaging and language. Inclusivity is important to Hello Period. In celebration of Pride month in 2021, with the help of American non-binary model and activist Rain Dove, the company wanted to support people who found periods triggering because, for too long, it was deemed a “purely female thing”, says McLean. But not everyone who has a period is female, and not all females have periods. “For us to be able to say ‘people with periods’ is no big deal at all…and that’s not to dismiss the fact that, obviously, the majority of our customers would identify as women,” the co-founder says. “But that’s not all of them.”
For Dignity, inclusivity is the result of changing attitudes. The social enterprise’s buy-one, give-one model means that for each box of period products a business buys, an equivalent number of boxes will be gifted to schools, youth and community organisations. Alternatively, businesses can purchase boxes to donate outright. In the past five years, Hitchings has noticed a shift in how businesses perceive periods. “When we first started, businesses wouldn’t say the word ‘period’ through the entire meeting, even though we’d be pitching period products to them. They were really scared and embarrassed,” she says. “That’s definitely not the case for the majority anymore.” But that progress depended on conversations being reframed – Hitchings and her team used to compare the supply of period products to having tea and coffee in the workplace; some people have it, some people don’t but it makes going to work easier. That analogy then gave way to something even more basic – toilet paper. “People who have periods need to manage it somehow and we don’t expect people to bring toilet paper into the workplace,” Hitchings says.
For all the progress made in workplaces, the concept of giving specific paid time off to people experiencing period pain and discomfort is still controversial. Menstrual leave has existed in various forms around the world for at least a century – the former Soviet Union is believed to be the first country to implement paid time off in 1922. Only a handful of countries offer it today, including Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and Zambia. In countries lacking any nationwide legal mandate, companies and organisations, including in Aotearoa, aren’t waiting around.
The policy can become politically charged, says Olie Body, the founder of Wā Collective, a business selling reusable menstrual cups and gifting them to those in need. “But then the question is whether or not it should be a controversial issue.” The debate is varied – some argue it’s unnecessary because existing sick leave provisions can adequately cover period pain as some people have a legitimate medical reason for taking time off, such as endometriosis. Others argue that menstruation isn’t an illness, rather a biological experience that is beyond people’s control. Some are concerned that offering menstrual leave is discriminatory because a group of people is offered an additional employment benefit to the exclusion of those who don’t have periods. Others are worried such a policy might discourage businesses from hiring people who have periods, given it’s another extra employment cost.
Wā Collective, made up of Body and her mum Janine Peters, doesn’t have a formal menstrual leave policy, but they consider periods under the umbrella of putting their health before anything else in the business, Body says, who’s slowly reclaiming hers after two years recovering from burnout and a concussion. While she’s still thinking through the implications of menstrual leave, Body’s instinct is that Aotearoa should legalise the policy, as it could go a long way in recognising the human experience of having a period. “The more that we can acknowledge [that], the better we can do our work and the better we can live our lives. And part of that is having a period,” she says.
Dignity doesn’t have a specific menstrual leave policy either. “But maybe we should?” asks co-founder Miranda Hitchings, before noting Dignity employees, by the very nature of their work, are understanding of periods. Still, the “normalisation of pain” in society is sad. “The level of pain that some people face with periods is not acceptable and the standardised approach is that people should push through it, right?” Hitchings says. “That’s why lots of things like endometriosis go undiagnosed.”
“Duvet days” is how Hello Period treats menstrual leave – the policy provides the team of five an additional five days of paid leave for any reason, including menstrual pain or the side effects of menopause – no questions asked. Because menstrual leave is complicated, it was important the duvet days policy took the burden of having to provide a reason off employees’ shoulders, McLean says. She’d love to see businesses feeling comfortable asking new employees if they have any additional needs that could be accommodated and supported, including around their menstrual cycles. As a business owner herself, every leave day is a cost to any business. “However, having happy and supported employees is more important than anything,” McLean says.
OI, with its small team of about 10, doesn’t have a menstrual leave policy and yet if someone needed to work from home or rest because of period cramps, “we wouldn’t worry about something like that,” says chief executive Clare Morgan. Staff wouldn’t have to hide behind another excuse either, like a cold or a headache. “They would be open about why.” Menstrual leave needs to be debated though, Morgan says, for a one-size-fits-all policy could lead to unintended consequences, such as increasing business owners’ reluctance to employ women, in turn blocking them from fully participating in the economy.
There’s still much work to do to keep Aotearoa along this progressive path. Reducing residual stigma is one area, Hitchings says. Based on a small-sample, indicative survey of Dignity’s audience, a significant portion of respondents said they suffered from period pain, of which about 60% said that it affected their ability to work. But most people said they didn’t feel comfortable giving period pain as a reason for calling in sick. “We have progressed, but we’re not there. Stigma is still very real,” the co-founder says.
Body from Wā Collective wishes that switching from synthetic to organic products was simple but numerous factors have an impact on that purchasing decision. The high upfront cost of a menstrual cup (Wā’s version sells for $49) might be a barrier for someone who can better afford a pack of eight pads for $5 from The Warehouse, she explains. A disposable tampon might suit someone who’s homeless, as reusable period underwear requires access to washing machines. Periods are intimate and personal experiences too, and people might prefer different products from the ones their parents told them to use when they started menstruating. “I have no right to go ‘you should be doing this, you should be doing that’,” Body says. “It’s very much about choice and raising awareness around our choices and their impacts on our body and the environment.”
Continuing to talk openly and honestly with younger people who menstruate is critical too, says OI’s Morgan, whose three sons and one daughter are comfortable with their mum working in the period product industry. “My sons explain to me what their girlfriends are finding and not finding out so that’s good. But that tends to be the way we’ve brought our children up,” Morgan says. “It’s improving, but it still needs more work done where boys and men feel comfortable having those conversations.” Hello Period’s McLean is a big advocate for period education in schools, including teaching boys and kids of other genders about periods. But she can see the progress made right in front of her – most of her daughter’s friends use sustainable period products, something the Hello Period co-founder never thought she’d see happen so quickly. “That gives me so much hope for the future.”