In the past couple of years, our vision of Universal access to safe, quality, sustainable, shame-free period care and education for everyone who menstruates has been gaining ground, with free disposable pads and tampons increasingly being provided in places like schools and workplaces. This is a laudable and necessary first step towards achieving menstrual equity. But it’s far from the whole solution: in order to achieve “universal” sustainable menstrual equity, we need to be thinking beyond traditional disposable products, and also beyond just bathroom access.
What needs to happen next:
- An equal commitment to the provision of free reusable products
- An inclusive approach to product access, namely moving from ‘place-based’ to ‘user-centered’ solutions
What are ‘place-based’ and ‘user-centered’ menstrual product access solutions?
Traditional public access to menstrual products has often been in bathrooms or other specific places (wellness clinics, food pantries etc). While this makes sense for specific groups (ie: citizens using public facilities, for example a library) a significant limitation of the place-based model is that it requires users to be at a particular place at a particular time in order to be able to access products.
As anyone who menstruates knows all too well, periods don’t wait to arrive until you’re in a convenient location with easy access to products. There are so many situations where place-based solutions fall short, for example if you start your period at home, outside of regular building operation hours, while playing a sport, or not being able to find a bathroom that affirms your gender that also stocks products.
In fact, according to 2021 research by our partners PERIOD., 3-in-5 students say they rarely or never find free period products in school bathrooms (59%) or public bathrooms (62%). Place-based solutions further require users to continuously hunt for new places to access products as they go about their day. The fact that there is little to no security about where the next product may (or may not) come from leads in turn to anxiety.
Why are user-centered solutions better?
We advocate for a more inclusive, user-centered solution that gets products to where users are, rather than forcing them to visit a specific location. User-centered models are more inclusive of groups including:
- People with disabilities and/or limited access to transportation
- Remote workers
- Individuals living in rural areas
- Individuals whose periods do not happen at a ‘convenient’ time or place, which - let’s face it - is most of the time
How do reusable menstrual products contribute to solving period poverty?
Reusable menstrual products, including washable cloth pads, menstrual cups and discs and period underwear, in addition to overwhelming environmental superiority, offer additional critical benefits* when it comes to achieving universal product access.
- Reusable menstrual products are inherently user-centered, as once individuals have products of their own, they no longer need to go anywhere to access them. Reusable products break the cycle of constantly needing to hunt for the next product, only to have to repeat the same action a few hours later. Simply offering disposable products will never solve period poverty.
- Reusable products can be accessed in ways that are easier for users and also allow for better choice of preferred products. A key example of this is the provision of e-gift cards, rather than place-based distribution. Rather than having to go somewhere to access products, users are able to conveniently shop online and have the products of their choice delivered to them.
- Building on this aspect of choice, in place-based situations, users are forced to use whatever product is provided, typically the cheapest ones available. If a product is more or less absorbent than someone may need, or a size that is inconsistent with a user’s body shape - too bad. Don’t like tampons, but that’s all there is? Too bad. Having a broader product choice leads to a sense of empowered agency and feeling like one’s individual needs are valued.
- A user-centered access solution is also financially superior. In addition to the financial savings because they can be reused, reusables reduce the workload of facilities and other staff who would otherwise have to manage product distribution and ongoing replenishment.
- Reusable products help to alleviate anxiety about insecure product access: once users have a supply of products that fit their individual needs, unless they forget them, they’re all set. Bonus: this reduces demand for disposable products.
*We note that reusable period underwear and cloth pads are most easily adopted when users have access to laundry facilities. While individuals who are insecurely housed or otherwise unable to access laundry facilities may be able to use menstrual cups, we acknowledge that disposable products may be a more practical option. We wish to further acknowledge that this access issue disproportionately affects marginalized, equity-deserving groups including Indigeous populations, People of Colour, disabled persons, and people living on low incomes.
If making a personal change like ditching disposable pads and tampons for reusable period products can have a collective benefit, surely it’s in the interests of governments and employers to support it, particularly in an era of climate emergency.
We are thrilled to report that this is already starting to happen, particularly at post-secondary institutions across Canada and the US. The momentum of this shift is exactly the type of change that we need to not only solve period poverty, but moreover put cost-free sustainable solutions in the hands of everyone who needs them.
A truly sustainable solution also lies in thinking outside the place-based box and considering how best to support user lifestyles and needs first and building solutions from there. This will be critical to the success of the menstrual equity movement. The good news is that each and every one of us can be part of it!
How to get free reusable menstrual products where you live, work or study:
- Reach out to your local civic or municipal government and tell them that you want access to free sustainable period products
- Send the same message to your state or provincial, and federal representatives
- If you are a student, talk to your student government, PAC, school district or administrators
- If you’re an employee, talk to your union representative, Manager, Sustainability, HR, Team Wellness or Facilities leaders
Curious to learn more? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to book a brief informational call about how to get free reusable menstrual products where you live, work or study. Many thanks for your continued support of sustainable, values-driven businesses like Aisle!