Through the lens of Environmental Geopolitics, we will analyze the claim made by Menstrual Product companies that some of their products are “organic, fair trade, and charitable.” Through this discussion, we can dive deeper into how this massive monster of a market came to be and how it is able to flourish today.
Hello and welcome! My name is Jessica Saunders. My pronouns are she/her, and I’m a junior at the University of Kansas, majoring in Environmental Studies with a minor in Political Science. And today, we will be discussing the claims made by menstrual product companies and their parent corporations that some of their products are “organic, fair trade in charitable,” or give back to those in need. And just a quick disclaimer: from here on out, I will be referring to these products as menstrual products or MP’s, as opposed to feminine hygiene products, as I personally acknowledge that some users of these products do not identify as female. Also, because we’ll be discussing such a massive market that encompasses many deeply intertwined and interdependent issues, I must preface and admit that I simply won’t be able to fully elaborate on the complexities of this concept in under 15 minutes.
We’ll be analyzing the claim of “good for you and the environment menstrual products” through the lens of Environmental Geopolitics, which is a way of questioning mainstream understandings of human and environmental relationships by asking: what environmental features are claimed to be at risk or are being secured? By whom and why? How is the environment defined and specified? What’s the role of human agency or view of the world in this claim? And what’s the spatial focus? And by analyzing this claim through this lens we’re able to dive deeper into the background, inner workings and issues involved in why this claim is being made and can gain a broader perspective into the Massive Market of Menstrual Products that a good portion of the population has little to no choice but to participate in and rely on.
So, when we talk about environmental risk and security, we’re addressing that these claims are being made for a reason by someone because something about the environment is claimed to be at risk, and therefore is in need of protection or securitization. And this can be problematic in that the need for security of some sort can be used as justification for harmful practices, which we’ll get into here shortly. Furthermore, how the environment is being defined and viewed in this claim also comes into play here.
The claim of “good,” and I say that in quotations, menstrual products is made by specific companies about specific products like O.B., Tampax, Kotex, but also by larger corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, P&G, Walmart, CVS, and so on. These are all products and companies that most of us are familiar with and may even use. And ironically, I may add, some of these companies are primarily run by men. In this case, when the claim of “good for you and the environment” products is made, it comes from the companies acknowledging that the environment is fragile and in need of protection- which indeed it is – but maybe not in the way they would want us to think. We do see the effects of these environmental issues on the surface: like how menstrual products contribute a significant amount of waste to the environment- being single use disposable products. Or that a portion of MPs are produced with toxic chemicals that are often harmful for the consumer- like bleach. Or the harm of sourcing cotton, and the pollution from production of these products. But what about what’s going on behind the scenes? We can argue that because this market and those like our great means for profit, it can inspire and offer opportunities for malpractices. Malpractices that can be easily justified through the right context. In this case, we’re talking about Greenwashing. This claim of “better products” makes companies look like they’re doing the “good” thing, allowing them to hide behind this goodness and continue even more harmful practices away from our focus. So, when we adopt this particular idea of the environments fragility, it allows those in power of this market to encourage “us”- the average consumer – to be better consumers and do our part in doing better for ourselves and the environment. The problem with this is: it’s not a wrong idea per se, but it shifts the responsibility to the consumers as opposed to the producers, allowing those in power to perpetuate their harmful practices and to separate themselves from the effects of their actions.
All this and more considered we can ask: if these companies care so much about us and the environment, why do they feel the need to claim their goodness? And what could they gain in making this claim? Is it just another monopoly in holding power and gaining profit? Instead of encouraging us to be better consumers, by giving us a false sense of hope and guilt, we should be focusing on those in power being more ethical and sustainable in their work. The multitude of visible and invisible harmful practices in this market are often overlooked because the companies we discussed sometimes root there justification in historical context, cultural stigmas and religious practices that are not in favor of those who menstruate. Making a source of countless intertwined issues, both socially and environmentally.
this brings us to our concept of human agency. To understand this Massive Monster of a Market, we need to discuss how it was born and how it’s able to live on and flourish today. When we look behind the veil of this market, we can argue that it was built on and is fed by the control and oppression of women and MP users. But how is this allowed to happen? To answer this, we need to track back to the beginning of negative stigmas surrounding menstruation and the oppression of those who menstruate, primarily women in this case. As I mentioned, many of these stigmas are justified by religious and historical practices. Another quick disclaimer: before we begin this discussion, I have to emphasize that I’m purely using examples I found through my research and some of my personal experiences that pertain to this particular argument of social stigmas and oppression. And this argument does not speak for all religions, cultures, and practices involved. We are merely discussing this issue from this perspective for argument sake. There are many other cultures in the world that worship and honor women in the beauty of menstruation, like Buddhism, Sikhism, and some other indigenous cultures.
Some negative stigmas and practices surrounding menstruation can be sourced from religious texts, including the Christian Bible. The story here begins with the first sin of Eve in the Garden of Eden. When Eve committed the first sin of the Bible, the punishment was painful childbirth, and the curse of mensuration. This can be found in the first book of Genesis. The practices influenced by this continue throughout the Old Testament, where women had to be sent away into the wilderness during their curse. The furniture and clothes they used had to be burned, and they had to repent for their sins in order to be exonerated for their wickedness. The effects of beliefs like this can be seen all throughout history, all over the world and continue today, where mensuration is viewed as taboo, making women lesser and justifying practices like female mutilation of some young women in parts of Africa, or the harmful birthing practices that began in the European monarchy with King Henry VIII, or the implications of the Pink Tax in Western politics. These examples show us that because of some beliefs, societal norms were born, encouraging the control and oppression of women and those who menstruate. These stigmas are so deeply rooted in intertwined in society that it gives the MP Market opportunity to flourish in a toxic way through politics, marketing, and so on. This unfortunately supports the argument that the market was built from and lives on through the grip it holds on those who menstruate.
All these things and more considered, we must remind ourselves where the claim of “good for you and the environment products” is focused, and what it can cause us to forget. The marketing of these products is primarily geared towards cis-gendered women in developed countries of decent income- or that have means to purchase these products. While “we”, the average consumer, is focused on doing our part for the environment by buying these better products, we can forget those who are left out of the conversation. Like those who may not identify as female and lack access to these products even more so than we might. Or those who do not have means to access these better products at all, like those of low income, or even worse, those in other parts of the country and the world through these products may not even reach. We can even surmise that there could be women in other parts of the world who work in the production of these products yet still cannot access them. All these points are harmful for many reasons, but the one that I’ll highlight is that while “we” may pride ourselves on doing our part, it can make us think that those elsewhere are not doing their part and this can create division between all of us menstruate, which is kind of exactly what the market wants.
When we focus on doing our part for the environment it can distract us from the true source of negative environmental impacts. While doing our part is undoubtably important, we can argue that it’s not fully our responsibility. We must remind ourselves who is making these decisions that create an endless loop of environmental damage. While we buy these organic products, the production and sourcing of the products can be even more harmful. We have to think about cotton farming and the output of factories that produce these products and what corporations are or are not doing to offset the pollution from these disposable products. Another point we can discuss is that by encouraging us to buy these good products, we can forget to ask: how good are these products really? These labels of “organic, fair trade and charitable” can be misleading or entirely false. Johnson & Johnson has been criticized countless times for their use of misleading patents as I found in a very insightful article titled “Patents as Vehicles for Social and Moral Concerns.” Because of this and the hopefully common knowledge that these large corporations aren’t saints, we can conclude that these labels can be just that- labels. This leads us to another factor that we often forget because of large companies claiming their “goodness”, which is companies that are truly ethical and sustainable in their work. Like small women and LGBT+ run businesses that do deserve the title of “organic, fair trade and charitable” products. These are businesses that see all the flaws in the MP Market and are working against it. Businesses that counter the powerful patriarchal norms and truly care about the work that they’re doing and their customers. One business that I found is called Freedom4Girls, with the number four, founded by Tina Lesly, who works with women in Kenya against what they call “period poverty.” These are businesses that the media doesn’t care to give attention to because seeing their good can highlight the bad in the MP market.
Wow, that was a lot. As I said in the beginning, there’s no way I would be able to touch on everything involved in this massive market and I could throw data and technicalities at you all day, but hopefully this critical analysis of “good for you and the environment” products helped you out there gain a little perspective on how toxic this market can really be. When we see claims like this we must remember to ask ourselves: why is this claim being made? And who could possibly gain or lose from it? What could this claim be distracting us from both socially and environmentally? Environmental Geopolitics helps us analyze these claims from many viewpoints, and in turn can help us make more informed decisions. Like on what products we should buy, what companies to support, and who or what does need our attention. Thank you so much for coming on this journey with me today, and remember: question everything, broaden your perspective and destroy the patriarchy, not the planet.
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