Forging sustainable futures one period at a time: a chat with Ruby Cup
Happy environmenstrual week, friends! That's right, you heard us; an entire week dedicated to spotlighting all things sustainable, feminist and menstruation-related! (woo!). This year's theme: exploding the shame and taboos that STILL continue to pervade all things period, despite the fact that menstrual blood is now allowed to be shown as red in TV ads (wow! revolutionary!).
I don't know about you, but i'm a massive over-sharer when it comes to my period. Painful cramps? Everyone in the office is hearing about it. Confusingly large blood clot? I'm texting my bestie about it before i've even left the cubicle. To me, my period is not only my problem, but also the problem of literally everyone around me. But, it's taken me a long time to get to this point; when I first started my period (traumatically in the middle of a school play eek), I was so ashamed that it took me a whole six months before I even told my mum about it. This led to some very awkward (and totally avoidable) situations, including one unfortunate experience involving a lost tampon, a handheld mirror and some very traumatised 13 year old girls (you can imagine the rest).
Although I laugh about my cringe-worthy tween time-of-the-month experiences nowadays, the reality that we are forced to grow up in a society that instills period shame in the minds of young women is no laughing matter; 48% of women in the UK are embarrassed about their periods.
Working to explode the harmful social stigma surrounding periods is intrinsically an environmental project, as well as a feminist one. Period shame, coupled with a lack of transparency and education, dictates which menstrual products women choose to buy, and influences the (often unsustainable) ways that we dispose of them. The misogynistic messaging drilled into our psyches since early girlhood, that our periods are smelly, unsanitary and dirty, leads us to opt for single-use menstrual products. These mainstream products are usually artificially scented with toxic chemicals in order to block out 'menstrual odour', and are wrapped in layer-upon-layer of single-use plastic for ease of disposal...because heaven forbid someone might actually know you're bleeding out of your vagina! ew! (sense the sarcasm). These same subconscious messages lead women to believe that their 'dirty' used menstrual products must be completely buried without a trace. This usually means: down the bog. In fact, it has been estimated that approximately 35-47% of the 4.3 billion menstrual products used in the UK annually, end up in the loo (that's 1.5-2 billion!). As we all know, plastic in our sewers inevitably ends up in our waterways, beaches and oceans. Eco-friendly reusable water bottles, straws and coffee cups are practically synonymous with the sustainable project, so why aren't reusable period products? I thought we all loved the turtles?
In order to celebrate Environmenstrual Week, we sat down with Amaia Arranz, CEO of the super-sustainable, zero-waste menstrual cup brand: Ruby Cup. Founded by three women, Ruby Cup seeks to dismantle menstrual taboos and provide a sustainable solution to period poverty worldwide. How do they do this? Through their innovative business model: 'buy one, give one'. This means, every time someone buys a menstrual cup, one is donated to women living in low-income countries such as Kenya, Malawi, Nepal and Uganda, where period poverty is a true crisis. To this day, Ruby Cup users have donated around 140,000 menstrual cups. Now that's something to shout about!
First of all, we absolutely love Ruby Cup! Could you let us know how it all came about?
I met the three founders who told me that the company first started when they became menstrual cup users themselves. They realised that it was a much cheaper and sustainable option than using tampons. The three of them were at university together, and they started thinking how to other women in low-income countries manage their periods. So, they approached a number of organisations and many came back saying that it's a huge issue. Girls and women cannot afford pads, and they cannot dispose of them safely in informal settlements. They often have to turn to unsafe options such as old newspapers, socks, paper, bark and so on. So, they realised that if women and girls were willing to use cups, it was a much more sustainable option than constantly having to find funding to distribute free pads and tampons. That's how it all started.
You don't get a lot of brands being able to say that every single thing that they sell, they also donate. How has the donation side been going? And where do you direct your charity work in this way?
Thank you for this question - I love this question! Ruby cup started in Kenya. The aim of the company was to create a situation where nobody was held back for a week every month because of their period. This was the drive of the company and everything else came after. So, basically, we have written a sustainability manifesto where we have collected the resources, ideas and conditions that have to be in place so that the distributions are sustainable. This entails education. Very often the woman receiving the cup doesn't have access to a computer, or a youtube channel to learn about the cup. Also, there are taboos about insertion products, so education on menstruation. So we provide education and try to dismantle harmful social stigmas. Really it's all about just giving information about what menstruation really is! It isn't dirty; it isn't something to be ashamed of.
Also, you have to have a minimum amount of water to use the cup safely. I must point out, however, that this comes up a lot: how do women use the cups in places with little water? Yeah ok. To use Ruby Cup safely you only have to be able to wash your hands, and boil a cup of water a month. Many of the people we work with are often using rags, which requires much more water, and soap and has to be dried outside which is more embarrassing for them, and more complicated.
We partner with organisations all over the world. Many of these are tiny grassroots organisations, which we love. But we partner with larger ones too. Due to these we have donated...well not us, the Ruby Cup users have donated 140,000 cups. And our uptake rate for these donated cups is 80%.
Wow! And where in the world are these efforts most focused?
Kenya and Uganda are huge for us. We were based in Kenya for so long so naturally it became very big for us. Malawi is also huge, and Nepal. But we also have projects in Europe, for example in the UK we work with the NGO 'ditch the rag'. This was founded by the most wonderful teacher, Amirah Miller, a science teacher who was shocked at how many girls in her school were asking their teachers for for pads because they could not afford them. She worked in a school where around 75% of the kids were on free meals. So, she started a program to provide young girls with a sustainable solution, since they only needed 1 reusable product to manage their period. But in terms of percentage, Kenya, Uganda, Nepal and Malawi are where we distribute the most.
As a sustainability platform, we at Wherefrom love your commitment to a sustainable manufacturing process. How do you ensure your company remains zero waste?
It is tricky. The cup is produced in China which is very far away and has all of this bad rap. So, to make sure that the process stays sustainable, we have a Danish quality assurance director based there. And, Julie, the founder, travels there and has seen the process with her very own eyes. Manufacturing the Ruby Cup is not a labour intensive process. It is made entirely by a machine with good, high quality medical-grade silicon. We are very happy with how it is made. We looked at moving the production to Europe so it was closer, but we found we couldn't maintain the same quality and we weren't willing to sacrifice on that.
Also, when we send Ruby Cups Kenya to be distributed, and this can be as many as 25,000 cups, the instructions and cotton bags for storage are manufactured locally. This means less travelling for the goods, fewer CO2 emissions and it also encourages employment in Kenya. We work with a female-led organisation in Kenya, who has produced all of the instructions and bags since 2015.
Everything we do tries to fit in with the company's sustainability ethos: we buy all of our computers second-hand, all our mobile phones are second hand, and we try to reduce too much travelling around.
So, in celebration with environmenstrual week, we're spotlighting feminism and sustainability. Do you think that these are interlocking projects?
Yes of course. I think that feminism and sustainability really complement each other, because when it comes to managing periods, there is so much shame and taboo. And it's so misogynistic, right? Blood is blue in the tampon adverts, and we don't talk about it.
On the one hand, all they want from women is for us to have babies, but when our bodies do what they're supposed to do for us to have babies, we're punished for that too!
When you are 12, you are given your pack of pads, and your pack of tampons, and there must be an applicator because god forbid you have to put your fingers in your vagina! And there is a special wrapper on everything that cannot be heard if it's opened in public, so nobody knows. This creates a lack of agency, because you're scared of looking at new products. So you say, I'm spending all this money, i'm creating all this waste, i'm being ashamed of my own body, when there's all these alternatives - like the cup, the reusable pads, the sponge.
We cannot keep on having a society where 50% of the participants are being punished for their bodies. That is unsustainable. I think feminism, in a way, means that we have to have a more sustainable society. This is in how we distribute work, how we use resources, how we live, and how cities are built.
In terms of menstruation, feminism and sustainability are super, super connected. Being punished with shame, being punished in our pocket, and having to dispose of single-use period products in a way that doesn't agree with our lives is not sustainable.
The theme of Environmenstrual Week is period shame. What do you wish more young women knew about menstrual products?
This is such a good question. I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves as women. Like, it's a lot to tell a 14 year old that she needs to save the world. But, like it or not, there is a correlation between having a product that is going to save you money, that can be with you all the time, means that you do not have to depend on anyone to buy it for you, you do not have to go to a specific place to get it or dispose of it, and having a huge sense of independence. Basically, the menstrual products that are sustainable and reusable, by default, give the person with periods agency. I'd really like young people who are menstruating to have the information and the resources in place to access sustainable products and not just get what has always been there.
How do you see Ruby Cup growing in the next 10 years?
We really want to launch more products. We don't know which yet, but once again I think that there's this organic link between gender equality and sustainability. There are so many ways of making these two flow better between each other. I'm very interested in that, on what else is out there, be it menstruation, health or self care, there is a lot of important work to be done.
And when it comes to the social impact of the company, I think 'buy one give one' is always going to be our forever love. I lived in Kenya for 7 years so this project is always going to be so close to my heart. I've seen first hand the difference it can make to the life of a 13 year old girl to know that she isn't alone, that she isn't stinky, she isn't dirty, and that she has a product that she can always use. I think it's so powerful.
In the event of Environmenstrual Week 2022, Ruby Cup is offering 15% off on their menstrual cups and sterilizers - the discount runs from today, October 17th to Thursday, October 20th