Why you should care
For centuries, men primarily have designed, sourced, manufactured and distributed women’s sexual health products. Not anymore.
On a sunny August day, women holding banners emblazoned with “Simply Toxic” protested outside the Tarrytown, New York, headquarters of Prestige Brands, the manufacturer of the Summer’s Eve line of feminine cleansing washes. Their demand? That the firm disclose all ingredients that go into the manufacturing of its sexual-hygiene products.
Look closely at the boxes in the “family planning” aisle of American drugstores, and among boxes of condoms and lubricants, you’ll notice something: Nearly all have a host of chemical ingredients. Some contain nonoxynol-9, a spermicide that can inflame the vagina; some have glycerin, which can spur yeast infections; and others may contain acetate, an alcohol that can dry out skin. Women have held protests like the one in Tarrytown for at least a decade, but now they’re taking the next step into entrepreneurship to offer alternatives to these products and to battle a deep-seated bias in the industry manufacturing them.
For centuries, men have led the design, sourcing, manufacturing and distribution of products that women put on and in their bodies. That’s now changing. When Meika Hollender, founder of Sustain Natural, which makes tampons and condoms with organic ingredients, launched her firm in 2014, she had few female peers in similar leadership roles in the industry. Today, Hollender’s firm is one of at least 30 menstrual, sexual health and underwear companies across the country that are owned and led by women, and more than 20 of these have launched in the past five years.
It makes sense that a woman would trust a woman to make a product for them.
Cayla O’Connell Davis, founder, Knickey
These women-led firms aren’t just offering healthier products for women. They’re also looking to protect the environment and reaching out to customers with innovative marketing, disrupting the industry. Jordana Kier and Alex Friedman founded LOLA in 2015, starting with tampons made from 100 percent organic cotton. Kier and Friedman have also launched a monthly delivery service to eliminate the inconvenience of remembering to buy tampons month after month. In May 2018, they launched Sex by LOLA, a line of gynecologist-approved sexual health products that appeal specifically to women.
Women’s underwear company Knickey, founded by New York-based Cayla O’Connell Davis, will launch its first line later this year, also completely from organic cotton. “I’m sort of an organic cotton evangelist,” says Davis. But she isn’t stopping there. Knickey has a take-back program that allows it to recycle old underwear every time customers purchase new ones.
And Hollender is trying to make sure that both products and their marketing are catered to women — and those along the supply chain that feeds the industry. Sustain’s condoms use latex from a fair-trade-certified rubber plantation. Its condom box design, featuring a graphic of two people kissing, is meant to appeal more to women — who purchase 40 percent of all condoms — and set Sustain apart from the “busy, loud and frat-boy competition,” Hollender says.
“Women shouldn’t be embarrassed to buy condoms just because the industry has neglected them from the conversation,” says Hollender.
The 2016 election of President Donald Trump and his male appointments to the executive and judiciary branches of men with controversial track records on reproductive rights have helped galvanize the emergence of female-led companies making products for women. “Some women took Hillary’s loss personally, but it motivated them,” says Davis. “We’re saying, ‘I’m not being represented, so I’m going to represent myself.’” Hollender agrees. “When it comes to female sexuality, the 2016 election empowered us to take control of our reproductive rights,” she says. “People are ready to have this conversation.”
But the core of the problem they’re trying to address is deeper, and predates Trump’s victory. To understand the scale of the challenge these founders face, look at the giants who dominate women’s products. One of the most popular tampon brands in the world, Tampax, is owned by Procter & Gamble, run by David Taylor. Kotex, another major brand in feminine hygiene, is owned by Kimberly-Clark, which is run by Thomas J. Falk. The same goes for condoms — the popular brand Trojan is owned by Church & Dwight Company, whose CEO is Matthew Farrell. A 2014 analysis by New York-based nonprofit Catalyst, along with the Huffington Post, found that 17 of the 18 Fortune 500 firms that cater significantly to female customers had male-majority boards, meaning women didn’t even have equal, much less influential, representation on them.
That mismatch, however, also makes the industry ripe for change, says Kier. “Markets like sex, for example, historically dominated by male-centric brands, were prime for disruption,” she says. “It’s encouraging to see women voicing their needs and desires, and brands actively listening to them in return.”
For many of these women, that disruption started with the recognition that the products traditionally available in the market were often poisonous — and that most women customers didn’t realize that. For instance, when you heat and mold any latex product, a chemical reaction occurs, explains Hollender, creating a byproduct called nitrosamine, which can be carcinogenic. “People had no idea what they were putting inside themselves,” she says. Hollender’s father and Sustain co-founder Jeffrey started Vermont-based Seventh Generation — which sells cleaning and personal care products that don’t use synthetic components — in 1988, so she grew up keenly aware of the harmful chemicals in many products.
Others, like Kier and Friedman, grew suspicious as they realized that tampon brands aren’t required to disclose exactly what’s in their products. “It made us wonder what’s actually in our tampons,” says Kier. The answer, their research showed, includes plastics such as polyester, the use of which in tampons has been associated with Toxic Shock Syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal bacterial disease.
To many of these women founders, protecting the environment and the health of women are both important objectives. “It’s a little bit alarming how much the fashion industry pollutes,” says Davis, who has worked in the industry for a decade. And because most fashion brands have male CEOs, she suggests, it’s not surprising that their products don’t fully take into account what women customers want. Davis wants to change that with Knickey, by designing underwear that is sexy and comfortable, but durable enough to wear while exercising. Especially with underwear, she says, “it makes sense that a woman would trust a woman to make a product for them.”
Hollender remains skeptical about how quickly companies like hers will take off in the larger market. Funding for female founders is a problem, she says. Just 2 percent of venture capital went to female entrepreneurs in 2017, according to data from Pitch Book. “There is a lot of work we still need to do,” Hollender says. She believes policy changes could make a big difference, like getting the FDA to require tampon companies to disclose their ingredients. Once that happens, “there would be a shift away from certain ingredients,” Hollender says.
But others believe the industry is already entering a new era. Even behemoths like Kimberly-Clark are trying to diversify their leadership to include more women, recognizing the shifting winds. In 2009, for example, only 11 of the top 120 positions — or 9 percent — at the firm were held by women. By September 2018, the company had women occupying 22 percent of executive positions, according to Working Mother magazine, which listed the firm among the 100 best workplaces for women. And after protests outside its Cincinnati headquarters in 2015, Proctor & Gamble did begin to make public the ingredients it uses in women’s sexual hygiene products.
“It’s easier now for anyone to start a company, including women,” Davis says. And when it comes to women being in charge of the products that go in and on their own bodies, the industry has reached the tipping point, she adds: “It will just continue to grow.”