Environmental blogger Deanna Duke, while channel-surfing five weeks ago, happened upon a commercial for Always pads. It showed a sad-looking African girl who couldn’t go to school during her period because she didn’t have “feminine protection”. Thanks to a new $1.4-million campaign by Procter & Gamble, the ad explained, her village was receiving disposable pads so she and other girls could go to school.
“There was something that didn’t sit right with me,” Duke told the Straight in a phone interview from Seattle on March 11. “It struck me, what was the environmental impact of doing this? What do they do with all these things?”¦And what happens in five years [after the girls graduate]?”
Sustainability in pads and tampons is a question Duke struggles with locally. Last year, she ran a “Diva Cup Challenge” on her blog, encouraging her North American readers—and herself—to switch from disposable tampons to an environmental alternative. In parts of Africa, she’s found since seeing the ad, the problem is compounded. Open landfills create health hazards, and plastics incineration leads to toxic air. Plus, she pointed out, P & G benefits from the campaign because it makes the company look benevolent to North American consumers while it’s developing markets for disposables in Africa.
Duke asked her readers if anyone would be interested in sewing reusable pads to send to African girls as an alternative to P & G’s campaign. That’s how her new charity, goods4girls.org, came about. It’s working with Vancouver-based Lunapads, a five-woman collective that makes reusable pads and has been donating kits to African girls for more than five years.
“I’m hoping people will know the real deal when they see it,” Lunapads cofounder Madeline Shaw told the Straight. “I think we should give P & G their due. They’ve brought the issue to a mainstream consciousness.”¦But it’s not a sustainable solution.”
On the phone from P & G headquarters in Cincinnati, Protecting Futures program director Michelle Vaeth said it is sustainable; in fact, she said, it’s necessary in places where there isn’t adequate water for washing reusable pads. She also noted that P & G is lobbying African governments to drop the “luxury” taxes on pads and tampons so they’ll be more affordable. She added that the pads are part of a larger campaign, which includes building washrooms and incineration facilities at schools, and setting up dormitories.
P & G’s Protecting Futures is one of several Africa-focused corporate “philanthropy” campaigns that have cropped up over the past few years. Product Red, which donates a portion of profits from the sale of branded products to the purchase of antiretroviral drugs for Africans, includes the Gap, Converse, Dell, Motorola, Hallmark, and others. Last month, the Swedish clothing retailer H&M launched Fashion Against AIDS in its 1,300 stores. The idea is that North American consumer choices will lead to improved conditions in the developing world. A common criticism is that relatively little money is donated while the companies reap a cornucopia of profits and good publicity.
With $76 billion in global sales, P & G’s 2007 net earnings were $10.3 billion, according to its financial statements listed on PG.com. That’s double what it made in 2003. Given that P & G makes Pampers, Iams, Duracell, Pantene, Febreeze, and other common household brands, the mega-revenues are not surprising.
But developing countries have other alternatives to P & G aid. The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee set up a sanitary napkin production centre staffed by adolescent girls, according to Menstrual Hygiene and Management in Developing Countries: Taking Stock, a 2004 report by Mumbai-based social-development consultants Sowmyaa Bharaswaj and Archana Patkar. The authors, who found many similar projects in the developing world, hope the report leads to sanitation practices that respond to women’s needs, in environmentally-sustainable ways.