words by Sandra Shih Tonkinson photographs byMadeleine Shaw & Lunapads
Madeleine Shaw is a social entrepreneur, environmentalist, mother, wife, feminist, and creative force. Her life, her work, her message and all that she does are aligned. She believes in empowering women to be well and to embrace their femininity in all aspects.
In 1993 she started designing and producing eco-friendly and women-friendly feminine hygiene products – Lunapads and Lunapanties. These are reusable and non-disposable products that are healthy choices for both the environment and women alike.
Instead of adding to the 20 billion pads, tampons, and applicators that end up in North American landfills each year alone, about 12 million are being diverted thanks to Lunapads customers.
Yes, the average woman is estimated to toss out about 125 to 150kg or about 16,800 disposable pads or tampons in their lifetime.
Madeleine teamed up with her business partner Suzanne Siemens in 2000, and since then Lunapads has grown in leaps and bounds. The value in using these products goes beyond environmental concerns, to include women’s wellness and self-esteem in how they perceive their periods, fertility cycles, and bodies overall.
The truth is that the whole culture around feminine hygiene products needs to be changed.
Even today, it is uncomfortable for most people to even broach the topic. Commercials use blue liquid to demonstrate the efficacy of this or that brand. The word menstruation or moon time is mostly replaced by the less confrontational one of period. Which puts the period and a stop to further conversation.
Or we lovingly and euphemistically call that time Aunt Flo.
Why is her message important?
It underlies the whole dynamics of womanhood and the obfuscation of power that women have unconsciously participated in for generations.
We hide our tampons in pretty little pouches. In some cultures, women literally hide themselves and are forbidden to enter holy and sacred places.
Today, the lack of feminine hygiene products remains a stumbling block to education in third world countries that can literally change a girl’s life. When we provide education to girls and support the women and mothers, we know the entire community is uplifted.
What Madeleine and Suzanne are offering is so intertwined with who we are on many levels. With what we do. With how we treat the planet. With how attuned we are as women to our own bodies.
Why did you start your company Lunapads?
I was experiencing regular allergic reactions to the tampons I was using. When I looked into what might be causing them, I realized that the tampons were full of chemicals and plastics that I was reacting to and didn’t want inside of me.
I now realize that there are a lot of women having similar issues; however they don’t realize that they are having allergic reactions to feminine hygiene products. They think that maybe they have a Candida condition or aren’t wearing the right kind of panties or need a different soap.
Tampons in particular disrupt vaginal moisture, lubrication and the natural pH balance. As a result, they can cause problems and create discomfort.
But starting a whole company?
Switching to cloth pads from tampons had a major impact for me, and showed me that my period was actually far more interesting and less painful than I had been conditioned to believe it was.
Through connecting with – instead of ignoring – my cycle, I came to feel a new sense of connection with Nature’s larger cyclical forces, which in turn made me feel empowered and even beautiful. It was a total shift in perception that literally changed my life.
I didn’t want this new feeling just for myself. I wanted this for every woman. I wanted them to feel great about themselves and not feel ashamed or lousy about this key bodily function.
Particularly as women, we are constantly being told what is wrong with us. We are too this or not enough that. So I wanted to be part of that healing – to heal our relationship with ourselves through changing perceptions and practices around our menstrual cycles.
When I started the business, I was en route to becoming a fashion designer. I had always had a rebellious, non-conforming spirit spirit. I never thought I would fit into the traditional working world, so being an entrepreneur just made sense to me.
How is the whole idea of using disposable feminine hygiene products related to how we are as women?
Generally, the mainstream culture around [feminine hygiene products] is totally disposable. The mindset is largely unconscious. We hide them and throw them away and treat them like garbage.
So on some level, that’s the message we are sending ourselves.
I feel like when we get into sustainable feminine hygiene products, we are being invited to come closer to ourselves, which allows us to transcend this idea that it is gross and we shouldn’t touch it.
To develop a much more complex and appreciative understanding of our fertility cycles which are just amazing. Let alone what they do.
We don’t think it’s the products or the attitudes. But we are not encouraged to be gentle with ourselves. And not celebrate it.
I think we really need to look at things in a very different way and generally speaking, just be more accepting and loving towards ourselves and towards our planet. And stop trying to always fix and control and judge what our bodies are doing. We need to love them more.
Look what it leads to – eating disorders and addictions…I think we need to find the things to support our wellness and help us to love ourselves more. That’s a core practice.
How did you come about the designs?
Lunapads and Lunapanties originally came out the same time. I recognized that not everyone is going to use the pads. I was a tampon user myself.
I tried a few different ones. I tried a few materials.
The designs are still evolving. As we speak, Lunapads are being updated. We are working hard to innovate, in particular with the underwear line, and of course fabric technology has changed and improved so much since the early 90’s.
How has the market changed?
What’s interesting to me is that in the last 20 years, since I started developing them, especially the last five, there are so many new products on the market.
When you go online now, it’s very easy to find natural feminine hygiene products – which were basically created by Lunapads and others who had the idea, educated consumers, and created the demand. It’s great to see that it’s gained more acceptance.
What is it about reusable pads that makes it such a hard sell for some women?
Women have very strong preferences and often still use what our Moms told us to use when we started. It’s a very hard consumer choice to change.
If I didn’t have problems with them, I don’t know if I would have woken up or not. It’s hard to say.
The thing you are really competing with is people’s attitude that touching your menses is gross. There is a fear of touching your period. It can be challenging for some people.
Think about where this is all taking place: it’s also where our power is located and where our sexuality is located. It’s so important and yet there is so much shame around it.
To me, it is completely exciting and exhilarating if you can get past that shame and fear. When you come out of the other side, the feeling is liberation.
When you realize the fear wasn’t actually real and that it was something you had been conditioned to believe, it’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.
It just frees us up energetically on so many levels. It extends well beyond our periods.
So how easy is it to wash them?
For light flow needs, you can throw the Lunapads into the washing machine. I throw mine in with the sheets and towels.
If the pads are more saturated, it’s good if you can rinse them in cold water before laundering them by hand or machine with like colors. Air or machine dry, no bleach or special cleansers needed.
But it is often a progression. A client would say “when I first heard about it, I wasn’t sure if I could do it” but then they would keep thinking about it. Next time they go to the drugstore, they are now doing this consciously – they are looking at the shelves and buying this big plastic bag. They didn’t know they had a choice before and now they do.
And so it’s really important – that shift. Bit by bit. Once they switch, they don’t go back.
What’s your advice for someone interested in trying?
Consider what you are using now. Panty liners? Overnights?
Lunapads are comparable. We have panty liners. We have mini pads too. We have long ones. Just replace them. If you are using tampons, replace them with a DivaCup.
Pick a few products and try them. You’ll never look back. You’ll find your way- maybe you need a longer one or a shorter one or a thicker one. Start somewhere and try.
And you can build up your collection from there. You don’t need that many, and they last for years. We have suggested products on the website.
You have a charity program called Pads4Girls – what’s it about?
We started Pads4Girls in 2000 when we heard from a Zimbabwean woman that girls in that country often lacked access to feminine hygiene products and as a result were staying home for several days from school each month, leading to earlier dropout.
Educating girls in the developing world is one of the most positive and impactful things that can change the world – not just for the girls, but for their families and communities. It has a direct impact on maternal health and economic development.
When we learned that our products could make a difference by providing them with a sustainable solution, we started donating as many pads as we could spare.
Over the years it has diversified. Today we work with dozens of groups in about 17 countries in the developing world. Sometimes we just send out patterns to groups so they can make them themselves. We come up with different creative solutions.
Lunapads is owned and operated by women. What is it like working in this socially-conscious environment?
We are definitely a team. It’s a casual place to work. For someone to want to work here, they already have values that align with ours – we didn’t need to teach them about social change value. Everyone who works here has got some kind of political stance. A force of social good in the world. It’s left-leaning and open.
Is being socially-conscious and politicized a bonus or not?
I think it’s a fine line in business as in life. You want to please people and for them to like you. You also need to be who you are and take a stand for something.
The people who love us, REALLY love us: you can see that in the testimonials and what’s going on on our website.
We are saying no to certain things. No to disposable habits. It’s not something we believe in.
We are saying no to a culture that teaches women to hate their bodies. That’s a very politicized thing to say.
I am inviting people to make changes that can be kind of scary. It goes against their social conditioning – what they’ve believed in since they were very little. They believe they should hate their period and they should just throw it away. They believe that’s fine and they perceive that as normal.
I’m saying, for starters, that’s not normal. Inherently and basically I’m saying you guys are wrong. That’s how people read it. It’s hard to say I’m offering you something different without implying that I think what you are doing now isn’t in your best interests, which can put some people off.
So that’s the real question of how you frame it from a marketing perspective. Some people just want us to stick to the pads and stop trying to change the whole world.
What is AFRIpads, and how is it related to Lunapads?
AFRIpads is a Uganda-based business that manufactures and markets cloth washable menstrual pads modeled on Lunapads.
In 2008 we received an email from a couple of development aid workers in Uganda telling us that they had come across our pads and asking whether it would be ok to copy them and start their own business. We said Yes, and today they employ 65 people, have supplied over 120,000 girls with their products, and are even building their own factory – it’s amazing!
With respective to Africa, we were already giving away thousands of Lunapads, sending them over to Africa from Canada. So we thought, wouldn’t it be better if they made them themselves? They can make more of them and reach more girls! Let’s do that.
Our One4Her program works directly with AFRIpads. It’s like the TOMS shoes buy-one-give-one model where if you buy a pair of shoes, a child in need receives a pair.
In our case, if you buy a Lunapad, we take some money from the proceeds of that sale and buy an Afripad from Afripads and bundle them into kits and those are given to girls in need.
Was it easier for the girls in Africa to switch over to reusable products?
Yeah, I think it was. When you are going from nothing to having something, that’s huge.
There is no Costco. There are no big drugstores. It’s just not part of their reality. They just don’t have all this stuff like we do so we can just throw it all away. Gosh, it’s incredible.
I think the overriding thing for them is that the pads aren’t just like for a North American girl who’s just dealing with her period. For them, it’s giving them the means to have a different future and that’s a very different perspective.
There is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutrition and promote health, including the prevention of HIV/Aids.Koffi Annan, Former UN Secretary General
Millions of girls in the developing world can miss up to 20% of their education because they have no access to feminine hygiene products and have to stay home. Dropping out then becomes more likely.
Help change this story.
For every eligible Lunapads product you purchase, Lunapads will provide a girl in need with a Uganda-made AFRIpad to support her education. One for you. One for her. Find out more here.