Meet the plastic-free period brand that has been campaigning for healthier periods for 30 years
Natracare, the organic and natural, plastic free vegan-friendly period product brand has been pushing for better periods for women and the world for three decades.
We find out what’s changed and why campaigning is even more important in 2019.
Thu 8 Aug 2019
I recently caught up with Susie Hewson, the founder of Natracare, who has been tirelessly striving for plastic free periods and an end to period poverty since 1989.
This year, her organic and natural, plastic free feminine hygiene company celebrates 30 years in the game. The award-winning organic cotton tampon and sanitary pad company is also one that isn’t shy about campaigning for issues that matter.
While there have been multiple successes, there are still many battles to be won. Susie and I looked back at her campaigning, her career and discussed the future of plastic-free and natural toiletries.
Susie, you started Natracare in 1989 - what did you do before this?
“Before Natracare I did a variety of different things. I’ve always been an environmentalist, but I’ve worked as a fitness instructor and I’m also a graphic designer. It was when I was at college in Sweden that I became concerned about the period protection industry. I used to cycle past the river Mölndalsån, which would turn different colours and I realised it was due to the pollution from a nearby factory that was processing pulp to create feminine hygiene products. I also saw a documentary that highlighted how much dioxin, a toxin produced from chlorine bleaching, affects our water and the marine life. It changed their structures, gave them cancer and caused hormone changes, and this is what was coming out of the pulping mills supplying period product companies,” she explains.
Having been a campaigner for Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace and realising that nothing was being done in various countries, from Canada to Sweden, to protect waterways and women’s bodies against chemical pollution, Susie decided to set up her own period product brand.
“I had no experience in manufacturing, but I realised if anything was going to make a change it was putting a product on the shelf that would challenge what was happening. Campaigning alone wasn’t working,” she adds.
“I applied to all of my local banks for a bank loan, but no one even opened my business plan. However, the manager of the bank I’d been with since I was a teenager took a chance on me.”
It wasn’t easy launching an independent feminine hygiene brand back in the 1990s, without the internet or social media. But bit by bit Susie and her team have kept on pushing the organic, plastic and chlorine-free message to a growing audience of women who care.
“We went into Waitrose in 1991 which was fantastic, but at the time, Boots said we’d highlight the fact that their brands are not natural or plastic free!” explains Susie.
“We are a campaigning brand, because I believe women should be empowered with the knowledge of what’s in their products.”
So, what is in mainstream, non-organic period products?
There are two things to consider here.
Firstly, how period products are made and secondly what’s in them.
As part of the manufacturing process, mainstream period products (i.e. pads, panty liners and tampons, and the same goes for wipes and toilet paper too) the wood pulp used is often bleached with a type of chlorine. Chlorine bleaching creates a by-product called dioxin which has extremely harmful effects in the environment and is a known carcinogen. A more natural bleaching process is Hydrogen peroxide, which is a safer process for the environment.
Moving to the materials, conventional tampons tend to be made from non-organic cotton or a blend of non-organic cotton and rayon.
What’s the issue?
Cotton is one of the most heavily pesticide sprayed crops in the world.
As for rayon, it’s manufactured from wood pulp. The short, straight structure of rayon fibres lend themselves to easily shedding from the tampon and can be left behind after taking out a tampon. Dioxin residuals, pesticides and fibre loss in your most intimate area? Erm, no thank you.
Sadly, the case for pads and panty liners isn’t much better. Also bleached with a type of chlorine, these products are, it’s estimated, made from up to 90% plastic materials.
Plastic not only causes the skin to sweat but means a pad will remain unchanged in landfill forever. Pads and liners are also increasingly scented with synthetic fragrances which can cause intimate irritation.
"A single woman will go through 150 kgs of tampons, pads and applicators in her lifetime, 90% of which has tended to be plastic. Each one of these takes hundreds of years to break down"
The question surely is, not why Susie has made making people aware of this her life’s mission and offering women a chemical free, plastic free choice - but why aren’t we all campaigning?
It might be 2019 not 1989, but Susie’s campaigning hasn’t stopped.
Only back in July, Natracare joined forces with other plastic free period product brands, plastic free period campaigner Ella Daish and not-for-profit City to Sea to insist that the free period products now being offered to schools should include plastic free options.
What does Natracare do differently?
Natracare Tampons are made from only 100% certified organic cotton and nothing else, so no pesticides.
Natracare Pads and Panty Liners are also made from certified organic cotton as well as other necessary ingredients including FSC and PEFC certified sustainable wood pulp for the effective, absorbent core and a biodegradable GM-free plant starch, for the secure, leak proof backing layer.
By using a natural bleaching process Natracare does not contribute to dioxin pollution and ensures that all of its products are Totally Chlorine Free.
All of its products are also free from, perfumes, dyes and plastics. All of the cotton used is 100% certified organic by GOTS and the full range is certified vegan by the Vegetarian Society.
Why are plastic period products a problem?
If you have never thought about how a period impacts the planet, consider this.
The Marine Conservation Society reckons that on average per 100 meters of beach in the UK there are 4.8 pieces of period plastic, including pads and their backing strips, panty liners, tampon applicators and tampon plastic overwraps.
A single woman will go through 150 kgs of tampons, pads and applicators in her lifetime, 90% of which has tended to be plastic. Each one of these takes hundreds of years to break down.
Period plastic is a huge pollutant, aside from the toxic chemicals used to make the mainstream brands found in most chemists and convenience stores.
Price vs value
Over our talk, there’s one issue Susie and I keep circling back to. The price vs value debate, which are two sides of the same coin but not the same thing.
Over the last few decades, the price of many of our goods, from trousers to tampons, have been dampened to the point where their cheapness doesn’t represent the true cost of their manufacture - it hides the damage they do to the planet and also often, to us. We have stopped purchasing based on something’s intrinsic value to become driven by price only.
“If something is a bargain, it has become ingrained in our psyche as a good thing,” she says. “We don’t think about anything in the moment when we get a bargain, but someone somewhere is paying the price.”
“Often it’s in the production or extraction of the raw materials where that cost really bites. Raw materials made from synthetics cost less to produce but they have a high cost to the earth and our health as they often have unintended, polluting consequences.”
"We don’t think about anything in the moment when we get a bargain, but someone somewhere is paying the price"
“People have always assumed that someone, somewhere is taking care of the sourcing of raw materials to make sure they’re not harmful. But period products in UK and the rest of Europe aren’t classed as medical devices, and due to industry lobbyists, regulation isn’t happening anytime soon, there is no one looking after women’s interests other than women’s pressure groups," Susie adds.
"We assume there is an authority somewhere that regulates these products to ensure they are safe to use, but there’s nothing like that - you can put anything in period products pretty much.
It doesn’t mean that all products in feminine hygiene are harmful but when cheap and unsustainable materials are used, they impact our planet and our health. But people don’t stop to think because the products are cheap.”
Just to make that absolutely clear, there is currently no regulation at all for what materials menstrual products can be made out of.
So, where does that leave us?
It means now, more than ever, more of us women, who can afford it, need to switch to plastic-free, organic and natural period products. The price vs value debate has never felt so pertinent.
Adopting plastic free periods
In the last couple of years, the huge corporations behind some of the most well-known tampons and sanitary pads have woken up to the fact more women want to know more about what’s in their products and are opting for previously fringe options like menstrual cups, reusable pads and plastic free, organic tampons.
It’s a change that’s both great, and frustrating, for Susie.
“For 30 years nobody wanted to be in this category. A lot of the larger brands are quiet brands, they don’t want to talk about issues like dioxins and plastics. They hope these issues will be forgotten about, but they’re still there. But Natracare has always worked hard to get the message out and now we’re sold in more than 80 countries across the world” explains Susie.
“Natracare is built on making decisions and using materials that are based on wide reaching environmental policy because that’s who I am.
Everyone here is committed to presenting the best possible and sustainable eco-friendly brand - this is what products should be and we’re here to face off the mistruths that are being propagated.”
As well as being a strong campaigner personally and through Natracare, Susie also subscribes to my favourite topic, that sustainable businesses, should and can be a force for good in the world by reinvesting profits into philanthropy.
Like many of the issues, we talk about in this chat, Susie has been getting on with things and pioneering the business models that have recently been championed as groundbreaking, for years. Years before there were terms like social enterprise and communities like BCorp, there was Natracare.
“There’s no point making money unless you’re doing something good with it,” she says. “For the first 10 years I didn’t have a wage and it took a long time to make any kind of profit. When you do become profitable, I feel it’s the right thing to do, and this is the kind of people we are, I want to give back.
Natracare recently signed up to 1% for the Planet, the global initiative where brands invest 1% of revenue into certified environmentally charitable causes.
For Susie this was an opportunity to be more transparent about the brand’s philanthropy, but it doesn’t represent every female empowerment project they undertake. For instance, they buy animals work with African Initiatives on a project with for Masai women pastoral farmers because they’re locked out from owning land, but with support and training they can earn a wage to put their kids through school.
Through 1% for the Planet, Natracare supports the Marine Conservation Society, Women Engage in Europe for a Common Future, 5 Gyres and Turning Green.
It’s hard to find another brand who has been around for three decades and achieved so much, especially, when sadly, there are still so many debates around women’s empowerment, gender equality, plastic pollution and period poverty and so much change is still needed. I ask Susie how she stays so positive and vocal about pushing for positive change.
“The big picture is overwhelming, but you have to focus on what you can change now. You start with something small, do the bits you do, attack that bit and then widen your horizon. Just get started rather than get depressed. It’s like trying to tackle tidying the house - you start by picking something up and going from there,” she says wisely.
"Natracare is built on making decisions and using materials that are based on wide reaching environmental policy because that’s who I am"
Where do we go from here?
In the last 30 years we’ve had the thawing of the Cold War, gay marriage equality, the internet, the rise and fall of Labour, austerity, globalisation, growing inequality and a total evolution in how we communicate, share, tell stories and see the world.
What has been Susie’s biggest achievement as she’s steered Natracare through all of that?
“I think my biggest achievement is being seen globally as the campaigning brand, we’ve never compromised what we do, and we’ve perhaps forfeited opportunities to do that. We are still doing what we do and we’re still here the way we were 30 years ago.
We’re still fighting to change the way period products are manufactured. The big corporations are now starting to take notice, which shows that we’ve been right all-along and this is where change needs to happen. It would be great if they were doing things in the right way but typically, they’re cutting corners. Remember if a company is organic, they can only do things 100% correct, there is no 95% certified organic.
Our achievement is ultimately showing how profitable, and important, the organic and natural period product category is but we probably need another 30 years campaigning.”