Is 'Always' Trying to Cash-in on Period Poverty?
by Hilary Webb
We’ve heard a lot about period poverty over the last year. The fight to support people who are unable to afford sanitary products is being led by grass-roots organisations supplying refugees, food banks and schoolgirls with tampons, pads and menstrual cups. Now, one of the UK’s leading sanitary towel brands, Always, is running a campaign that wants to #EndPeriodPoverty. But activists in the field have accused the company of trying to cash-in on the back of a worthy cause.
Always is owned by Proctor & Gamble (P&G), whose net sales in 2017 were $65.1 billion; 28% of which came from the ‘baby, feminine and family care’ sector, including Always. It is also the highest rated sanitary towel brand by customers from Sainsbury’s, Superdrug and Amazon. The scale of trust in the brand, its popularity and the resources behind it makes its current campaign appear a little stingy. The campaign, which runs from International Women’s Day 2018 to the end of April 2018, sees one pad donated to UK schoolgirls for every pack of Always Ultra pads purchased.
Gabby Edlin, founder of Bloody Good Period, an organisation that provides refugee centres and food banks with sanitary products, spoke about why she isn’t exactly thrilled with the campaign. For Edlin, the campaign can’t be about raising awareness of period poverty because the awareness is already there: “It’s been in the news, front and centre pretty much, for over a year, it’s quite amazing they’re jumping on it this late,” she explains. “They’re not lending their voice. They [Always] are using period poverty as a marketing tool”. It’s true that the way the campaign is being promoted, and the fact that it is not a one-for-one donation, makes it feel more like a special offer than a great act of philanthropy.
Admittedly, Always have contributed to our knowledge and understanding of period poverty. At the launch of its campaign, it released the results of a poll which reveal that a fifth of parents have struggled to provide sanitary products for their daughters and that a third of teachers have noticed that girls who experience period poverty tend to perform below average in class. The brand was also praised for its award-winning 2014 #LikeAGirl campaign, which sought to fight the drop in confidence that girls experience during puberty. For campaigners like Edlin though, this latest campaign is “the most minimal thing they could do”. “I think they should be donating to schools, absolutely, but they should be doing it discreetly and without making it part of the reason people buy them,” continues Edlin. She stresses that throwing sanitary towels at schools across the country isn’t going to solve period poverty and that the brand should have consulted campaigners, like those at Bloody Good Period, to find out where to send resources in order to reach the people who really need them.
These concerns are echoed by other period poverty campaign groups, including The Cup Effect, an organisation that raises awareness and understanding about the personal and environmental benefits of menstrual cups. Its founder Mandu Reid says “together, we could have pooled our knowledge, experiences and resources to come up with a genuinely impactful plan of action. It doesn’t have to be “us” and “them” – Always should let activists like us help them”.
“Given the resources and influence they wield, the idea that one pad will be donated per pack bought, feels at best like a feeble and poorly thought out gimmick, and, at worst, like cynical virtue signalling” argues Reid. She points out that according to Always’ own survey, 373,778 schoolgirls are at risk of period poverty. At the time of writing Always has donated 1,422,562 pads; this works out at less than four pads per girl, each of whom is, let’s face it, likely to have more than one period that requires more than 3.8 pads in any school year alone! As Edlin puts it: “it’s barely a plaster on the problem”.
Another factor of the Always campaign is that they have worked with influencers to advertise it. Youtubers like Hannah Witton and Emma Blackery joined other celebrities like Alesha Dixon, Daisy Lowe and Stacey Solomon on Instagram, to promote both the campaign and another social media drive running alongside it. These celebrities posted their support in paid partnership with Always. For Edlin, the stars are not fighting period poverty; they’re “just taking part in Always adverts”. She implores them not to “exploit the misery of other people to make a buck”.
I gave Always a chance to tell their side of the story, but never received a response. For many, the on-going Always campaign will be met with the feedback that ‘every little helps’, but one can’t help but wonder if there is a better way to support the cause.
Here’s a thought: if you are charmed by the Always campaign and buy a couple of packs, donate them to a food bank. In doing so, you will immediately send 28 pads straight to people who need them - as well as a couple of pads to a random school, potentially in an affluent area with little need, via the Always drive.
The campaign is still running and will no doubt do some good, but all of this raises the question of how big companies can contribute to social causes in a meaningful way. As Edlin puts it: “you don’t expect any of the companies to care, but when they pretend to care I think that’s even worse”.
Hilary Webb is a freelance writer, focussing her writing on reproductive health and gender rights, literature, film, science and technology, especially FemTech, travel and a range of other interests. Read some of her other work at https://fictitiouslyhilary.wordpress.com/ or follow @Hilarysaysblaah or @fictitiouslyhilary
Title image by @missgloriadesign