Future Perfect How Sanitary Napkins Can Help Protect the Environment

Ladies from Buzhidao in the cotton fields
Ladies from Buzhidao in the cotton fields | © Buzhidao

Even a little sanitary napkin can protect the land, the water, and the environment. Nature lover Xie Keman and her partners are spreading the word: protecting the environment begins now. We should take all possible actions, and every business should take responsibility for environmental protection.

Xie Keman (谢可曼) and Mai Yatang (麦芽糖) were still college students back in late 2013 when it occurred to them that using disposable sanitary napkins was not environmentally responsible. What’s more, they felt that using them was not particularly comfortable and even sometimes caused an allergic reaction. “Mai Yatang wanted to come up with a solution. She’s a woman of action.When she sets her mind to something, she’s determined to see it through. And I agreed that it was a good idea, so we decided to team up. We resolved to research and develop a re-useable sanitary napkin”, said the introverted Xie Keman.

The Birth of Buzhidao

These two  nature lovers of the post-90s generation started by conducting a survey to determine if their idea was feasible. After that came design, drafting, and finding materials, followed by a series of experiments that  finally produced their first Buzhidao organic cotton sanitary napkin (“Buzhidao” 布知道, roughly: “the cloth knows best”). After six months of market testing and fine-tuning, they formally established the Chengdu Lehuo Yuanxu Company, Ltd. (成都乐活永续科技有限公司), and finally released their product to the market. Buzhidao, now officially on the market, became not only a job for Xie Keman and Mai Yatang, but also a way for them to express their respect for the earth and agricultural life.

Xie Keman’s paternal grandfather lives in a house in the countryside surrounded by vast fields and green hills. Having grown up in this rural area, Xie Keman finds that all of the exhaustion and anxiety of the city vanishes away each time she returns home to visit. The closer she is to the land and to nature, the more relaxed she becomes. People have been removed from nature for too long, and their minds and bodies suffer as a consequence. Companies are no different, so Xie hopes that more corporations will take responsibility for environmental protection in the future, rather than excessively consuming natural resources and focusing solely on profits. This was the thinking behind the true ethos of Buzhidao.

The Environmental Power of Sanitary Napkins

Compared to disposable sanitary napkins commonly found on the market, each Buzhidao makes a genuine contribution to environmental protection.

Buzhidaos are made of cotton, a material that constitutes only five percent of the world’s industrial crops but consumes a quarter of all pesticides and a fifth of chemical fertilizers globally. As a consequence, land planted with cotton is more heavily polluted than land used to grow other industrial crops. Moreover, cotton must be sprayed with pesticides quite frequency – every two or three days during its fruiting period. As a consequence, cotton farmers have struggled to break free from dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Some farmers use more pesticides than necessary, increasing pest resistance and allowing pesticides to permeate deep into the soil. They can then pollute groundwater or flow into waterways, creating serious water pollution and causing destruction to the entire ecological chain. Some cotton farmers suffer from chronic health problems due to improper or excessive pesticide use. These problems range from allergies to skin ulcers. Many farmers cannot afford medical care, and have no choice but to persevere despite their weakened bodies. This kind of vicious cycle can sink entire households into poverty.

In order to reduce the damage caused to the environment by fertilizers and pesticides and to protect the profits of cotton growers, Xie Keman chose to produce Buzhidaos with organic cotton. She and her team went to Shandong province to find cotton farmers willing to employ ecologically diversified planting techniques. The company provides farmers with technological support and helps them through the arduous planting period. They show the farmers that they can grow cotton without chemical fertilizers, and in doing so, that they can protect the land and avoid economic losses. When yields are low, Xie and her team assume five percent of the farmers’ losses; after bumper harvests, they buy from farmers at 2.5 times the market price. This way, they encourage ecological planting: “When the soil isn’t polluted by chemical fertilizers and pesticides, farmers can continue to use ecological methods to plant other crops on the same land”, said Xie Keman.

Xie estimates that there are more than two hundred million Chinese women who use sanitary napkins. If each woman begins her period at around age eleven and experiences menopause around fifty, then she will need sanitary napkins for about forty years. Buzhidaos last for two years, therefore, assuming that ten are used during each menstrual cycle, each woman would  only use about two hundred Buzhidaos over the course of her life. However, over the same period, a woman using disposable sanitary napkins would go through thirteen thousand of them. “Disposable sanitary napkins cannot be recycled, so they must be buried in landfills or incinerated. In a landfill, they will decompose only after hundreds of years. As for incineration, it’s basically impossible to do it in an environmentally friendly way because of the poisonous by-products such as the organic compound dioxin. However, the raw materials for Buzhidaos are a natural product: cotton. It can decompose in a very short amount of time, and if it is incinerated, it does not produce toxic compounds - it’s just like burning firewood. So the environmental impact is rather small”, said Xie Keman.

Buzhidao organic cotton sanitary napkins Buzhidao organic cotton sanitary napkins | © Buzhidao

Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground

Each Buzhidao napkin is the result of a long production process that requires at least five months from the manual labour required to pick, gin, sort, package, and weave the cotton to the product design, inspection, and distribution . Xie Keman’s core team has expanded from two people to eight, but they are still usually extraordinarily busy. Spread around the country, from Shandong and Beijing to Nanchong and Chengdu, they each love nature in their own way. One noteworthy aspect of this team is that, during the hiring process, Xie Keman sought out applicants with disabilities who were capable of carrying out the work, and at present, the team includes one amputee and two hard-of-hearing employees.

Although the Buzhidao product has evolved from version 1.0 to version 3.0, Xie Keman candidly acknowledges that most consumers still have reservations about the product, and she feels tremendous pressure to keep the company afloat. One key factor is finding raw materials and confirming their quality. The company cannot simply buy cotton off the market, because there is no market for cotton of the quality they require. Instead, they must strive to use the best cotton cloth produced by growers each year. This approach is much more difficult than simply using money to buy raw materials off the market. Moreover, Buzhidao does not compete on the market like other fully commercialized products, because the company also provides technical support to growers and shares their losses. Consumers often do not differentiate between organic cotton and conventional cotton, and will frequently purchase whichever product is cheaper. As a consequence, Buzhidao faces major obstacles. Some consumers see reusable sanitary napkins as a step backwards[M1] , a prejudice that further contributes to Buzhidao’s difficulties.

Despite the pressure, there’s a bright side to all the hard work, because “we saw a problem, so we took action. We made something that has been accepted by customers”. This apparently ordinary sense of accomplishment is a source of delight for Xie Keman and her partners. “We don’t kid ourselves into thinking that everyone will use Buzhidaos, but we do hope that, at the very least, people will not be totally astonished, and that we won’t be met with scepticism and prejudice when they hear about our product. Although there is a downside in terms of convenience, it is still a really reliable product in terms of physical security and comfort. We hope to provide people with an alternative choice that is both comfortable to use and beneficial to the environment,” said Xie Keman.

“Although it’s just a little sanitary napkin, it can still help to protect the environment. It’s only used by a minority of consumers, but we still pour our heart and soul into it. In the future, we hope that more companies will take on the responsibility of protecting the environment. We are leading the way by:  rejecting the excessive consumption of resources. Starting right away, we should all do our best to act, and produce high quality, durable products”, Xie Keman insists.