Madeleine Shaw, 45, is a social entrepreneur known for her longstanding commitment to green products, progressive business practices and women’s entrepreneurship. With business partner Suzanne Siemens, the Vancouver native founded Lunapads, a reusable cloth menstrual pad that keeps disposable products out of landfills. In addition to making and selling their signature collection of natural menstrual products, Lunapads has teamed up with NGOs to provide menstrual products to women and young girls in developing countries who would otherwise have none. Shaw now wants to bend the ear of talk show host, social change agent and self-help do-gooder Oprah Winfrey when she visits Vancouver this week. Shaw hopes to enlist the mighty Miss O in their campaign to empower African girls and keep them in school through the provision of menstrual products.
What are Lunapads?
Lunapads are fabulous, highly functional washable menstrual pads.
How did Lunapads come about?
In my early 20s I found myself regularly coming down with bladder infections a few hours following the start of my periods, and eventually realized it was an allergic reaction to tampons. Disposable pads had always seemed wasteful and bulky to me, so I decided to create washable cloth alternatives that were comfortable, effective and beautiful.
Making the switch to washing my own pads created a powerful shift in my consciousness around my periods and cycle. Before, periods were a minor mess and inconvenience, however after switching to Lunapads I came to appreciate them for the important part that they play in women’s health and connection with the Earth.
How many women use your products?
We have over 100,000 women in 40 countries. As a result, over 1 million disposable pads and tampons are being diverted from landfills every month!
In a disposable culture, how do you convince people to switch?
We are seeing an amazing shift with reusable products happening right now — look at water bottles, coffee mugs and shopping bags, for example. Menstrual products are definitely a more personal choice, however we definitely no longer need to explain why washing and reusing something is more environmentally responsible than using something once and then throwing it away.
A lot of women have never considered what disposable products are actually made of. Getting into that can provoke a reaction of “I’m putting what into my body?” which often leads to change. Once they start to question disposable products and knowing there is an alternative, it almost inevitably leads to making the switch.
Where are the pads produced?
East Vancouver. We are also branching out to explore other options as we grow.
How does your business model differ from other social enterprises?
Classically speaking, a social enterprise is a business that is owned by a Non-Profit organization that uses its revenue to finance the NFP’s operations. In our case, we are a for-profit business that espouses social and environmental benefit as part of our practice. Lunapads is a Founding Canadian Benefit Corporation (or BCorp), a third party accreditation that is granted after a rigorous audit of all of our business practices and impact. Being a BCorp is a big deal because it means that you have enshrined certain values as part of your corporate DNA, not just as a “side” practice.
Unlike other businesses, you’ve shared your business model with menstrual pad makers in other countries. Why?
Well, for starters because the idea of washable menstrual pads is as old as women themselves: in other words, it’s not just “our” idea. I like to joke that Eve and Lilith made their own menstrual pads! Basically the idea is that it’s more important to us that women stop using disposable products than it is for them to choose our brand. Lunapads is about a community and a conversation, not just selling products.
The biggest reason has to do with supporting education for girls in the developing world by providing them with the means to stay in school every day of the month. UNICEF reports in countries where menstrual hygiene is taboo, girls in puberty are typically absent for 20 per cent of the school year. Tragically, girls often either miss school or resort to unhygienic means to manage their needs. While we have donated thousands of Lunapads to groups in need, it’s far more efficient to give them patterns and have them make their own.
Why do you think menstruation is still such a taboo topic?
I feel there are two main reasons. The first makes sense: it’s blood, and blood is normally associated with pain and injury, so having a squeamish reaction to it is pretty normal. The second, less rational reason, is about societal fear of female power.
Menstruation represents our ability to create life, as well as our connection to larger natural cycles like the tides and lunar cycles — fairly top-drawer superpowers. And yet to judge by modern media standards, we seem to prefer seeing women’s bodies being depicted as highly sexualized on someone else’s terms. It’s similar to intolerance of public breastfeeding. We all seem to be fine with women’s breasts being objectified in the media, however there is also an illogical discomfort with seeing them feeding a baby, something that is a far more important purpose.
Why are you seeking Oprah’s attention?
We love Oprah and see her as our generation’s most powerful voice for change, healing and empowerment. She has a strong interest in education for girls in the developing world, which we totally share, and feel like she would love our story.
In honour of her visit [Jan. 24 at Rogers Arena], we will be donating 400 washable menstrual pad and panty kits to girls in South Africa.
Of all the awards that we have been presented with, my favourite was being chosen as one of BC Business magazine’s Top 20 Innovators for 2011. It was our first non “Green’” award, and the room was full of mostly men in grey suits. The editor gave a non-awkward, unembarrassed description of our products and mission to the assembled crowd, and cited our Pads4Girls program of donating pads and sharing our IP with communities in the developing world as part of what had impressed the judges. Being recognized by the mainstream business community in this way was a huge validation for us.
After months of grueling competition, Lunapads was selected to showcase our products on the 2010 Lilith Fair tour. We were all set to go on tour for the summer with Sarah MacLachlan and a host of other amazing women musicians and entrepreneurs when a major disposable feminine hygiene products manufacturer came on board as a sponsor and told the tour that Lunapads could not participate or they would pull their sponsorship. We were devastated.
What’s the greatest tool in your success?
Not having to do it alone. I have a longstanding business partnership with Suzanne Siemens, who I met in 1999. There is no way that the company would be where it is today without her, as well as the rest of our team.
When will you know you’ve made it?
In many ways, we already have. We have created a successful small business and a meaningfully better life experience for thousands of people. The task now is to reach more of them. Our long-term legacy goal is for the next generation of girls to feel proud of and empowered around their cycles and bodies, and for shame around menstruation to be a thing of the past.