“It’s empowering, to know our own bodies”

We’ve teamed up with Hannah (@sustainable.period), a coordinator for The Red Box Project and Environmenstrual Ambassador for the Women’s Environmental Network, to talk all things Aunty Flo

More than 800 million. That’s how many active users TikTok has. 

It’s also the number of people who are menstruating on any given day.

Imagine that for a second. The number of people on TikTok– that gargantuan internet republic– is the same as the number of people who are shedding and discharging their uterine lining (along with, on average, 30-40ml of blood) every single day.

Let’s go even bigger. The global sex ratio at birth is around 48.8% female (FYI, population statistics on sex and gender are pretty complicated; for a preliminary explanation, have a read here). Even at a conservative estimate, we’re still talking around 3 billion people who will have to deal with Shark Week for around half of their life (on average).

Over this weekend, we want to make a point about the level of comfort we should have– the ownership we should feel– with regards to our bodies. Especially when it comes to the red menace, and the products we use to manage it. We’re deeply concerned about the impact our periods have on the environment, and about making sure everyone who menstruates has the right to access sanitary products in a safe, low-cost (ideally no-cost) way. Basically, we want to throw out the cultural stigma surrounding menstruation, period poverty, and spread the message about how we can all surf the crimson wave in a more environmentally-conscious way. 

Hannah, a coordinator for The Red Box Project, Environmenstrual Ambassador for the Women’s Environmental Network, and the vagenius behind @sustainable.period, has exactly the same goals. Aiming to show people the advantages of going sustainable when you’ve got Communists in the kitchen, Hannah brings new brands and resources to the attention of her followers– helping people make informed decisions about their monthly blood festival


So Hannah, what’s your experience of these kinds of products, and why is this so important to you? 

I switched to reusable period products around four/five years ago, and they have literally been a life-changer! They are much more convenient for me. I feel like so many people I speak to have no idea what a menstrual cup is, let alone cloth pads or period pants, so this gave me an idea. We have posters in the toilet cubicles at work which state ‘do not flush sanitary products’. This sparked an idea with me, so I contacted the relevant department and helped to design new posters– which included facts about flushing period products, and the damage it can do to our environment, as well as information about period pants, cloth pads, and menstrual cups! 

I didn’t know anyone who used a menstrual cup, so I had to do tons of research to try and discover which cup would be best for me. This made me realise– if I found it difficult to make a decision based on the overwhelming amount of information there is out there, other people probably feel the same, and some are probably even put off trying reusables, due to this!

These products have to end up somewhere. If they aren’t being flushed and causing blockages, when these products go into the sanitary bins in toilet cubicles, they’ll usually go into landfill and can take hundreds of years to break down– and very few places are starting to convert this waste into refuse-derived fuel. A lot of items that are flushed down the toilets end up in the sea, this is why it is so important not to flush wipes, pads, tampons, cotton buds, or anything else that should go into the bin! It also costs a lot of energy to create these products and their packaging, which in turn affects our environment.

When buying disposable tampons and pads I would encourage you to look at the ingredients and do your research on the company. Just because the box says ‘organic cotton’, it doesn’t mean the wrapper or applicator is plastic-free.

And it isn’t just tampons which contain plastic– one packet of pads can contain as much plastic as 5 carrier bags, and up to 90% of the pad can be plastic. Pads also sometimes have fragrance. Why? Sometimes it can be used to cover up the smell of chemicals used to create the pad, or it could be because the companies think we need it!

So I started collecting a variety of products and leaflets from many different companies, which I then took to work events, and also community events, to show people the different styles of products– as well as introducing a conversation around sustainability, and reducing the stigma of periods. Reusable period products aren’t for everyone, so I have some eco-friendly disposable tampons and pads to show people as well as period pants, menstrual cups, cloth pads and a reusable tampon applicator! People are so shocked at the variety of products, materials, colours, styles, shapes, etc… and I feel like this drives me more, because you can’t walk into a shop and actually get them out the box to touch them. If you walk into a supermarket, you’re lucky if there’s one menstrual cup on sale. 

Before lockdown, I had an information stand in the office at work, so colleagues could come and chat about these products and see them for themselves. I’m also lucky enough to have lots of discount codes, so if anyone reading this would like them, feel free to drop me a message on Instagram!

During lockdown, I decided to start @sustainable.period Instagram account, which looks at menstruation within the UK and in India. It’s a way to connect with the community, to arrange WEN workshops, and to help educate people on all things period. I choose to do this as a volunteer– I don’t get paid by anyone to promote their products. I believe it’s empowering to discuss periods and to know our own bodies.

I believe sustainable period products aren’t just great for the environment, but they’re healthier for our bodies, and so much more convenient– not to mention saving lots of money, and I feel like people need to know this! Who doesn’t love the idea of being able to wear a menstrual cup for 12 hours, that’s a whole working day, without having to worry! 

(ICYMI, period poverty is a widespread issue across the UK, and the world. For more context on period poverty, check out our conversation with menstrual mastermind Natalie Apted of Naturally Adapted

Can you walk us through how menstruation affects access to education?

This isn’t just due to not being able to afford the products; it can be because of cultural issues, or they don’t feel comfortable asking whoever it is that looks after them. 

When I was a co-ordinator for the Red Box Project, I collected donations from the public to take into schools. The RBP meant that period products, wipes, knickers, tights, and even soap, were available to students directly from their schools, via donations from local communities. This was an amazing initiative which has helped thousands of students, and I’m so grateful I could be part of that. 

Thankfully, the government have listened to our needs, and since January this year they have now started a new scheme, which means schools are able to order free period products for their students! They can even order sustainable disposable and reusable period products.

It’s kind of a ‘use it or lose it’ situation, which isn’t really fair, as this year, schools have been closed for months– so the budget will be far too low. There doesn’t seem to be a dedicated role within schools to order these products, so it seems to get forgotten about. It’s a matter of urgency that these schools make orders by December.

We need local MP’s and councillors to take a more active role– you can download a letter template from:

What’s WEN?

The Women’s Environmental Network is a charity taking action for our health, and for the planet’s health. When I became a WEN ambassador, it allowed me to give workshops about everything from period activism, and anatomy, to reusable products. I love being part of such a positive, inspiring community. The Environmenstrual campaign aims to raise awareness about hidden plastic and chemicals in conventional menstrual products. We aim to educate people through workshops, and encourage a period-positive discussion which is open to all. So far, the workshops have had to be online due to Covid-19, however we’ve been able to get so many people attending workshops and coming together in a fun environment, to discuss all things period-related. It really is empowering. 

There are so many ways to mark Environmenstrual Week– see the WEN website or my Instagram page nearer the time for lots of ideas.


So, are there reasons to be hopeful about the future, when it comes to period poverty? 

I think lockdown has increased the number or reusable products for periods, and household products, on the market. When people were unable to get hold of toilet roll, and, in some places, when the stocks were low on period products, people moved on to reusable products, so they didn’t have to worry about going out as much. 

Also, before lockdown I was planning on going back to India– a place very close to my heart. Once the current situation starts to settle down, I will go back and carry out my campaign! I will go into schools and community groups and give talks and workshops about menstruation, alongside some Indian friends who are also period activists.

Make sure to check out the resources at Hannah’s Instagram page @sustainable.period, as well as her amazing work with The Red Box Project, and the Women’s Environmental Network

To find more amazing period slang, check out this Refinery29 article from Sarah Couglin. And for a catchy tune about period sex, head over to Rachel Bloom’s youtube channel.

FreeBird’s Twelve Month Plan

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Let me just set something out straight away: sustainability is not about deprivation. This is not a year-long trip into minimalism that we will all end up sitting in empty apartments with twelve items of clothing in our wardrobe eating pasta out of a saucepan because we’ve donated all our bowls. 

This is not about going completely plastic free, or zero waste. We are not going to end the twelve months with only a mason jar full of that year’s disposable rubbish. While I can dream of a world full of closed-loop production systems and self-sustained eco-houses, these are not changes that are easy or convenient for everybody to immediately switch to.

It would be easy for me to sit here and list twelve things we should all cut out of our lives and that be that. It would be just as easy for me to list “eco-friendly” brands each month, recommending new purchases each with a hefty price-tag just because they are made of bamboo or organic cotton. I will not list hundreds of pounds worth of “swaps” for everyone to make, or preach to you about it is hard at first but after a few years you will be living completely waste-free. I have been making conscious changes for four years, and I am still not perfect. I still own a bin, I still accidentally mix up my recycling, I still find clothing unworn at the back of my wardrobe that I bought for an event I ended up missing. 

Zero-waste living is something that is achieved with immense privilege. Many people with disabilities were deeply affected by the banning of plastic straws as it can be their only way to drink. Those on daily medication or frequent hospital trips are going to inadvertently produce more disposable waste than others. Until larger systematic change is in place, being completely zero-waste cannot be immediately attained by everybody, and many current “zero-waste” swaps are not appropriate or accessible by those from lower income backgrounds, those with children, who work three jobs, who live in a flat share or with their family members. 

Long term global sustainable living is what we are striving for. Sustainable means long-term, it means living with intention and not losing yourself in the endless buzz of city life. It means adaptability. It means letting yourself make a few mistakes, and just making sure you try again tomorrow.

The twelve month programme is also here to make you more aware of greenwashing; a tactic generally undertaken by large corporations to get environmental activists off their backs without actually making any huge changes. For example McDonald’s released a statement where they announced the banning of plastic straws back in 2018, before replacing them with paper straws which were not recyclable. McDonald’s has since committed to making all food packaging sustainable by 2025. 

I am not saying this is going to be easy, because it won’t be. I will be suggesting new ways of living that are not easy or ideal for everyone. I might be asking you to try and change a lifestyle habit you love. Change can flare anxiety, and it can incite awkward conversations between friends and family who don’t agree with your values. But as the last few months have taught us as a global community, it is that change happens whether we like it or not. And with global disasters coming quicker and faster, adaptability is our best friend. According to a popular statistic we have ten years left to tackle global warming before we reach crisis point. While this might seem wildly unachievable for your average person, just remember that small changes made by hundreds of people are more effective than huge changes made by few.

I can sit and recommend brands until the cows come home, but conscious consumerism is about ultimately understanding yourself, understanding what you are buying, why, and where it has come from. Not buying it because a list on a website has deemed it “eco” enough. FreeBird is about helping you make your own choices and decisions, we only encourage you to remain informed, to keep asking questions. To raise awareness among your community, and to assist those who cannot make the changes you can. To stay curious and uncomfortable.

Starting Sustainably

In 2016, I woke up and realised the damaging effect I was having on the planet. 

I worked in an outdoor theatre, and every day we released cheap plastic balloons into the sky. I watched cast members drop cigarette butts into flowerbeds. I remember searching for a dropped pen underneath a bush, and when I pulled it out, it was covered in the sharp plastic glitter of a performance from two years before. It was inescapable. 

I never dropped litter in the street, I shopped in charity shops, I recycled seventy percent of the packaging that came into my house, I didn’t own a car, and I had been a vegetarian since I was eleven – yet still, the guilt hit me. It wasn’t enough. In the twenty-first century, being passive in times of social and ecological crisis means being complicit. 

I threw myself into hours of reading, research, and podcasts. I spent money – hundreds of pounds of it. On fancy reusable coffee cups and water bottles, on glass Tupperware and Pinterest-worthy matching jars for my flour and sugar. On vegan skincare products, mooncups, and plastic-free shampoo. A month later I was exhausted, broke, and more confused than before.

In 2020, sustainability seems to have become a global buzzword – on the surface it is a seemingly fleeting mega-trend, told in brightly coloured slogans, splashed across recyclable packaging. Underneath the gaudy exterior, however, is a compressed catalogue of painful facts and harsh truths, too uncomfortable to read and even harder to accept. The current ecological crisis can be an enormously challenging concept to understand. In our ever-blinding and consumer-driven society, ‘sustainability’ can feel like a huge, unachievable target goal, with no real definition or resolution. With an endless blend of opinion and fact accessible at our fingertips, and with every action displayed on social media making us more open to criticism and insult, it feels much easier to just bury our heads in the sand and carry on as normal. Where can you even begin to make a difference when everyone is telling you something different?

However, it’s progress we should be striving for, not perfection. My attempt at a sustainability binge did not work because it was my mindset that needed to change first, not my food storage and makeup bag. A consumer-driven crisis cannot be solved with consumer-driven solutions – buying eco-friendly products is not activism if you didn’t need to buy them in the first place. 

Small changes can feel inadequate and pointless, whereas big ones can feel unachievable and exhausting. It’s easy to feel powerless, as one individual in the face of global warming, and even easier to point fingers at large corporations, who undeniably profit from the very over-consumption that’s damaging the planet.

Here at FreeBird, we believe in promoting two separate strands of sustainability. One is external – the direct effect our individual lives have on those around us, and the planet we live on, both locally and globally. This includes a focus on our individual carbon footprint, as well as discussions on the climate change crisis, a reduction in single-use plastics, and how, as a community, we can work together to implement change from within. 

But there is also the matter of internal sustainability; that of your own mind. Mental and physical sustainability is just as important – destructive behaviour can lead to a burn-out cycle that can be just as damaging. Mental wellbeing and self-care go hand in hand with a sustainable lifestyle.

Sustainability is, at its core, about balanced longevity– which cannot be achieved or sustained without taking care of both oneself, and others. Truly sustainable living can’t be achieved while we still live alongside social inequality. A sustainable future must be supported from the ground upwards, and as Alice Kurima Newberry writes for Greenpeace “We cannot talk about environmental justice without addressing racial justice.” For a more in-depth explanation of how integral racial equality and environmental progress are to each other, I recommend watching Majora Carter’s TED Talk from 2007, ‘Greening the Ghetto’, in which she highlights the key connections between environmental, social, and economic degradation. 

Both internally and externally, change must come, and soon– whether we like it or not. Our individual choices are the ones that matter – but they must be done for the right reasons. 

We’ll be starting a twelve-step programme this August, which everyone in the FreeBird community is encouraged to take part in. Each month we’ll be changing our lifestyle in one small way – whether that’s giving something up, trying something new, or adapting to a new routine or habit. While some changes may suggest the purchase of something new, in order to replace a single-use product, this programme is ultimately about a collective change of mindset. We’re not here to accuse or dramatise, or to fill your feed with gloomy statistics, which, while truthful and necessary, can be overwhelmingly anxiety-inducing. We are here to uplift and empower, to inspire change among the creative community, resulting in a positive and vibrant future – for our planet and for ourselves. After all, climate change affects everybody– so everybody can benefit from a more sustainable lifestyle. 

Change can be uncomfortable and overwhelming. It can be inconvenient and slow. Change can feel, for a long time, like you’re swimming upstream, fighting the current. But as soon as you realise we are all swimming together, it starts to feel a hell of a lot smoother.

 In a years’ time, each of our lives will have changed in twelve small ways, laying a solid groundwork for us to build a more sustainable future– both individually, and together. 

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