In the eighth grade, at the apex of blue-liquid tampon marketing, my period came suddenly in the middle of a yearbook club meeting. I wore my gym shorts for the rest of the day and I thought I’d never recover from the shame. I did, of course, and in 2019, the shaming has been shut down and we’re talking openly about periods: We’re women! We bleed! It’s normal!
But I live in Canada, and tampons are a convenience and privilege I take for granted.
Halfway around the world in Australia, Roz Campbell was enjoying the same luxury of access. This is the story of how she used that privilege to help others. While at university, Roz was listening to a presentation by the founder of One Girl, a group that provides scholarships for girls in Uganda and Sierra Leone. A major problem, the speaker explained, was that girls were missing school for a week every month — because of their periods. Without access to proper hygiene products, they were forced to stay home.
The talk had a profound impact on Roz. She was studying industrial design at the time but shifted her focus from designing furniture to designing pads. She wanted to create a better product for periods, and, in turn, use it as a vehicle for change.
Her first step before diving into her business was to understand her cause more intimately by taking the One Girl Challenge: For one week, she replaced commercial period products with items like newspapers, sponges, and rags. On her sponge day, Roz says she made the “rookie mistake” of using it right out of the package, not realizing that kitchen sponges are treated with a chemical to keep them soft. “I was standing in front of the class and I had to leave the room and go and put some toilet paper in there instead because it was burning,” she says.
Although the One Girl Challenge was difficult and uncomfortable, she knew it was just that — a challenge. “My life is so easy in comparison. I’ve got a car, I’ve got hot water, a shower,” she says. “I can just imagine what it’s like when you don’t have access to those things.”
Roz set out to build Tsuno, a period brand made with more responsible materials. She crowdfunded to raise the AU$40,000 (nearly US$29,000) needed to place the first order and planned to donate profits from sales to One Girl — the organization also generates funding from its own online store — and other women’s organizations.
Having plenty of optimism but no experience in business, she committed to donating half of Tsuno’s profits to the cause. “I was very naive,” says Roz, who made no profit in her first year. “That was very depressing.”
She did, however, have a triple-car garage full of sanitary napkins. That’s when she realized she could meet her charitable goals in the early days of her business by donating product instead of money. A friend of hers mentioned that the Asylum Seeker Resource Center in Melbourne needed sanitary pads — “It was something that was often forgotten in the donations,” says Roz. “They’d have to go into their fund money to buy pads.” (The Asylum Seeker Resource Center didn’t respond to a request for comment but has thanked partners, including Tsuno, for helping “to get food and toiletries to us on a regular basis” on its site.)
Nearly four years later, and with the addition of organic cotton tampons to its product lineup, Tsuno is generating profits. Roz still donates product via a matching program from donations through her website, but she also supports One Girl with monthly donations based on a percentage of the sale of each box. In February 2018, that amount was $1,300, up from $900 the month before — enough to send three girls to school. “It doesn’t sound like much,” says Roz, “but when you’re a small business that’s run from your house, I’ve got to remind myself that, yeah, it’s pretty good.”
In 2018, she’s set an aggressive goal for herself: Send 100 girls to school, which amounts to $30,000 in donations. Roz is working hard to get her message out to more people and, fortunately, there’s space for honest and frank conversation about periods these days.
They told her that stories about periods and sanitary products alienated their male audiences.
It wasn’t always this way. When she started contacting press in 2014, Roz was met with rejection, even from indie magazines geared toward women audiences. “People told me, ‘Great story, but we don’t think that our audience wants to hear this,’” she says. They told her that stories about periods and sanitary products alienated their male audiences. “I was like, ‘You’re a girls’ magazine. What male audience? And also: No.’”
But in 2015, after an interview with Megyn Kelly, Donald Trump referred to the TV anchor as having “blood coming out of her wherever.” That was also the year that the Tampon Tax — a tax imposed on menstruation products that’s at odds with other tax-exempt basic necessities — became a political sticking point in both the U.K. and Australia. Suddenly, the media was talking about periods. Cosmopolitan magazine called it “the year the period went public,” and #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult erupted on Twitter.
If Roz’s customers aren’t buying for the cause, they’re sold on the product and the branding. Either way, the charity wins. And customers seem to be winning as well. Roz often receives emails from women who have been helped by her products. One such email stands out: The customer, who suffers from endometriosis and sensitive skin, explained that most pads cause pain and discomfort, but that she found relief with Tsuno.
Even so, Roz is now working closely with her manufacturer to experiment with different materials to produce less waste and make her product even more sustainable and comfortable. At every step and over every manufacturing hurdle, she takes time to pause and remember why she started. “Checking in with the charities and the work they’re doing really helps bring me out of my spreadsheets and back to the reason,” Roz says. “Sending one girl to school is better than none.”
Last month, and roughly 300 periods after that eighth grade incident, I fashioned an emergency pad out of public washroom paper towels — proof that it never really gets easier. After telling Roz’s story, though, I’m reminded that the post-consumer sandpaper between my legs is still a privilege.
Photographs courtesy of Tsuno