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The sanitary monologues

Women aren't conditioned to pay money or attention to personal hygiene products, says the founder of a new brand that offers premium biodegradable sanitary napkins

Tanvi Johri’s Carmesi aims to create a new category for feminine hygiene products. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Tanvi Johri’s Carmesi aims to create a new category for feminine hygiene products. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

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OTHERS : For Tanvi Johri, the 27-year-old co-founder of a brand that offers premium biodegradable sanitary napkins, inspiration was personal. A chemistry honours student and MBA graduate, Johri was allergic to the synthetic, chemical-laden products available in the market. The Mathura girl happens to be a veteran of Delhi girls’ hostels, and she knew she wasn’t alone. In January 2017, she launched her first product. By November 2017, she had found a biodegradable spin and an arty brand name—“carmesí” is Spanish for “crimson”.

While Johri has recently raised funding, hers isn’t the first Indian initiative to punch the hot-button concerns of menstrual hygiene and environmental sustainability. Carmesi products are made of bamboo fibre and corn starch, and come with a “biodegradable plastic” disposal bag. Saathi—founded back in 2015 by graduates from MIT, Harvard and Nirma—positions itself as a social enterprise that makes eco-friendly hygiene products from banana fibre.

In 2017, the feminine hygiene products market in India was valued at $340 million (around 2,456 crore now) by Euromonitor, and is predicted to grow to $522 million by 2020. There have been a handful of extraneous, even silly, introductions as part of this boom. There are subscription boxes that seem to infantilize women, like BoJo and Being Juliet, who offer gift boxes to deliver sanitary napkins along with supposedly palliative items such as chocolates, candy, lip balm, socks and green tea. Depending on what you pick, you might also receive stuffed toys and earrings. I know I wouldn’t want to wear earrings that came in a comfort box.

Johri was driven by the lack of a premium segment in sanitary napkins. They were all in a similar price bracket with only marginal differences. She found inspiration in the American brand Lola. Jordana Kier and Alexandra Friedman, founders of Lola, phrase their brand mission succinctly on their website: “If we care about the ingredients in everything from our food to our face cream, why should our feminine care and sexual health products be any different?”

“We don’t call ourselves luxury,” Johri clarifies on the phone from her Gurugram office, “But we are premium.” Carmesi, with its elegant packaging, comes at a time when the shampoo aisles in supermarkets are clogged with men and women poring over the list of ingredients. My own move to online shopping has been partly instigated by inefficient salespeople confounded by queries about sulphate- and paraben-free shampoos. These are concerns a certain section of Indian consumers is newly obsessed with, and retailers are ill-equipped to address them all.

A May 2017 investigation in Mint—by Ashwaq Masoodi who has written this week’s cover story—quoted Bhawana Chanana, an associate professor at Lady Irwin College, Delhi University, as saying that people choose sanitary napkins based on cost, design and packaging. This, Chanana observed, was due to lack of awareness of hygiene parameters, like toxicity and pH range. The article also posited that though all the leading brands in the Indian sanitary market are global ones—Procter & Gamble’s Whisper and Johnson & Johnson’s Stayfree are the lead players—and sell the same products worldwide, the quality of chemicals used in India is believed to be inferior.

Johri’s inquiry is on these lines. The high-quality raw material and sophisticated packaging comes at an increased cost. A full year’s supply with 120 units costs 2,499. A box of 10 is 299, which is roughly two-and-a-half to three times the price of an MNC brand. “Many women spend a couple of thousand rupees on a single lipstick. So in terms of absolute value, it is not so much, it’s just that women aren’t conditioned to pay money or attention to personal hygiene products,” says Johri, adding that her top priority right now is to educate the market.

I ask if the Union government’s Stree Swabhiman initiative and the buzz around the movie PadMan turned out to be fortuitous. “No, those campaigns are about accessibility and we’re telling the other side of the story. We’re urging women who can afford it to spend more,” says Johri. “The accessibility camp asks us why we are creating premium products. But I can’t do what I do and price it at 2 per unit.”

The product is currently available to a consumer base of around 50,000 people through its own website and other online portals. The plan is to diversify into extensions and also launch tailored home deliveries. Meanwhile, Johri has been sharing her side of the story at sustainability conclaves like Saahra and Fairtrunk. Carmesi’s blogs and social media communication is less product, more mood.

It’s time someone added exclamations to period talk.

Anindita Ghose tweets @aninditaghose

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