Easy is not a word typically associated with menstruation. Ryerson alumni Alyssa Bertram is out to change that.
Bertram, a graduate of the psychology program launched her company easy. in June. It’s a subscription service that delivers organic feminine hygiene products and fair trade chocolate bars to clients every three months.
Bertram hated the inconvenience of buying tampons at the drugstore and wished for a favourable alternative which led to the idea for her company.
When she started planning her subscription service, she was going to use regular tampons but during the research process, she learned that the products she was using were toxic, bleached and made of synthetic fibres rather than real cotton.
“I was like ‘How do I not know this and I’m sure that if I don’t then many other women don’t either,’ so I switched to an organic brand and it became my mission to let people know there’s this danger,” Bertram said. The brand she uses for easy. is Organyc, one of two organic feminine hygiene products sold in Canada.
Five per cent of each purchase is donated to ZanaAfrica Foundation, a nonprofit that provides girls in East Africa with tampons, pads and access to sexual health education.
Bertram is also using the company to tackle the shame that exists around menstruation. Recently, her “No Shame” ad campaign was heralded on The Huffington Post and in the Marketing Magazine website for its critique of period shame society places on women.
On Nov. 17 through 19 Bertram hosted The Essentials, a pop-up shop with ethical Toronto designer Mary Young, another Ryerson graduate. The purpose was to provide a space for women to come in and ask questions about the products. The Ryersonian talked with Bertram about starting her company, the “No Shame” campaign, ZanaAfrica Foundation and why the lack of knowledge about menstruation is a dangerous thing.
The Ryersonian: What was it that you found not easy about dealing with your periods in the traditional method?
Alyssa Bertram: For me, going to Shoppers and buying this thing, there wasn’t really any joy in buying it. I don’t go like, “Ooh, my new tampons!” It’s something that I’m constantly needing so there’s a convenience factor in it coming to you on a recurring basis. On top of that, making the safest option the easiest to get because as of right now organic brands are only available at health food stores which isn’t convenient for everybody. In the city maybe more so but on the outskirts of the city it’s even harder to find.
What’s the response you’ve received from women about the brand?
People are like, “Why didn’t this exist? Why didn’t I think of this?” People love it. Once they subscribe they say, “Why would I ever unsubscribe, once it just comes to your door?”
Why did you want to partner with ZanaAfrica Foundation?
I found in my research that 80 per cent of girls and women in East Africa have no access to feminine hygiene products or health education. Not only do they not have the physical product to deal with their period, they’re getting it and not knowing what it is, some thinking they’re bleeding to death when the first get it. ZanaAfrica has partnered with community agencies in Kenya, so they produced the pads there, they employ the local people. They don’t just drop the product, they go in and they do workshops.
Tell me about the “No Shame” campaign. Where is it on display?
They’re at 100 locations throughout the city in both men’s and women’s washrooms. We landed on this design with the ad agency Cossette to imagine what society would be like if there was no shame at all around menstruation and it was just treated as a natural thing, like it is. We have four images that depict the way we believe society would look if that was the case.
It’s been getting a lot of buzz, how has the response been?
People are really seeming to respond to it. It’s kind of a bit provocative and I think some people have been uncomfortable with it and it’s just a matter of questioning where that discomfort comes from. Even when the idea was originally pitched to me I was like, “I don’t know.” But why would I feel uncomfortable talking about something that’s just a bodily function?
Have you personally heard any backlash to the campaign?
I’ve read a little bit online but there’s a lot more positive than negative. Getting people talking about the subject, good or bad, is better than not talking about it.
How did you guys get the idea to put the ads in men’s bathrooms? Or how did you get the clearance?
The media company Newad that hosts the posters was totally on board, we didn’t have to push for that. They said it makes sense to have it in both [washrooms] if we’re trying to start a conversation. The whole idea is to stop making it this secluded, siloed thing. I think that’s where the problem stems from.
There hasn’t been much scientific research on the side effects of the use of synthetic, bleached fibres in feminine hygiene products. Do you think that’s linked to the societal shame around menstruation?
I’m a member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, it’s a group of mostly women and some men who have made it their goal to actively and rigorously research this. I think you’re right, there’s not enough research on it because it is still considered taboo, which is a bit ridiculous. Also, I think there’s a lack of transparency. Tampons are labeled as medical devices so by law you don’t have to list their ingredients, which is a legal loophole. So, you know what’s in your shirt, you know what’s in the food you eat but you don’t know what’s in this thing that’s sitting in the most permeable part of the body for hours at a time, which is scary. And that’s the power that bigger corporations have and I think it’s up to the people to do their own homework and then seek out brands that are open to being transparent.
Does this awareness need to start from when parents first teach their daughters about menstrual health?
Absolutely, because when I got my period my mom showed me what products to use and I just kept using those for the rest of my life and never thought about it, never questioned it. Even up until starting this business, that was the product I was going to sell but then I as I started looking into it this was the first time that I questioned what I had been using forever. So, that education is definitely important and it might come from the bottom up, having girls telling their moms. People get very set in their buying behaviour but I think the millenial generation is more open to doing research and buying locally and organic.
It’s interesting that decades have gone by with little questioning of the products that we’re putting in our bodies.
This time last year I wouldn’t have thought twice about my tampons, nobody had ever mentioned it to me, that there was anything that maybe I should be worried about due to this product. Ever. Also, I think there’s a lot of confusion about ovulation. Are you meant to have pain ovulating? So many people don’t know. These are our bodies, this is something happening every month, why don’t we know this? Why isn’t this part of the education when you’re growing up?
Do you think period shame is the last taboo?
Women, historically have been silenced in many ways and this is primarily a women’s experience and it’s kind of put to the side or put down. I think people’s understanding is very limited. I don’t know if it’s the last taboo, but I think it’s something that definitely deserves the attention that it’s getting.
What’s in your vision for the next year?
More in person events, beyond the service, to bring it into real life. We did an event last weekend called “A Woman’s Worth”. We had 40 women out for dinner and I led a talk and discussion based on Mary Ann Williamson’s book A Woman’s Worth. I was blown away by how transparent and vulnerable people were. It’s such a powerful energy when you have women together being real and being raw and talking about the things we don’t necessarily feel comfortable talking about in other spaces. My goal is to empower womeen locally and abroad so I want to do everything to make women remember that they’re powerful.