“Wait. Have you watched Pad Man?”, I asked. “No, I have not,” she said, “But I have met him.”
I don’t watch a lot of movies, and when I do, I don’t remember much of them. But Pad Man really made an impression on me. I watched it on the plane with my boyfriend two years ago, and I remember saying to him, that’s a business that’s worth something, that’s work that you can be proud of.
Pad Man was inspired by the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a social activist who in the early 2000s, created a low-cost sanitary napkin machine, and revolutionised menstrual hygiene in rural India. To this day, this machine is sent to women-run self-help groups and creates jobs and incomes for many women.
Is this just a Bollywood plot, or this a true story? Can social entrepreneurship and profit co-exist?
They can. And Aisle is living proof. Aisle, co-founded by Madeleine Shaw and Suzanne Siemens, is a women-run sustainable period products company headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, is doing just that.
23 years ago, Madeleine discovered that she was allergic to certain chemicals in the tampons she was using. A fashion designer by trade, she started making reusable washable menstrual pads and period underwear for herself. I could wax lyrical and show you stats and numbers on their stellar sustainability efforts, because at a time when no signboards were raised in protest of mountains of plastic waste, Aisle was already sustainable. But you can see those facts for yourself here.
Instead, I am going to talk about a company that has thrived for almost a quarter of a century, doing the right thing by its customers through actively engaging in conversations and actions around period inequality, and listening to the people around them and to the murmurs on the ground.
The right thing to do
It’s no secret by now that transmen and non-binary folks are notoriously regularly left out of the period conversation. Yet these are the people you see on Aisle’s website and social media channels, as models and spokespeople. “It’s just the right thing to do. Part of my role as a leader is to amplify these voices, and elevate these conversations, in every opportunity I get.” Suzanne says.
The company also spent two years working with a pattern maker agency that specialises in designing sizes up to 5X, for all four cuts of their period underwear. Aisle did not just want to tick off larger sizes from a piece of paper and call it a day. Designing for larger bodies required different detailing and placement of seams and lines. They invited customers and friends to be test subjects, then redesigned based on feedback.
“The greatest feeling is when they come back to us, and tell us that they feel good, they feel comfortable, that this is how it’s supposed to feel,” Suzanne says, and adds that customer feedback like this makes the effort all worth it.
We're like family
In 1994, Robert M. Morgan and Shelby Hunt published a paper in the Journal of Marketing titled The Commitment-Trust Theory of Relationship Marketing. They concluded that for a relationship (in this case, brand-buyer) to be successful, two fundamental factors, trust and commitment, must exist.
A bit like a family. Aisle, though a big brand, I tell Suzanne, feels like a tight-knit family. She is pleased, and smiles. “We are folks of many age ranges, educational backgrounds, size and gender identification. We are cis(gender), queer, gender non-conforming, we have different interests, but the one thing we have in common is – we want to make sure that everybody feels seen and heard.”
I think that when you cultivate a safe, open-minded space, to be conscious about what is around you, you nurture that in your team and that carries into your brand, and everything that you do.
Aisle lets employees volunteer at other causes that they are passionate about on a paid working day, the company donates products to period care equality movements. Hey, because, why not, when they can?
In 2012, Aisle invested in Afripads, a social enterprise in Uganda, East Africa. A 2000-people strong business that started from donations of Aisle reusable pads. It now has kept 3 million girls and women at school and at work, combating a tornado of entrenched superstitions and narratives that paint menstruating women as unclean, or impure. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel, it might not be exactly the same, but it’s a great Pad Man story.
In 2018, I may have been inspired by Pad Man, but today, I’m inspired by Aisle.
More on Aisle’s sustainability efforts and fight for inclusion here: