Would You Buy a Recycled Condom?

Ash Jurberg

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A look at green marketing in the condom industry

We admire companies that have sustainability and environmental policies in place. Sourcing product from ethical origins. Biodegradable packaging. And of course, recycling. But sometimes you have to draw the line.

And there is no doubt that the line was well and truly crossed in Vietnam when last week police raided a facility that was recycling condoms. The facility in Binh Duong Province, located in southern Vietnam, had recycled over 320,000 condoms.

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Source: Twitter

That’s 360 kilograms of used condoms ready to be recycled. The owner of the facility assured her customers that each condom was thoroughly washed, dried, and then (wait for it) reshaped with a massive wooden dildo.

Aside from the severe issues of infection and disease that this could cause — Ewww — who would purchase a previously worn condom? And how are they collected? Are there recycling bins in the neighborhood?

Did customers know they were purchasing second-hand recycled condoms and were they attracted by the environmental benefits it presumably offered?

Many companies like to push the words “sustainable”, “ethical”, “recycled”, and “environmental” in their advertising messages, but can this be extended to condoms to attract sales? Maybe not recycled, but the other words?

So many questions — so let’s take a look.

Greenwashing

Many companies target the “green” consumer. It is an excellent way to appeal to a consumer’s emotions. Given a choice between two products, they should choose the one that is better for the environment. A 2017 survey found that 87% of people would buy a product with a social and environmental benefit if given the opportunity.

That is a significant number, so marketers look for ways to promote their products as green. But in many cases, the claims are dubious. Often, companies receive substantial fines for marketing which can’t be substantiated.

One recent example is car manufacturer Volkswagen which was forced by the Federal Trade Commission to pay $11 billion to customers who had purchased VW cars marketed as “clean diesel” and “Earth-friendly,” when in fact they released nitrogen oxides at levels more than 65 times higher than what the EPA allows.

The term greenwashing was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. Greenwashing is when a company or organization spends more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly than on minimizing their environmental impact.

He noted that at the hotel he was staying in, there were signs asking guests to reuse their towels to “save the environment.” However, through the hotel, Westerveld saw a vast amount of wastage and no other efforts being made to be sustainable. He concluded the hotel was using the message as a way to reduce costs and not for the environment.

This year on Earth Day, the Truth in Advertising website released a list of companies that they accused of greenwashing. These included Tide, Volkswagen (as described above), Nestle, and Seaworld.

Spurred on by the Vietnamese recycling operation, I delved into the condom industry to see how they pushed their green message. Several use the key buzzwords in order to stake a piece of the condom pie. It’s currently an $8 billion industry, with projections to reach $15 billion by 2026, so it’s a big pie. And one way to take on the big players is by using green marketing.

Ethical

An American company, Sustain, makes what they call an “ethical” condom. The thought of a condom with ethics does intrigue me.

So what is an ethical condom? According to the founder, Meika Hollender, “while there is some waste, they’re still net-positive products because they’re preventing unplanned pregnancy and the spreading of STDs [sexually transmitted diseases] — and overpopulation is a huge driver of climate change.”

To me, that marketing claim sounds like a bit of a stretch. Wouldn’t that mean that all condoms are ethical (even the recycled ones) as they all prevent overpopulation?

I’ll strike a line through that claim and look at their advertisement.

If you view the TVC linked above, you will see they really push the natural line through the innovative use of the vagina’s point of view. Contrary to what many may assume, 40% of condom purchases are made by women, and Sustain is clearly targeting them.

Their company name pushes their brand message of sustainability, and they continuously advertise the company’s responsible sourcing of the rubber to make latex, and the Fairtrade-certified facility that manufactures those condoms — no recycling for them.

It has helped them gain traction in the market, with Hollender setting a target of 5% market share.

Vegan

Einhorn is a German company with a fun tone of voice used to push its sustainable policy heavily throughout its website and advertisements. The founders wanted to create a business that was fair and sustainable for both the planet and its workers.

Its website pushes its eco angle with copy like this:

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Quite a unique way to have fun and educate at the same time. Their products are also vegan. But before you replace your tofu with an Einhorn condom, it just means that their products are made from ethically sourced rubber.

Their founders really push the eco message. They use green electricity, choose environmentally friendly packaging, and ensure that the packaging tape is also vegan.

The marketing seems to resonate with consumers. They price their condoms higher than their competitors but this doesn't detract from sales. Co-founder Philip Siefer says, “we explained that we were going to reinvest 50% of the profits, ‘so every cent you take from us now,’ we said, ‘you’re going to take it away from a good cause.’”

Targeting the eco-conscious customer is working with yearly revenue of over five billion euros after just a few years of operation.

Buy One-Give One

L Condoms was started by United Nations and Red Cross photographer Talia Frenkel in 2014. Having seen the ravages that HIV/AIDS caused, she wanted to help in some way. Using a strategy that companies such as Warby Parker have utilized, she implemented a buy one-give one policy. For every condom sold, they give one away to a developing nation. This sees hundreds of thousands of condoms distributed in Africa.

Their advertising also takes aim at the traditionally overtly masculine ads by portraying a “good man.” The good man cares about organic food, antioxidants, and biodegradable, low-carbon recycled materials. And of course, an eco-friendly condom. It proved a hit gaining 400,000 views within a few weeks of its launch.

L Condoms are glycerin and paraben-free, and they don’t contain any potentially harmful additives. Frenkel wants her company to have a low carbon footprint wherever possible. This doesn’t prevent innovation, L has rolled out a one-hour bike delivery service in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Manhattan. This not only reinforces her brand values but assists customers. Frenkel says:
“Condom aisles can be uncomfortable, [especially when] condoms can be behind glass and key. It’s like you have to make an announcement to the entire store, ‘Aisle 6, I’m having sex!’ They’re not always that easily accessible. We started talking to these messenger groups, and the bike messengers themselves are really ecstatic about it. They like knowing that what they’re doing is involved with a cause. It truly is in line with our values of sustainability by having a low carbon footprint.”

Biodegradable

So three small companies are pushing sustainable products. What are the big boys doing? The major condom brand, Trojan, has a biodegradable option. Their naturalamb condoms are made from part of a sheep’s intestine.

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The reviews (I never thought that people would give reviews on condoms online, but just like any product, they do) are overall quite good. The downside of the Naturalamb — aside from the stupid name — is that it doesn’t protect against STIs, only pregnancy.

Interestingly, Trojan doesn’t overly promote the biodegradable benefit of their product — focusing more on the skin-to-skin feel. Which is a bit creepy considering there is lambskin as part of that skin-to-skin feel.

It seems Trojan is content to offer the mainstream products targeting men attracted to a masculine brand named after a Roman warrior.

The Takeaway

This article started as a tongue-in-cheek look at a headline that caught my attention — recycled condoms. But looking beyond the initial joke, it is interesting to see that just like any product, condoms can be promoted with an eco message.

Companies like Sustain, L Condoms, and Einhorn continue to grow and target the green market. So far, there doesn’t appear to be any greenwashing and the industry has businesses with ethical intentions.

They are all challenging the major players in the market, and in a market with little discernible product difference, it seems their messaging is working. They are making inroads in a multi-billion dollar industry.

And thankfully for their customer, unlike the Vietnamese business that was caught out last week, they don’t have to resort to recycling their product.

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