As leading citizen activists of waste management, the problem of Bengaluru’s growing mountains of garbage was well-understood by Malini Parmar and Smita Kulkarni.
For years, the two have been key members of citizen-led movements such as 2Bin1Bag, Bangalore Eco Team, (BeT) and GreenTheRed which aim to raise awareness about the city’s garbage problems and propose sustainable solutions, while also influencing urban waste management policy.
Several landmark legislations including household-level waste segregation and the expedited implementation of Karnataka’s ban on manufacture, sale and use of single-use plastics were made possible by the sustained efforts of these groups.
“We realised that even after segregation, the volume of garbage was huge and a Herculean task for the authorities to manage,” says Smita.
This set into motion initiatives like Borrow-A-Bag implemented at the ward-level, to reduce the use of plastic carry bags by making reusable cloth bags easily accessible.
With the efforts of volunteers supported by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) and elected representatives, the programme effectively reached 20 wards in the city, which declared themselves plastic-free. It reduced plastic bag usage by up to 50 per cent, Malini says. Through community events such as Kere Habba, the groups demonstrated that it was possible to organise zero-waste celebrations on a large scale.
Also gaining steam was a citizen’s movement called ‘Green The Red’, which launched the Cup and Cloth Campaign, earlier this year, to raise awareness among urban and rural women about sustainable menstrual hygiene products, and promote their inclusion in government health schemes.
With these initiatives, the duo learnt that it was possible to change attitudes towards consumption and disposal on a large scale, just by showing that an alternative way was possible.
What was needed, however, was a consolidated platform—of solutions that were affordable and accessible to all. This turned them from activists into entrepreneurs.
Malini and Smita started StoneSoup in 2015. The name harks back to an old folk tale that encapsulates the collective contribution which goes into creating something of value. In it, a hungry traveller convinces the people of a town to each share an ingredient that goes into making a hearty soup to feed the village folk.
Today, StoneSoup offers a range of products and services—sustainable alternatives that replace daily use products—composting kits, natural cleaners, cloth diapers and cloth bags.
Their most popular offerings, however, are menstrual cups—a substitute for single-use pads and tampons, that are superior, both from the standpoint of women’s health and from an environmental perspective.
“We wanted to create an Indian brand of menstrual cups,” Malini explains.
The awareness sessions they were already conducting as advocates of ‘Green The Red’ gave them a wealth of data from actual and potential users.
“That really put us in a good place by giving us insights on how to design the product, market it, and address people’s concerns,” says Smita.
Their design is innovative and intuitive—no rim lines and stain-causing grooves; no vestigial parts like the stem—nothing that can confuse users. A StoneSoup cup is smooth and bell-shaped, with a few grip lines.
“We made a cup that was the smallest size—to fit most women, and changed the shape from a V to a U to increase the volume,” says Malini, about what makes the StoneSoup cups more functional.
With design done, the next step was to put these cups within the easy reach of Indian women. One obvious solution was to be visible on major e-commerce platforms and mainstream retail stores such as health & glow, and METRO Cash & Carry—places well-suited to Indian buying behaviour. StoneSoup is also working to make cups available in chemist shops.
The other was to change the packaging so that the cup looked less like a medical device and more like an accessory—compact, attractive, portable and premium.
Manufactured in Bengaluru, the cups are available in a range of firmness—from soft to hard—making them suitable for various body types, levels of physical activity and flow.
StoneSoup cup users include women who are athletes, cyclists, gymnasts, and frequent travellers. The cups are priced between Rs 550 and Rs 1,200 and can be used for up to ten years.
The benefits of cups are well known. They’re safer for women’s reproductive health than plastic pads whose chemical fragrances and absorbents have been linked to allergies, irritations and discomfort.
For civic agencies, a switch from disposables could make garbage management easier and more cost-effective by reducing the expenditure on transport, treatment and disposal, and eliminating such practices as open burning, burying and incineration, and the health hazards they pose.
Reusable menstrual care products have been steadily gaining popularity in India with a number of homegrown and foreign brands available in the market. “But,” says Malini, “a majority of women buy cups for environmental reasons.”
“We wanted to reach out to others who are doing it for convenience,” says Smita.
And cups do offer all the convenience of disposables, plus they’re safe, economical and durable.
As new entrepreneurs, the duo was keen to start a business that created livelihoods for women. As a first step, they tapped into the Saathi Network – a network of citizen volunteers, who, as part of the Green The Red Movement, help women adopt sustainable menstruation practices through awareness sessions and demonstrations.
They also serve as resellers of these products and receive a portion of the margins. Leveraging the vast Saathi Network helps to reduce the adoption barrier, especially among women who want to understand usage patterns from existing users, and need hand-holding, once they become adopters.
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StoneSoup cups are priced lowest with Saathis to reduce the price barrier, especially in rural areas and among the urban poor, says Malini. StoneSoup also organises large-scale cup donation drives with its basic variant—the Pratham cup.
Giving along the way
The entrepreneurs say that all their efforts are focused on building a viable business that reduces garbage.
“But sustainable businesses are not ones that make billion dollars and then donate those billions to charity. We believe in giving along the way, without fighting to be the cheapest in the market,” says Smita.
StoneSoup’s cup-storage pouches come from the rural parts of South India and its period pride earrings are handmade by Dalit women artisans. The duo also supports and promotes NGOs and SHGs that manufacture other sustainable menstrual health solutions such as cloth pads.
The global menstrual cup market is expected to grow at 3.50% between 2018 and 2023, with India among the significant contributors. For now, however, the uptake of menstrual cups in the country is low due to a variety of reasons including taboos against insertables, high cost, and lack of awareness, especially in rural India, about the existence of these products.
Today, close to 50 per cent women aged 15-24 years in rural India and 77 per cent in urban India use locally prepared sanitary napkins and disposable menstrual hygiene products.
In a context where sewage and waste management infrastructure is rudimentary at best, the rise in non-biodegradable pads signals great health and environmental risks.
StoneSoup is attempting to change this narrative by showing that garbage need not only be managed by quick fixes, but it can also be reduced; that rashes, allergies and discomfort during periods need not just be treated, they can be done away with, for good.
“All we’re saying is that women have the right to alternatives so that they can choose what’s best for their health, environment and pocket,” the duo say.
Check out some of StoneSoup’s collection on The Better India Shop! Buy Here.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)