Credit: Stephen Sauer
Ideas Made to Matter
A ‘big, bold idea’ for better sanitary pads
In 2015, the United Nations adopted 17 sustainable development goals to promote both global peace and prosperity, while acknowledging neither can happen without addressing climate change, reducing inequality, and spurring economic growth.
That same year, Kristin Kagetsu co-founded Saathi, a sanitary pad company based in India and built on nine of those sustainable development goals, including gender equality and sanitation for all.
“We built Saathi believing that good engineering and systems thinking can help solve social problems in a way that doesn’t have to compromise either profit or the planet,” said Kagetsu, SB ’12. “That means making pads from sustainable, renewable materials, making them accessible to women no matter where they live, and working with other partners to make sure our products get upcycled.”
While menstruating is a natural, largely unavoidable part of life, sanitary products are expensive, can be difficult to source in rural or impoverished areas, and produce a lot of plastic pollution.
Saathi uses biodegradable and compostable banana and bamboo fiber to make its pads. Using a tiered business model, the company is able to subsidize pads for underserved people in rural India, where a 2016 survey found only 36% of women use sanitary pads.
We spoke with Kagetsu about Saathi’s mission, how she forms and tests ideas at the company, and Saathi’s “big, bold idea” to be a model for sustainable and responsible manufacturing.
Who inspires you?
Amy Smith [the founding director of MIT’s D-Lab] inspired me to explore other ways to use my engineering degree to help people and create impactful solutions with the community. In terms of work ethic, my mom inspires me to work hard and dream big. All the entrepreneurs I have met through the Cartier, MIT D-Lab, SheEO, and Earth Company networks have truly been an inspiration because they are all working on different solutions in every industry to make the world a more equal, safer, sustainable, and better place.
Where do you get ideas?
I get ideas from observing how things work and imagining how they might be improved. During my first trip to India in college, I worked with a non-governmental organization in the Himalayas. We stayed in a remote village and there wasn’t any waste infrastructure; the waste had to be dealt with locally or else it would end up in random patches off the road and down the mountain. Knowing this and thinking about how we were going to address access to sanitary pads made me think twice about how our solution should try to address both issues. Instead of just trying to solve access with cheap and low-quality plastic pads, how could we develop something that wouldn’t later become a plastic waste problem?
How are new ideas discovered and developed in your organization?
We are inspired by many things, and our curiosity and willingness to discuss help the ideas grow and flourish. Everything from products to marketing is open for everyone across the team to contribute ideas and suggestions. We engage our marketing interns in brainstorming activities because they come from different backgrounds and sometimes different countries as well. We consider the resources we have and what is possible and then come up with a plan and work together to bring it to life. Some of the ideas are tried and tested, and some are done from scratch.
A 2016 survey found that 36% of women in India use sanitary pads.
How do you keep track of new ideas?
Lists! Many, many lists. Depending on the type of idea, it might be in a notebook, Excel sheet, or Google Keep. We have lists of people and organizations we want to work with along with lists of new products we want to make and lists of people and organizations who align with our mission. We document all our ideas and refer to them during campaigns, events, and so on.
How do you test ideas?
We usually prototype or run small experiments that will help us prove our hypothesis. In the early days of Saathi, we had to make many iterations of our product before we settled on the final version. The initial pads we had didn’t look like pads — they were rectangular. But it was more important that we got the layers right at that stage, then we could worry about the shape. We also ask for feedback from our customers and stakeholders, which helps us make sure we’re headed in the right direction.
What's the biggest idea you are working on right now?
We are working on a new kind of socially responsible plastic offset credit and carbon offset credit. Today, plastic credits are just counting the kilograms of plastic waste collected, which is essentially measuring recycling. Our credits measure the amount of plastic waste prevented, because we are making completely non-plastic products that replace plastic sanitary pads. We wrote about the issue of plastic waste in the context of ocean pollution in our 5-part blog series.
Instead of purchasing regular plastic credits, which are based on collection of plastic waste already created, companies can buy plastic offset credits from us that not only equate to a certain amount of plastic replaced inthe ecosystem, but also know that they are supporting additional income to farmers, an all-women workforce in our manufacturing unit, and providing menstrual hygiene products to underserved women.
At MIT Sloan, we talk about ideas made to matter — ideas that are carefully developed and have meaningful impact in the world. In that context — what is your idea made to matter?
Our big, bold idea is that we aim to drive systemic change around how menstrual hygiene is addressed and drive the shift to a circular economy by working on nine of the U.N.’s sustainable development goals. That means making pads that are from sustainable, renewable materials, making them accessible to women no matter where they live, and working with other partners to make sure our products get upcycled.
In the long term, we plan to be a model for sustainable and responsible manufacturing of absorbent products. We believe in business as a tool to create impact, which is why we have built all of our impacts into our business model. Instead of looking at the waste problem after it is created, we’re addressing it from the source. We’re consciously choosing our materials to be biodegradable and compostable, and we’re working on ways to upcycle the pads in the long term.
Sharing this idea can create more impact not only for the women who don't have access to sanitary pads, but also for the farmers who get additional income working with us and the women we employ in our all-women manufacturing unit. We genuinely want to create a circular future because it is the need of the hour, and we believe that partnership and working together will move all of us toward this shared goal.
Read: The former IBM CEO on diversity and the discomfort of good ideas