Martha Silcott can tell you some period horror stories.
One of her friends had to unclog a toilet after trying to flush a sanitary pad — while meeting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. Another recalls watching, then scrambling, as her dog played on her cream-colored carpet with a tampon stolen from the trash.
“There are so many examples, and they’re all so unnecessary,” she says.
Women have two choices when it comes to disposing of sanitary products — flush them down the toilet, which can jam up pipes and pollute waters, or wrap tampons and pads in toilet paper and cram them into bins or purses. Compounding the embarrassment is the fact that menstruation and bodily fluids are taboo subjects in most circles, leaving many women feeling pressured to stay silent about this all-too-common struggle.
Silcott’s mission is to replace those unvoiced moments of panic “with a feeling of calm and confidence and empowerment, so that no matter where you are or what the situation is, you feel relaxed and empowered to deal with it completely.” And her solution is London-based business FabLittleBag, which makes and sells purse-friendly biodegradable bags for holding, then tossing, sanitary products.
She launched the company in May 2014, then began selling packs of the problem-solving bags one year later. By 2017, she was making £115,000, or nearly $150,000, in annual revenue. These days, women are purchasing up to 6,000 packs per month.
Silcott is encouraged, if unsurprised, by the success. After all, she says, “women, for so long, had no choice.”
Solving Problems and Erasing Embarrassment
Silcott wants to encourage women who flush sanitary items to toss them out instead — to become “binners” rather than “flushers,” as she puts it.
There are practical and environmental concerns driving this push. Nearly 2 billion sanitary items are flushed down Britain’s toilets annually, which cost £88 million — over $11 million — to unclog from pipes and account for roughly 6 percent of Britain’s beach litter.
But Silcott’s primary worry is far more personal. “I want to get rid of, and be able to replace, the negative feelings [felt by menstruating] women up and down the country and around the world,” on average, once per month. Periods are “a natural event that will happen for a big chreunk of life,” she says. “Women being women, they just get on with it, and deal with whatever it is that needs to be done,” but the unsatisfactory disposal options can leave many women feeling “frustrated, upset and anxious.”
Silcott believes that her product, together with more free discussion of periods, can change that reality. That’s why she is active on Instagram and Twitter, writes a topical blog and speaks about periods and menstrual hygiene at schools, Girl Scout meetings and other events. Women are speaking up more, thanks to her and a number of other organizations that are working to dismantle taboos about menstruation that hold back women and girls.
Creating the Product
Silcott says she first had the idea for FabLittleBag in 1997 — “while I was on the toilet,” of course.
During those years, she worked in relationship and account management for big firms around London. But for 18 months, she kept thinking about her future product “in snatched 5-minute increments on the bus, or walking back from taking the kids to school.” She envisioned something small, subtly designed and easy to open one-handed, and eventually crafted a crude prototype using sandwich bags and glue.
Bringing her idea to life was a lengthy process, but it was nothing compared to the ordeal of securing a patent, she says. Silcott first applied in 2006, and didn’t get approval for her patent until 2013. It was “such a ridiculously long time, I did nearly give up.”
But one thing kept her going — the needs of her fellow women. So as soon as she secured the patent, Silcott took the leap into entrepreneurship. Happily, it came together quickly from there — she found a manufacturer in Malaysia, created packaging and put together marketing strategies ahead of a 2014 launch.
All she needed after that were customers. “Nothing is great until you sell it, and other people also think it’s great.” She made her first sale by appealing to water companies in London who saw in FabLittleBag the opportunity to address a widespread pollution problem. Five of those companies purchased her bags and gave them out for free to households and at community events.
By 2015, she had won shelf space in retail stores. And now, her bags can be purchased at nine grocery chains and online retailers, including Amazon, which sells them in several countries.
Continuing Her Revolution
Now 48, Silcott is raising two teenage sons with her husband, while continuing to expand FabLittleBag. Partnerships still play a key role in that growth — last year, the female athletes who represented England at the Commonwealth Games brought packs of the bags with them so they could stay focused on their sporting events, spreading the FabLittleBag name in the process.
Her primary goal now is to further disrupt the discomfort around the subject of menstruation. “There is much more of a conversation than there ever was, which is brilliant, but we’re a long way off from getting rid of the taboo around it. The only way is to talk about it.”