What makes for sustainable love?
You might answer with words like trust, loyalty, or honesty, but Jeffrey Hollender and his daughter, Meika, might have a different response: Condoms.
The father-daughter team recently launched Sustain, a line of Fair-Trade, vegan, cruelty-free, chemical-free, sustainable condoms. It’s the newest project for Jeffrey Hollender since leaving the popular environmentally-safe household products company Seventh Generation that he co-founded in 1988.
Twenty years ago, Jeffrey Hollender trademarked the name “Rainforest Rubbers” with the intention to make condoms from rubber harvested in the Amazon, but he instead put his efforts into running Seventh Generation.
Two decades later, the Sustain product is the only Fair-Trade certified condom sold in the United States, sourced from a single rubber plantation in southern India. Beyond banning child labor and paying reasonable wages, the plantation provides education and healthcare to its 180 rubber tappers and their families. It also meets the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) guidelines for environmental sustainability, ensuring the health of the soil and biodiversity of the land are as secure as the people who work it.
The condom industry remains steady, selling an average of 450 million condoms each year in the United States and over 500 billion worldwide. Just seven years ago, the 437 million condoms per year sold, resulted in 2.75 million pounds of refuse in landfills nationwide.
If a condom is flushed down the toilet, it not only clogs the plumbing, it can end up in the water supply. In general, condoms disposed of via the toilet are usually fished out early in the water-recycling process and transported to a landfill. But if they aren’t caught early, condoms remain with the water waste and can be sent out into large bodies of water, including the ocean.
While latex is biodegradable as an all-natural substance made from the sap of rubber trees, most latex condoms are not composed of 100 percent latex—they have added chemicals that alter their decomposition potential. Lambskin condoms are biodegradable, but they don’t protect against sexually transmitted infections and HVI. Condoms made of polyurethane do not break down at all.
Here is where Sustain is doing things greener. Their condoms are free of nitrosamines, a carcinogenic chemical found in most rubber products. In 2010, the World Health Organization and United Nations Population Fund recommended that manufacturers minimize the presence of nitrosamines in male latex condoms. Sustain is now leading the way as one of only two major brands of latex condoms sold in the United States whose entire line of condom styles tested free of detectable nitrosamines.
And it’s not just condom users that Sustain benefits; this also affects workers in the rubber industry, whose risk for cancer is markedly increased with prolonged exposure to nitrosamines.
If the product strikes you as a little strange, you’re not alone—Time included sustainable condoms on their list of the Top 10 Odd Environmental Ideas. Yet we depend on many disposable products in our daily lives. Items like paper products, plastic sandwich bags, and reusable water bottles are frequently considered for their sustainability and many alternatives have been popularly marketed and sold.
Condoms are disposable products, too, and people rely on them for much greater purposes like protection from STIs, HIV, and unwanted pregnancy—so why not consider their sustainability, too? In a phone interview with Triple Pundit, Jeffrey Hollender remarked, “Condoms are incredibly important for health reasons, but because the product is a good and important product and serves a critical function, people have not asked the question of ‘Where did it come from and how is it made?’”
Sustain is working to create a dialogue around their products, using sex as a conversation starter to get people to think about sustainability, justice, and equity each time they open their products—even if they’re understandably distracted. The company’s goal is to help people see connection between everyday purchases and pressing social issues.
As Jeffrey Hollender further explains:
“We will never solve the myriad of complex problems we face one at a time. Social inequity produces poverty, poverty results in hunger, hunger encourages unsustainable agricultural practices that result in global climate change. Sustain is about recognizing connections, taking on the system, not the individual problems.”
Sustain is not just approaching condoms differently from an environmental standpoint: They’re also hoping to change the stigma surrounding condoms, specifically for women, who purchase 40% of all condoms. Despite that statistic, marketing and product design for condoms is still predominantly geared towards men.
Meisha explained in an interview:
“What we’re trying to do is destigmatize contraception—rebrand birth control, almost—to make women feel really good about buying and carrying condoms, and also help them understand that their sexual health is a critical component to their overall health. I think that message and education has been lacking over the past few decades.”
Sustain’s eco-friendly practices and recyclable packaging with individual wrappers featuring pebbles, bamboo, and sea urchin shells is certainly appealing. So, too, is the company’s personal and corporate commitment to responsibility, and the fact that 10 percent of their profits support women’s reproductive health care with their 10%4Women nonprofit.
Ideas like Sustain prove that there’s always a new way to consider sustainable living. Creativity is driving social movements forward—and we should find new ways to support positive progress wherever it can be found.