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Not Sold in Stores: Why Organic Tampons Aren’t Reaching Conventional Retail Shelves

Presidio Graduate School’s Macroeconomics course for Spring 2012, is authoring a series of articles. The articles on this “micro-blog” reflect reactions and thoughts on news items, economic theory, and other issues as they pertain to the concept of sustainability.  Follow along here.

By Sunya Ojure

In May 2012, I searched for organic tampons on Target.com. The search results told me that organic tampons are available for purchase online but “not sold in stores.” The same search on Walmart.com produced zero results. Walmart neither sells organic tampons online nor in its brick-and-mortar stores.

This is surprising considering recent market and consumer behavior. Today,women are driving sales of socially and environmentally responsible products and organic markets are growing faster than their conventional counterparts. Women are also purchasing enormous quantities of tampons. In fact, the large majority (70%) of American women between puberty and menopause buy tampons and use over 11,000 in a lifetime. Meanwhile, proponents believe that organic cotton tampons are preferable for female and environmental health because they rely on natural, renewable materials that are biodegradable while conventional feminine hygiene products use a mix of natural and synthetic fibers, petroleum-based materials, and bleaching agents.

Despite these trends, organic cotton tampons have yet to make it onto the shelves of large, conventional stores in the U.S such as Target and Walmart. Why does organic food make the cut, while organic tampons do not? What keeps these products relegated to natural food stores and the e-commerce space?

Strong rivalry within the U.S. tampon industry may be one factor blocking organic brands from reaching Walmart’s shelves. Advertising Age estimates that U.S. tampon sales total approximately $1 billion annually. Procter & Gamble’s Tampax brand routinely takes home about half of this pie. In fact, Tampax has dominated the American market for decades, controlling over 40% of total market share since 1980. Moreover, Tampax’s two main competitors, Kotex and Playtex, control all but the remaining 16% of the market.

All three major brands were well established by the time the first organic cotton product hit the scene in 1989. What’s more, industry leaders sell products at a lower price point than organic companies like Natracare and Organyc. According to prices listed on Target.com on April 10, 2012, Organyc cotton tampons are 1.6 times more expensive than Playtex conventional tampons. This price difference is likely linked to the higher cost of organic cotton, which was about twice as expensive per pound as conventional cotton in 2011.

Intense brand loyalty within the tampon industry also plays a large role in defining the competitive landscape. Women are reluctant to switch brands and will often rely on one brand for their entire lives. Teenagers are the most likely to try different products as they have not yet developed strong allegiances. Thus, tampon companies have only a few years to capture a consumer’s loyalty.

Although women are extremely brand loyal, you won’t hear them singing the praises of their favorite brand very loudly. Organic food is an easy conversation for many at this point, but organic tampons haven’t entered into most American’s everyday lexicon. Perhaps consumers aren’t voicing their demand for organic feminine hygiene products in the same way they encourage retailers to stock organic spinach.

Are Walmart and Target waiting for their female consumers to speak up? Or can organic tampon brands simply not compete on conventional shelves?

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