Menstrual Care Product Companies’ Crusade Against ‘Tampon Tax’ Falls Short of Meaningful Progress

If we want to make meaningful change, we must broaden the scope of menstrual activism beyond just the product and its taxation.

A new coalition formed by menstrual product companies aiming to reimburse customers for the ‘tampon tax’ may seem like a positive step—but it primarily follows the well-established government strategy of focusing on tax reforms while failing to address broader menstrual equity and stigma issues. (Richard Levine / Corbis via Getty Images)

Last week, a group of menstrual product companies announced a new coalition to reimburse customers for the consumption taxes on menstrual care products—commonly known as the tampon tax. While the “Tampon Tax Back Coalition” may appear to be a victory for menstrual activism, the truth is more complicated.

Although companies may refund tampon taxes to customers, the state still benefits by receiving tax income, and these companies expand their market share—but menstruators continue to shoulder most of the cost of this essential product. This essentially mirrors a well-established and globally recognized government strategy of reducing or exempting consumption taxes on menstrual products. While consumers will see some benefit, it falls short of actual progress.

Unsurprisingly, the eight brands involved—including August, Cora and Rael—excel at branding themselves with an intersectional and environmentally conscious approach. On the flip side, multinational industry leaders usually exhibit a less prominent dedication to these principles, often restricting their actions to incorporating empowerment slogans on their product packaging or donating to what they label as the “Global South,” portraying girls as individuals who need saving through their products.

Eliminating period poverty and destigmatizing menstruation should be a central goal in the feminist development agenda. Still, menstrual activists and scholars have consistently emphasized the need to move beyond a product-centered approach in this battle. Nevertheless, we frequently witness actions that predominantly revolve around products. Transitioning away from a product-centric approach presents a challenge to these companies—it would require them to engage in discussions that extend beyond their specific products, which is fundamentally not their priority.

While putting the focus on taxes might seem like a positive strategy worth celebrating, it’s essentially a tactic to keep our attention fixed on products, rather than addressing the discourse that instructs us that it is always better for menstruating people to:

  • Use a commercial menstrual product to capture menstrual blood.
  • Participate in all activities as if they were not menstruating.
  • Suppress menstruation and its symptoms if they are too severe to hide.

If we are genuinely dedicated to eliminating period poverty, we must do so through a coalition that incorporates non-governmental organizations and grassroots communities. This inclusion is essential for broadening the scope of menstrual activism beyond just the product and its taxation. It would also provide a more accurate, distanced portrayal of these companies’ roles in the eyes of menstruating individuals. Their skillful advertising of this action falsely portrays their involvement in menstrual activism, as if they aren’t benefiting from it. It’s not a problem to benefit, but using such an important issue like period poverty as a front while pursuing profit is misleading.

While some argue that taxation and product-oriented approaches are stepping stones to more comprehensive actions, their overall effectiveness is worth questioning.

Period poverty is primarily addressed through two critical interventions around the globe:

  1. distributing free products in public areas, especially in schools, through intervention programs mainly in the “Global South,” and
  2. reducing or exempting consumption taxes on commercial menstrual care products.

Governments have focused on taxation since 1972, when Ireland and Jamaica exempted taxes on menstrual products. As more countries began adopting this reform, these efforts have regrettably revolved around a single step: reducing or eliminating the tax.

In her book Periods Gone Public, lawyer, author and menstrual equity activist Jennifer Weiss-Wolf presents four reasons why she supports this reform:

  1. It alleviates a small financial burden;
  2. challenges outdated, unfair and discriminatory laws;
  3. contributes to the pursuit of economic parity and gender equity; and
  4. serves as a gateway to engage people in discussions about the broader implications of menstruation in our policy-making process.

Weiss-Wolf’s arguments in Periods Gone Public bring attention to the significance of sales tax reform in the menstrual equity movement. (Editor’s note: Weiss-Wolf is Ms.’ executive director for partnerships and strategy.)

While I agree with the first three points she presents, the ‘gateway’ argument has its limitations. It’s true that discussions around the tampon tax did raise awareness about period poverty in the general public and served as a policy opening in the U.S. context. However, the question remains whether the movement could have been more creative in its approach—as Weiss-Wolf herself acknowledges that the menstrual equity agenda should extend beyond simple sales tax reform.

Moreover, this exclusive focus on products might offer an unintended advantage to menstrual product companies, allowing them to exploit this feminist approach for profit. Simultaneously, it can create a convenient excuse for governments to claim they’ve fulfilled their responsibility.

The Tampon Tax Back Coalition should critically assess their approach and its consequences.

Consumers must submit their receipts to the coalition website to claim a tax refund. Given that these companies emphasize the importance of intersectionality and inclusivity, we should ask: Who among those who menstruate can access the internet and have the time and energy to submit receipts? They will likely be individuals who have access to standardized and idealized services and products, such as a mobile finance applications (either Venmo or PayPal).

Furthermore, this serves as a clever marketing strategy, as these companies can gain insights into the primary locations and contact details of customers who buy their products in brick-and-mortar stores, then submit their receipts online. This information is potentially more valuable than the tax refund itself.

We should also be concerned about this change’s potential adverse worldwide effects. The U.S. and U.K. have been pivotal in shaping period poverty activism, setting precedents and influencing policies on a global scale.

As a Turkish menstruation activist and a scholar, I fear that emerging alternative companies in Türkiye might replicate these approaches, giving the government more reasons to neglect their responsibility in addressing period poverty and menstruation stigma. When brands are responsible for policy change, governments tend to step back, even though they have far more power to enact reform than brands.

While I appreciate the increased visibility of menstruation as a topic, I can’t help but feel disheartened by the prevalence of commodity feminism in menstrual activism, where feminist ideals are used to market menstrual products. This shift could divert attention from the essential requirement for a more comprehensive approach to menstrual equity. This includes advocating for menstrual leave policies, free menstrual products in public spaces and disaster zones, integrating diverse menstrual experiences into educational curricula, and collaborating with healthcare professionals to establish a comprehensive support system for individuals with PCOS, endometriosis and dysmenorrhea.

The recent coalition formed by menstrual product companies to reimburse customers for the tampon tax may seem like a positive step for menstrual activism—but it primarily follows the well-established government strategy of focusing on tax reforms, failing to address broader issues of menstrual equity and stigma.

We must consider the potential consequences of this product-centric approach, including the risk of allowing governments to step back. We need to hear more from activists who can creatively showcase the multifaceted challenges of period poverty that extend beyond unjust taxation of menstrual products, as this case highlights the over-commercialization of the menstrual movement.

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Bahar Aldanmaz is a PhD candidate in sociology at Boston University, and the co-founder of Konuşmamız Gerek, the sole NGO in Türkiye dedicated to addressing period poverty and dismantling menstruation stigma. She is also a public voices fellow advocating for the rights of women and girls, collaborating with The OpEd Project and Equality Now.