Do you think about your condoms as farmed? How about the petroleum in your lubricants? Your sex life might not be so sustainable. Here’s why, plus how to make your sex life kinder to the planet (and hopefully more fun).
Sexy, Sultry And Super Sustainable: Get In Bed With The Planet
‘Before I founded Sex Brand,’ says Jack Gove, ‘I had just begun to pull the threads of the sexual health industry, and I was shocked – condoms are surprisingly typically unethical, because of the raw material used to make them and because of the impact they have on the planet.’
Jack Gove is one of a handful of entrepreneurs who founded disruptor brands in the sexual health and wellness space, and he’s not afraid to call it as it is. The founder of the sustainable condom company is unabashed talking to me about how sex is an essential function of our lives (‘we have to eat, we have to sleep, we have to crap – and we have to shag’). He’s also one of very few who has identified a problem around sustainability in this area – and is doing something about it.
It’s possible you’ve not given much thought to the sustainability of your sex life. Why would you? Picking up condoms is a hasty act done while avoiding eye contact with the cashier, careful not to buy anything juxtaposed that might imply a less than sanitary interest in wholesale veg. And lubricants and toys for pleasure are ordered online to arrive in hush-hush packaging and designed to be as quiet as possible lest a motorised sound creep outside your walls. It’s also possible you simply don’t want to – it does feel a touch like every fun element of our lives is under the microscope, whether it be our diets, our travel and, now, our choices in the bedroom.
But a new UN report suggests that we may be facing global temperature increases of up to 2.9 degrees – much warmer than our current Paris pledge of 1.5 degrees – so it’s clear that we need to adapt. And that includes how we have sex. (Which, as it turns out, also might make it more fun).
What’s the problem with condoms?
At a basic level, it’s worth breaking down and understanding what condoms are made of. ‘Around 80 percent of condoms are natural latex, which comes from a natural crop in the ground,’ says Jack. ‘The world’s condoms are a product of rubber farming.
‘Rubber farming is one of the worst offending industries in terms of impact on the land, because the demand for rubber is so high across a number of goods – most of the demand is in car tires and shoes.’
‘But this means that the farming has been intensive. Ninety percent of global production is in South East Asia, and over the past 25 years a rainforest area the size of Germany has been cut down alongside the destruction of soil health due to it being a monocrop – which then has human consequences as workers are displaced or lose their incomes.’
Looking further in the lifecycle of the product, too, it’s notable that condoms are single-use products. The UN estimates that 10 billion latex condoms are produced a year, which mostly end up disposed of in landfill; most of these condoms will have significant additives and chemicals added (as a preservative measure as well as to reduce their chances of breaking) which prevents it from being biodegradable.
The alternative, synthetic latex, is no better – and basically a plastic. ‘Like a balloon,’ says Jack, ‘it’s very slow to break down.’
What About Other Contraception?
It’s not just condoms that pose this fundamental material dilemma in terms of sustainability. While users of hormonal birth controls might feel reassured in their minimal throwaway impact, pills or devices that rely on synthetic oestrogen still leave marks on the planet. Primarily this mark is in our waterways, with hormones sneaking into our rivers and seas, thanks to essentially how the human body filters out excess through our urine and potentially due to waste in the manufacturing processes. (Note: C&TH approached Pfizer, who produce Sayana Press and Lybrel, and Gedeon Richter, who produces Rigevidon, for comment. Neither manufacturer provided response.)
And Solo Pleasure?
When sustainable sex toy company Love Not War was founded in 2021 by Will Ranscombe and Rob Scott, it was in the spirit of sustainability. The pair had met while working together at another adult company, so had figured they could apply their expertise to the niche. But Love Not War wasn’t their primary business venture. In reality, their primary business was a factory business which specialises in state-of-the-art bespoke manufacture and design, which woke them up to a vital sector issue around e-waste from sex toys. Manufacturing goods, they said, allowed them to genuinely innovate a sector that hadn’t moved in decades.
The options certainly are sparse in terms of eco-bedroom companions. Thinking of a classic bullet or fleshlight, you’re probably most closely going to picture a big plastic thing housed in a lot of non-recyclable plastic packaging. It’s not clear how many sex toys end up in landfill each year – there does not appear to have been a study yet – but according to Ann Summers, 75 percent of e-waste (a category under which battery-operated friends fall) is not recycled, adding to an enormous 350 million metric tons of yearly plastic waste.
How these goods are typically manufactured is also suspect. The run-off into water made from plastic production, how much oil and water goes into the production of any plastic good, and the extraction of petroleum for making these goods in the first instance – three of a litany of issues not unique to the manufacture of sex toys but still very much present. Indeed, at the end of their lifecycle, a number of these toys will shed microplastics, too.
For Love Not War, working as manufacturers first is the point of distinction which allows them to circumvent as much negative impact on the planet as possible. It’s apparently so distinct that they control their means of production that they can point to their competitors as more marketing ventures than actual goods manufacturing businesses. ‘Most companies in this space are not design led – rather, they commission factories in China and market ten or so products really, really well,’ says Will, ‘and the issue then is that these factories don’t care about sustainability.
‘It was a huge consumer goods segment with basically no nod to the sustainability component,’ says Will, ‘no-one was talking about it, or doing anything about it.’
The problem, Will thought, was that the market hadn’t innovated in decades – despite an increasingly cognisant audience of consumers.
Jack echoes that idea. ‘There were a number of unchallenged incumbents who were enjoying the lay of the land and just wanted things to stay the same,’ he says.
It’s a similar story for founder Sarah Welsh, who, alongside Farah Kabir, founded Hanx, the sustainable condom company, in 2017. ‘There were no products that spoke really to women in particular,’ she says, ‘and we’d noticed there was a lack of sustainable options. We surveyed the market before we started, and it told us that people were really seeking a sustainable brand that was also vegan certified. So we knew there was a gap in the market.’
They’d noticed a lack of innovation in the market for condoms over the course of decades. ‘It was really interesting,’ says Sarah, ‘the market hadn’t been innovated for decades and there weren’t really any challenger brands in the UK.’
Meet The Disruptors
One of the significant ways that Love Not War has created an innovative product is through design – a design which considers the entire lifecycle of its product in order to minimise its complete, holistic impact on the earth. The sex toy they offer (and there is only one product on their site) is a modular vibrator made up of two components, a motorised base and interchangeable head. ‘There are only three reasons a vibrator will break – either the electronics go, the motors stop, or the surfaces rips or tears,’ explains Will, ‘and so by keeping our products modular, we can run a repair and recycle scheme, allowing us to hone in on only the bits that aren’t working. This almost immediately cuts the product waste in half, because with any other band [of vibrator], if one part goes, the entire toy goes to landfill.’
Will is confident talking to me that the sustainable option here is better than its less-green peers. In particular, he thinks the choice of heads gives access to variety at a much better cost – once the initial purchase is made, it’s much less costly to buy into a different customisation for your toy. In essence, he’s brought the refillable store model of thinking to the sex toy industry.
For Jack, the innovation with Sex Brand was more a material process. ‘We work with a regenerative rubber initiative in Thailand,’ he says, ‘which comprises a cohort of 30 smallholders who have developed a growing technique which cultivates rubber into existing rainforests, as opposed to cutting them down.’
The sustainable option here is once again better. ‘It’s like if you grew an organic tomato: it’d taste better versus its non-organic peer,’ he explains, ‘the rubber that’s grown for these condoms is more premium and therefore feels better – and for a condom, feel matters so much.’
The Right Choice Is More Expensive
One of the challenges that exists within this space is that shoppers have an expectation on price. This isn’t exclusive to the sector – one needs only look at how we consume fashion – but the sexual wellness and health sector has not yet woken up to slower shopping. Nor has education around this begun in earnest.
‘It is more expensive to produce sustainably,’ says Will, ‘and people expect a Durex bullet for £9.99 in Boots, but to invest in quality and longevity is simply going to be more expensive.’
‘To be honest, the major reason we can do what we do with Love Not War is that we have our own factory, so we can access the raw materials at a better price than our competitors [who outsource manufacturing] do.’
Holly Jackson and Kalila Bolton, founders of the more considered online sexual wellness and sex toy shop SheSpot, echo this point. ‘For the brands themselves, it’s more expensive to produce sustainable sex toys,’ says Holly, ‘the more environmentally conscious brands are typically dealing with very small budgets, and the minimum order on some of these manufacturing costs are quite high – it’s an evolving process for many.’
They also draw lessons from the fashion industry. ‘We’d encourage people to invest a little more upfront as you’re then much less likely to need another toy so quickly,’ says Kalila, ‘compare it to cost per wear.’
‘There’s definitely an education piece to be done in the future to kind of say, “this should last you years”,’ says Kalila.
This is echoed by Jack. ‘There’s a lot of education to be done on how our condoms are grown,’ he says, ‘people need to start exercising a critical eye on it in the same way we would our food supply chains, or how we examine where our t-shirts are grown and farmed.’
It’s worth noting that condoms face the same price access point. The more sustainable options appear to be more expensive. A search on Boots places a pack of 12 Durex condoms at £10.99 (91p a unit). A pack of Hanx by contrast is £12.99 for 10 (£1.30 a unit), Sex Brand’s £12.50 for 10 (£1.25 a unit). Roam’s fair rubber condoms are as expensive, £15 for 12 (£1.25 a unit). The additional cost of being kinder in our sex lives begins at 31p a pop.
It’s not just cost; the other major challenge in this market is consumer fear.
We might fear the safety implications of using more sustainable goods: will using recycled materials mean we’re putting something unsafe into or around our bodies? Are more eco-condoms more likely to break?
‘All of our toys are body safe,’ says Will, ‘as we send off to an external Swiss testing company for certification, and we use medical grade silicone.’
By contrast – and in actual fact – it’s not guaranteed to be safe when buying cheaper traditional sex toys.
‘On the sites of our bigger competitors, you could type in “vibrator” on their website, and receive 1500 completely unvetted hits. And a lot of the time these products might include ingredients that are not body safe,’ says Holly and Kalila, ‘we’ve been really shocked on the kinds of toys you see go viral on TikTok – some of which have been found to be made of materials that actually biodegrade and decompose inside your body, potentially while you’re using it.’
‘This is a problem with things like lubricants, too, as they’re obviously mostly derived from chemicals and petroleum – with harmful chemicals,’ says Holly, ‘and these are intended for the most intimate part of a woman’s body. Just think about how delicate the microbiome is down there.’
Historically, it appears there’s been a lack of testing and universal certification in the sex toy industry. At the moment, it’s a choice to seek certification as Love Not War and the brands stocked by SheSpot do. ‘Although this is changing,’ says Will, ‘there’s an ISO standard coming in, but at the minute most of the industry is basically just self-certifying.’
By choosing sustainably, it appears more likely that the product materials will be vetted and certified.
It’s a different story for condoms. Testing has to exist as condoms are medical devices, so across the board there’s no compromise on safety.
‘Hanx is CE certified and FDA cleared,’ says Sarah, ‘which is rigorous.’
Sustainability has no impact on the safety of these devices.
‘We don’t add any chemicals that can affect the biodegradability of our condoms,’ says Sarah, ‘if the product was exposed to light, oxygen and moisture, it would of course decay in the right conditions – but so would a normal latex product. Obviously it’s packaged so it won’t, so unless it’s left out of its foil packaging for three months, the product is safe.’
Neither Hanx and Sex Brand report shorter lifespans than traditional condoms. In fact, Jack estimates that soon Sex Brand will have a shelf-life of five years; the average condom enjoys three to five years, so this would put them on the most durable end of the spectrum.
Confronting Taboo – If That Even Is The Problem
So why hasn’t this topic garnered more conversation? They all provide different answers.
‘This space has unique challenges, as it’s quite a taboo area; not least, there’s a lot of censorship in how we can advertise, so it’s hard to make noise – particularly if you’re a smaller, independent brand,’ says Kalila and Holly.
‘The taboo was one of the major reasons we started Hanx,’ says Sarah, ‘it was all just so archaic – brands promoting a man’s conquest with garish packaging and nasty chemicals. We asked “why does it have to be this way, for women who care about their bodies and the brands they buy?”’
But Jack disagrees. ‘I think “taboo” is an easy out. People have a much more holistic view of sex than they did 20 years ago’ he says, ‘the reasons things haven’t changed as quickly as they could have felt more like a lack of courage.’
These disruptors prove though that there are genuine innovators in the sector though – perhaps brave ones – and a lot more on its way as we wake up to the need to holistically integrate sustainability into everything we do, including having sex.
‘We’re so passionate about the new wave of eco conscious brands that are particularly headed by women, who are so cognisant of doing the right thing and the impact of consumerism. Our mission is to platform them and help people make informed decisions,’ says Kalila.
‘My hope for the future of the sexual health and wellness space is that people don’t feel stigmatised – this will be the key to making a real difference, and we see our place as a brand there too,’ says Sarah.
‘We love what we do,’ says Will, ‘because ultimately we make people happy every day.’
Photo by Cottonbro Studio via Pexels.