Sex And The Planet

From vegan condoms to bio-degradable dildos and organic lubes, the market for sexual wellness products is witnessing growing interest in green alternatives

Eco-friendly sex is the new buzzword of the millennium, and India, one of the fastest growing markets for contraceptives, has already got on the bandwagon. As consumer demand grows—pushed by concerns for the planet and personal health—more brands are entering the domain of organic and eco-friendly products. From contraceptives to lubricants and sex toys, manufacturers are placing their bets on the “green sex” paraphernalia.

A key driver for this piqued interest is the business opportunity that lies therein.

The rising awareness about contraceptives, complemented by the escalating cost of living and several government efforts to promote family planning, has resulted in an increase in the global contraceptive market. The size of this segment in 2019 was $22.49 billion, according to a Fortune Business Insights report. It is estimated to reach $30.15 billion by 2027.

India was the first country in the world to launch a National Programme for Family Planning in 1952, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. A 1997 report by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), citing the ministry data, states that the use of contraception by couples aged between 15 and 49 in India rose from 10% in 1970–71 to an estimated 40.6% in 1992–93. A Mordor Intelligence report says that India’s contraceptive device market is growing at a CAGR of 7.42% over 2023–28, and that the condom segment is expected to hold significant market share during this period. The Contraceptives Market Research and Forecast 2018-2023 by OMR Global Research projected the Asia-Pacific region—which includes China and India—to be the most opportunistic region in the global contraceptives market during the forecast period.

“Contrary to popular belief, Indians are definitely ready to talk about sex and buy sex toys. However, they may still choose to do so in more private scenarios,” observes Anushka Gupta, founder of MyMuse, a start-up for sexual wellness products. “We are slowly moving to a place where it is no longer treated as a dirty secret,” she says. She has data from the company’s survey to back her claim.

“Our survey in 2020, covering more than 20,000 people across the country, revealed that around 44% of them were already using [sexual wellness] products other than contraceptives in their intimate lives. Of the remaining who had never used these products in the bedroom, eight out of 10 said that they were curious and willing to try,” she shares.

In the light of these findings, while these are general estimates for the entire contraceptive market, the niche eco-friendly segment too is expected to get its share of the pie.

Climate Concerns

The 2021 Condomology Report by the Condom Alliance states that the worldwide use of male condoms increased from 64 million in 1994 to 189 million in 2019. When seen in the context of the increasing usage, their climate unfriendliness is set to become a bigger concern in coming days.

A study titled Evaluation of the Potential Environmental Impacts of Condom Production in Thailand looked at the comparative environmental impact of production of natural rubber (NR) and polyisoprene (PI) condoms. Polyisoprene condoms are made from synthetic rubber and are for people who are allergic to latex which uses casein, a milk derivative, for processing. It was found that the environmental impact of PI production was approximately two to two-and-a-half times higher than that of NR for global warming, acidification and photochemical oxidation.

Apart from PI, non-latex condoms are also made of polyurethane or synthetic rubber, which makes them non-biodegradable. Additionally, the core component of polyurethane is petroleum, a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Lubricants, too, are under scanner for their environmental impact. While some lubricants are water-based, others are oil-based. Some are laced with chemicals as well and have glycerine, silicone or parabens as their ingredients. Petroleum-based extracts can lead to the release of greenhouse gases.

Spotlight on Eco-Sex

Whether it is the vegan condom brand Bleu, petroleum derivative-free lubricant brand That Sassy Thing or the mood-enhancing MyMuse soy candles, manufacturers are placing their bets on the eco-friendly and sustainable sex segment.

Bleu, a vegan Indian brand of condoms—veganism is associated in general with low emissions—claims to be free from toxins, glycerine and parabens and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council to show that the latex used in it is sustainably sourced. The packaging is in biodegradable paper boxes.

Manforce Condoms, a leading brand in India, has also come up with vegan ultra-thin, flavoured and textured condoms.

Aakash Ranison, a vegan influencer on Instagram and author of Climate Change Explained: For One and All, says, “Vegan condoms are far better than the current options for many reasons. They are free of any animal derivatives since the brands they come from are against animal mistreatment.”

The ecological effect of vegan condoms, he says, is minimal, and they come with a host of benefits for those who are concerned about animal welfare, environmental impact, health and ethics.

“It is important to choose a type of condom that is comfortable, effective and safe, and vegan condoms can be a good option for many people,” Ranison says.

That Sassy Thing, which offers natural water-based lubricants, claims to use extracts like aloe vera, flax seed, tea tree leaf extract and purified water.

Sachee Malhotra, CEO and founder of the company, says, “Our lubricant is vegan and free of any petroleum derived ingredients—propylene glycol or glycerine. It is India’s first all-natural, plant- and water-based lubricant and is non-toxic and water-soluble.” Such lubricants can be washed off quickly and are better for the environment, compared to oil- or silicone-based ones.

Additionally, they are free of glycerine, parabens and petrochemicals and have ingredients that are safe for the body, says Malhotra.

“Flavoured lubricants add sugars that impact the vaginal pH balance and can cause itches, rashes and yeast infections. However, our all-natural water-based lube is unflavoured. Our goal has been to make products good for all bodies and genders. Hence, our lubricant is also pH balanced to avoid any itches, rashes or yeast infections,” she says.

When it comes to sex accessories, toys are a big market. According to a 2020 report by ThatsPersonal.com, titled India Uncovered: Insightful Analysis of Sex Products Trends in India, the sale of sex toys went up by 65% in the country in the post-Covid lockdown phase. The global sex toys market size is expected to reach $62.32 billion by 2030, says a report by Research and Markets.

Biodegradable sex toys made of starch-based bioplastics and recyclable toys have already made a mark globally. Indian brands too have come up with products made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS plastic, and silicone.

MyMuse offers a medical grade silicon ABS plastic massager. Experts say that it is better than conventional plastic as it can be recycled.

“For a sex toy, we always suggest looking for materials that are non-porous,” says Tanaya Narendra, a doctor who influences on Instagram as @dr_cuterus. Vegetables cannot be replacement for plastic sex toys, she asserts. An Oxford-trained doctor, she is the author of Everything Nobody Tells You About Your Body.

Candles may be mood enhancers, but these can also cause emissions. The wax candle is made from paraffin wax, a derivative of petroleum. A sustainable alternative to it is the soy candle. Mymuse, which sells eco-friendly soy candles under its range Spark, says that it uses lead-free wicks that take time to burn and create a chemical-free aura. The packing is in a glass jar, which is reusable as well.

Green Sex Challenges

Committed sustainability practitioners are high on the idea of environmentally sustainable sex, but there are several challenges hampering its acceptance.

It takes time for habits and mindsets to change, says Malhotra of That Sassy Thing. Vegan condoms are expensive. Not just that, consumers do not find products easily available, though they are available online. “Some people have told us that our products are not easily accessible, so that is the battle we are fighting,” Malhotra says.

Enquiries with chemist shops reveal that they are often not even aware of unconventional condoms, this when most condom sales are through pharmacies. According to the 2021 Condomology Report, chemists account for 78%, grocery/general store 14%, paan plus 6% and modern trade 2% sale of condoms in India.

Narendra says, “A major component of waste that comes from sex is condoms. One cannot really avoid it unless one is completely monogamous and has been tested for sexually transmitted infections.”

A way out could be to use biodegradable condoms to overcome the waste generation challenge. However, biodegradable condoms come with their own set of issues. Narendra adds, “There are a couple of problems with biodegradable or natural condoms, if these are the lambskin condoms. They are significantly more expensive than the regular latex condoms. Also, because they are naturally synthesised, they have pores in them which can let bacteria and viruses and fungi pass through. Sperms and STI-causing organisms are microscopic entities.”

Saif, who uses just his first name and is on Instagram as @thesustainabilityguy, feels that there is a need to change the marketing pitch of sexual wellness products. “We must shift the focus towards promoting sexual health products as essential tools for safety and well-being than just highlighting the pleasure aspect alone,” he says. This will open the doors for eco-friendly products, he adds.

“I believe that the demand for sustainable alternatives of sexual health products will only increase in the future when people become more aware about the ingredients and the impact of harmful chemicals and additives used in traditional sexual health products. However, this will take time,” he says.

The eco-friendly sex segment is in its nascent stage. The world is gradually accepting that the climate crisis is for real, and that the unsustainable consumption patterns of human beings are a major reason for it, pushing the need for environment friendly or less damaging options. So, sexual wellness products made from biodegradable materials and with lower carbon footprints are expected to see wider acceptance.

Sustainable sexual wellness can be a viable business model for brands if it is well-funded and operated at a huge scale, says Malhotra. In India, things may not be simple. Even now, “organic” is interpreted as an elitist movement that does not make financial sense to many. On the brighter side, with estimates giving the thumbs up to the growth potential of the sex devices market, the economies of scale can take care of the cost to end users.