What started as a brand’s goal to help the planet by creating environmentally sustainable menstrual products has become a mission to champion the case for gender equality and female empowerment.
We talk to Meng Shui, Creative Director of Thinx, on designing for sustainability, people, and social norm-breaking.
Words by Chantelle Muñoz
Interview by Reena Mesias
Graphics by Paolo Geronimo
In school, we were taught that a period marked the end of a sentence. In much the same way, society has for the longest time cautioned us that any mention of a woman’s period means it’s time to end the conversation and move on to the next topic. This, we were told, is the polite thing to do. But there is nothing diplomatic about refusing to discuss half the world’s natural experiences on a regular basis.
Thinx is just as known for their spot-on communications as they are for their groundbreaking period panties. More than challenging themselves to create the most planet-friendly period solutions, they’ve also battled authorities and social expectations to get people to talk about not just the Thinx brand but their vision as a whole: a world where periods are destigmatized, and anyone with it can continue to be and do their absolute best.
Meng Shui has seen all of this unfold in the past four years she’s been with the company. “Our mission to smash taboos and social stigmas actually pointed us toward a total rebrand,” she shares, an indication that the battle against societal standards and norms is far from over and Thinx, at its forefront, refuses to sit still.
If there’s anything we’ve learned from the brand during the course of this interview, it’s this: when you have something to fight for, you fight.
Thinx really changed the game by introducing washable period panties as an alternative to pads and tampons that just end up in landfills. What are the demands and motivations of designing for sustainability?
The fashion industry has become notorious for wastefulness, specifically because of things like microseasons, or the production of more than one clothing line within a single season. This often results in the costly and frivolous practice of discarding millions of dollars worth of perfectly good fabric and clothes instead of recycling them. One of the biggest challenges as a designer at Thinx is ensuring that we maximize utility and efficiency while also creating as environmentally sustainable a product as possible.
I stay motivated to keep working toward this goal because we only have one planet; if oil spills, toxic smog and wildfires have taught us anything, it’s that we cannot afford to keep wasting and destroying it. Fashion and menstrual hygiene products should not be adding atop of this already catastrophic issue.
People are now more conscious about how they spend, and want their purchases to go to something meaningful and valuable. What’s the biggest challenge in shaping Thinx’s brand narratives, to help them connect with people and also push that value?
A big challenge in shaping our brand narrative is conveying the same authenticity that Thinx staff brings to the office every day to the public.
A lot of people think that companies are only interested in growing, selling and attaining profit. While it’s true that companies need profit to survive, not all of them think and function in the same way. We’re here because we care about spreading awareness, enhancing access to menstrual hygiene products and continuing to shape the way we have conversations about this topic. We refer to our customers and followers as a community. We provide online forums for them to discuss these topics and will often join in, or create online content with that in mind. Thinx is period-proof underwear, but our brand represents much more than the product alone.
What, to you, are the qualities of a good brand?
I think a good brand is self-aware, values-driven, innovative, and not afraid to take calculated risks.
Thinx Inc. knowingly took a risk by bringing a totally new product to the menstrual hygiene market to address a topic that was rarely acknowledged, let alone discussed in public space. Since then, we have engaged in several philanthropic and charitable efforts, though that aspect of our work is, and will likely always be a work in progress.
How would you define social entrepreneurship?
When I first joined, we were based at a co-working space called Center for Social Innovation. All of the companies there, mostly startups, had a social mission embedded into their business models and brand values. We believe social entrepreneurship is a company’s approach to help develop, fund and ultimately implement solutions to social, cultural, or environmental issues. At Thinx, we’ve focused heavily on period poverty, lack of accessible menstrual products, environmental sustainability, and breaking the social stigma surrounding menstrual health.
In line with that, what are the brand’s biggest accomplishments in society on top of sustainability?
I think our brand in particular is flourishing because society is starting to realize that when we invest in women and in menstrual hygiene, everyone stands to benefit—whether you have a period or not. When people with periods feel confident and protected against leaks, they don’t have to miss school, class or work and, therefore, can learn, contribute and participate more writ large.
Thinx’s mission is to empower everybody through innovation and change. What are the barriers in making a difference in the world at the moment?
When you work in an industry like ours, one that deals with typically taboo topics like menstruation, you have to be prepared for an uphill battle.
Thinx has come up against many social barriers dealing with taboo topics like menstruation, which is largely due to the immense stigma surrounding women’s bodies and women’s health. While we are normalizing conversations on these topics, at times we are met with hostility by those who aren’t comfortable talking about the human body, specifically the female body or its natural functions.
What’s the most interesting design and branding trend in the industry for you now?
I think one of the most interesting trends in the design industry right now is minimalist marketing, specifically in femtech. In reality, it took a lot of research, data and development to not only invent Thinx, but keep improving the product (i.e. Thinx Air and Thinx Super). The way we present these products to the public sort of demystifies a topic that has been shamed for generations, despite the fact that millions of women around the world need period solutions to go about everyday life.
What do you see as the most controversial issue when designing for social innovation, and where does Thinx stand on the issue?
As our culture becomes more open- minded, businesses and brands are still trying to adjust and understand where they stand on certain social issues. Developing a stance on anything takes time and a lot of deliberation. And even when you do develop a posture about something, it can be construed as controversial.
Our thinking on the design team is centered around empathy and bringing a more inclusive view to market. At Thinx, we are looking to shatter societal taboos about periods while designing our products for people with periods, and not everyone feels comfortable with that.
What benefits do you get working for Thinx—both professionally and personally?
Professionally speaking, I get to work with an incredible team that truly cares about the quality of our products and the issues I mentioned above. Working at Thinx has given me the opportunity to design for a socially-conscious company that actually cares about its employees and customers, and is striving to innovate and change how people manage and discuss menstruation. Because we are seen as the disruptor in this space, the design team here has a lot more freedom to take creative risks and try to do things in new ways.
Personally, the experience of working at Thinx has turned me into a feminist and helped me understand what that means on a daily basis. For instance, always questioning the norm before accepting it, forming my own perspectives, standing by my convictions, and giving a voice or visibility to those who don’t have them.
What words of encouragement do you have for other designers or entrepreneurs who want to do the kind of work that you have dedicated your life to?
Remember that when you are designing for other people, you are ultimately making decisions for them, no matter how small that decision is. This sense of responsibility has helped me find purpose in my work, and I know it does the same for others.
Hi Meng Shui. How are you? Tell us a bit about your career background and the path that led you to Thinx.
I was the fifth employee hired at Thinx in 2015, right after I got my MA in Brand at SVA. Before Thinx I worked at branding agencies as a designer, and ran my own design studio with a partner.
Were there any examples of organic innovation at the grass-roots level that were successful?
Our Menstrual Equity campaign has helped students in high schools and on college campuses throughout the national implement policies that distribute free menstrual products on school premises.
How do you deal with new fears and challenges working for the brand?
In terms of fears and potential challenges, I try to face them both head on. There have been difficult periods in both my career and personal life, and it has taken grit and determination to get where I am. All of that being said, the struggles of my past have actually helped me deal with the challenges Thinx Inc. has faced and will likely continue to do so.
What are the next steps for Thinx and for you personally?
I look forward to continuing my work with the Thinx team by continuing to improve the way we build, present and market our products. I also look forward to making Thinx accessible to as many people as possible.