Condoms and Sustainable Product Design

1 Comment

The NYC Condom program was launched February 14, 2007. The program distributes more than 3 million condoms each month throughout the five boroughs to various locations free of charge.

Condoms are a barrier used primarily during sexual intercourse to prevent unwanted pregnancy and STI transmission. Condoms have been manufactured out of a variety of materials for centuries, however rubber condoms were first used in 1855 and the modern latex condoms were were first used 1920. Due to latex sensitivities and the less effective nature of sheepskin, alternatives to latex were later developed. Polyutherane condoms were created in 1994 and Polyisoprene in 2008. When used correctly, condoms are approximately 95% – 98% effective in preventing STI transmission and pregnant. Currently there are approximately 60 condom companies worldwide producing 8 to 12 billion condoms each year.

Until the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, condom production was not carefully regulated. While earlier regulation existed in some capacity, it was not strictly enforced. Early rubber condoms were created by dipping glass molds into raw rubber and required adding gasoline or benzene to liquify the rubber. Latex condoms were easier to product and could be formed using water to suspend the rubber instead of toxic gasoline and benzene which were noted as fire hazards in condom factories. Additional benefits to latex condoms were their durability and increased strength as well as thinner material which is believed to increase sensitivity for the users. They also last significantly longer—5 years compared to the three months shelf life of earlier rubber condoms. Other health concerns include the use of a carcinogenic talc on the condom.

Today’s latex condoms, such as NYC Condom brand condoms, are biodegradable. However, polyurethane condoms are not biodegradable. Condoms are most frequently sealed in a foil or plastic packaging. It is unclear to me whether these materials can be recycled or if they are biodegradable. Companies such as Yulex are experimenting with alternative sources such as allergen free rubber. According to my conversation with the company, it will take several years for the product to come to come to market. The U.S. brand, Sir Richard, will bring a new product to market by creating an ethical brand around the donation of one condom per condom purchased to be donated to the developing world.

The major US condom brands are manufactured both in the US and abroad. NYC Condoms, the focus of this study, are manufactured by LifeStyle which produce their products in India and Thailand. Other manufacturing locations include:
• Trojan: U.S.A.
• NaturaLamb: U.S.A.
• Durex: Spain, U.K., India, and Thailand
• Kimono: Japan
• Beyond Seven and Crown: Japan

I’ve yet to decipher how NYC Condoms makes money as they are distributed for free. NYC Condoms are a project of the NY State Department of Health. As for the larger condom / safer sex / barrier industry, these products are produced far less expensively outside of the US (at 2 cents a piece compared to 5 cents a piece in the US). Trojan-ENZ Lubricated Premium Latex Condoms (12-pack) cost 63 cents a piece which is 12 times the manufacturing cost. Trojan Ultra Thin Lubricated Premium Latex Condoms (12-pack) cost $1.09 a piece, 21 times the manufacturing cost. So the potential for a high profit margin appears rather significant.

In the US, condoms are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration to ensure their safety and effectiveness. European condoms that have undergone quality and safety testing are marked by the letters CD. In the UK, Kitemark appears on approved condoms. Other countries have their own testing, regulation, and marking system. The WHO (World Health Organization) has established an international standard which involves checking for holes, bursting volume and pressure, as well as other visible defects.

There are an immense number of advocates promoting condom usage throughout the world as it is one of the most effective measures in preventing STI transmission, HIV infection, and unplanned pregnancies when used correctly. The list is so large and diffuse, I will refrain from listing it here but doctors, harm reductionists, social works, NGOs focused on HIV/AIDS, sex work, MSM, reproductive heath and wellbeing, etc. are all significant advocates for condoms. The only organizations and individuals I was able to find who oppose condoms do so for religious reasons without footing in science or health research. In Muslim regions of Kenya, condoms are highly stigmatized because they are believed to be needed only by prostitutes or those having affairs and engaging in such activity is against g-d. Similarly, the pope believes that abstinence is preferred. While it is true abstinence, when practiced perfectly, is the most effective way to prevent HIV/AIDS, STIs, and unplanned pregnancy, abstinence only education has proven to be a tremendous failure worldwide.

Research into the impact of condom production and manufacturing on workers’ health has been difficult to come by. However, I would be in full support of a model where workers are collectized, unionized, and/or the business was a worker-owned cooperative. Clearly their is an opportunity to fill this information gap so that the research to be made public and transparent around the working conditions and impacts on worker health.

In the west, stigma around sex outside of marriage continue to decrease and barriers to purchasing effective contraception such as decreasing cost and stigma are helping make access to condoms ever easier. Due to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS worldwide, condoms have become an important part of fighting the epidemic and are an important resource for both individual and public health.


About Sarah Jenny

Sarah Jenny is a media maker, cultural producer, activist, and rabble rouser.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *