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The rubber in your rubbers: the condom company making sexy time sustainable

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You should be able to buy a condom that doesn’t require chopping down native jungles, or paying its workers less than the living wage to produce it.

A gang of German entrepreneurs has started what it calls the world’s first ethical and sustainable condom company. Einhorn, a brand decorated with unicorns and a schoolboy sense of irony, launched its crowd-fund appeal at the beginning of February. Within 48 hours it had reached its minimum target of €50,000 (£37,142). Clearly someone has sex on the brain.

With packaging not dissimilar to a packets of crisps, the condoms will be available in two sizes: 54mm and 56mm. They are transparent in colour and are wider at the top “for more feeling”. You can buy them in “weekly” or “yearly” bags (seven pieces or 52 pieces) on the crowdfunding site.

Waldemar Zeiler, reformed capitalist and co-founder of Einhorn, confesses he and his co-entrepreneurs knew very little about condoms – apart from as users.

“We had no clue what we were doing,” he says. “But we worked together with a university in Germany [who are] experts on sustainable rubber production. We’ll go to Malaysia with German scientists and go through our plantations. Then we’ll test the soil and stay over there analysing stuff and make things better. This includes making sure the minimum wage is paid to workers and knowing what’s in the condoms.

“Right now, we’re 10% sustainable. Our goal is to have an 80-90% sustainable product in five years. Every time we improve, we’ll put it online and you can see what has changed. Even if people say something isn’t possible, we’ll aim for the best-case scenario and if we don’t make our target, we’ll get close and say so. But we won’t go round saying it’s 100% Fairtrade or whatever … this is all bullshit and people need to realise that.”

Einhorn is not the first company aiming to make condoms more sustainable, of course. It’s the latest in a crop of eco-condom companies to spring up recently, along with Sustain, L Condom, French Letter and more.

The Einhorn team is tackling the online condom market with the arrogance of youth. Its declared commercial target is the 25-35 year-old generation Y and the brand is named after that memetic internet beast, the unicorn.

Zeiler says: “Everyone has a connection to sex but condoms are still being sold as medical products. The guys in charge of selling these don’t know who’s using them. They’re all like 65 and I don’t think they have sex anymore.

“We got sick of complaining about ugly, unsustainable, non-environmentally conscious exploited products, so we decided to make a better one ourselves and make it really sexy, cool. If you want to do sustainable things, you have to compete with regular products that people want to buy because it’s cool, not because they’re trying to be good.”

Perhaps what the Einhorn crew are really selling is a business model founded on open-source information and transparency. Condoms, it seems, are the product they choose to sell, but the way they deal with the market could be transferable to any product.

The entrepreneurs have started a scheme called the Entrepreneur’s Pledge based on the philanthropists’ equivalent, the Giving Pledge. They’re asking “serious entrepreneurs” and “kick ass CEOs” to fund at least one social business and give 50% of the profits to a good cause, as they are. Zeiler argues that charity giving isn’t an efficient way to spend money and suggests that a social business dollar has more impact. “If our business grows, the more revenue we make. And the more we can give back.”

Condoms aren’t a large market. In Germany, where Einhorn is based, the market is worth €100m (£74.1m). Globally, it’s projected to reach £3.6bn this year. Condoms are a product, not an industry. But the margins are like Coca-Cola’s. From costing a few cents to produce, the condoms can be sold for between 60 cents to €2 a piece.

“The fact we’re selling condoms doesn’t really matter,” Zeiler says. “It’s a product and proof of concept for what we are doing. We bring a standard product to an online market, brand it properly, go through its value chain and make everything in that chain as sustainable as we can and then publish all the information about our product online – even the bad stuff because somebody out there will know how to make it better.

“We’re starting with condoms because the market isn’t large. We could achieve dominance easily and we won’t be threatened by big online players. But we also want to encourage people to work on products with no alternative. Like hairdryers. I’m looking for a sustainable hairdryer. Can’t find one.”

Supply chain geekery can stretch to all the products we have around the home – knowing where things come from isn’t exclusive to food or fashion. Why shouldn’t consumers know whether or not the rubber in their rubbers has come from a plantation that’s chopped down native jungles, or that’s paid its workers less than the living wage to produce it? Exploitation and a bad ethical footprint are hardly the stuff of hard-ons.

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This article was first published in The Guardian, 11 February 2015.

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