Want to make sex more sustainable? The rise of 'green' toys, condoms, lubes

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When wood craftsman James Prior opened a woodshop in 2014, an acquaintance suggested a novel product line.

"Wooden dildos! I chuckled a bit at first, but then I thought about how unique and interesting it sounded," says Prior, a technical sales professional in the US state of North Carolina.

"I loved the idea of carving abstract art that people enjoy in a way that's more personal than just staring at a painting or statue."

He started an online store on Etsy, called Craving Wood, specialising in sex toys in abstract shapes handmade from responsibly sourced woods.

"Many of my customers like that each piece is unique and others choose wood because they are allergic to plastic and/or have worries about chemicals used in more mainstream [sex toys]," he says.

Bocote wood dildos from Craving Wood. PHOTO: James Prior

He was surprised at how quickly sales took off, with orders coming in from around the world. The response reflected not just an appreciation of Prior's craftsmanship, but also a growing interest in sustainable sexual wellness products.

While sex has many health benefits, it generates an unsexy amount of waste, including condoms, sex toys and other sexual wellness products such as lubricants, made of environmentally unfriendly materials like biodegradable rubber and plastic - and let's not forget the batteries.

There is a growing interest in sustainable sex, where people are choosing products that allow for fun and safe sex and are kinder to the environment.

A 2022 Sex Trends report by Australian sex product retailer the Lovehoney Group features eco-friendly sex as a key trend this year, with sustainable sexual wellness products set to expand.

Sustainable sex can be widely interpreted. It includes eco-friendly products like condoms made from ethically sourced materials; sex toys made of steel, wood or glass; paraffin-free candles; and lubricants that are vegan or free of glycerine, petroleum or parabens.

It also includes mindful actions like avoiding shower sex to save water and using reusable washcloths - and even deciding against having children because of their impact on the environment.

Kseniia Biriukova, 29, has a YouTube channel and Instagram account called SustainaXenia featuring content on sustainability, zero waste, minimalism and mental health.

Sustainability champion Kseniia Biriukova. PHOTO: Kseniia Biriukova

"Trying sustainable products is part of my mission. I live by what I preach," says Biriukova, from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She uses vegan, cruelty-free lubricants and recently bought a €200 (S$306) vegan latex toy, which she admits is expensive, but is high quality and meant to be long-lasting.

"There are several components to sustainability: where the raw materials for the products come from, how they are made, and what can happen to the product after it's used - is it recyclable, is it zero waste?"

Sachee Malhotra, founder of That Sassy Thing, an Indian intimate wellness brand, is mindful of sustainability in all her brand's products.

They include DTF, a vegan, aloe-vera-based sexual lubricant that is free of petroleum-derived ingredients, artificial flavours, fragrances and parabens; and Bush, a body oil with essential oils such as clary sage, camomile and lavender - but without alcohol, petroleum, phthalates, parabens, glycerine and dyes.

That Sassy Thing founder Sachee Malhotra. PHOTO: Sachee Malhotra

"We also avoid plastic sleeves and use craft paper tape instead of plastic tape in our outer packaging. We ship orders thrice a week, instead of adding to the burden of carbon emissions with transportation every day," says Malhotra, who is adding fair-trade rubber vegan condoms to the product line this year.

Woodworker Prior uses a variety of responsibly sourced woods, finishing all his pieces with a non-porous, body-safe seal, and does not use synthetic dyes or colouring.

"Unlike a plastic dildo, the waste from production of a wood sex toy is just sawdust," he says.

"Wood certainly feels different, as it assumes your body's warmth and is never cold. It's also a nice balance of stiffness between the rigidity of glass and pliability of rubber."

Wood craftsman and Craving Wood owner James Prior. PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

While sustainability is a worthy goal in our sex lives, finding a balance that does not detract from personal wellness and safety requires some experimentation.

Kate Hall, 25, a speaker, writer and sustainability educator in Auckland, New Zealand, shares her experiences as a conscious consumer on her blog, Ethically Kate, which features products and habits that aim for a zero-waste life.

"I think sustainable sex needs to be talked about holistically - obviously reducing waste, but also sustainable for our physical, mental and spiritual health, while thinking about the environment," she says.

Speaker, writer and sustainability educator Kate Hall. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Hall blogged about her journey to find sustainable contraception, and had contraceptive rods inserted into her arm in 2018. They release the hormone progestogen into the bloodstream to prevent pregnancy, last for years and are 99 per cent effective.

After a year of stress with irregular periods, though, Hall had the rods removed and now uses a natural fertility awareness method, tracking her menstrual cycles to identify ovulation periods, when pregnancy is most likely, and using birth control when having sex during "unsafe" fertile days.

"My husband and I use normal condoms, which was a compromise as we still wanted sex to be good," Hall says.

Is sustainable sex more restrictive and less fun? "No," Hall says, "but some sustainable items aren't great. We tried a brand of vegan condoms a few years ago, which were much thicker than regular condoms. It removed a lot of the intimacy and sensation, so that wasn't ideal."

Eco-friendlier condoms like these from Sustain Natural emphasise things like fair-trade rubber and being free of chemicals such as nitrosamine. PHOTO: South China Morning Post 

Biriukova finds her eco-friendly purchases as satisfying as regular products, but wishes there were also zero-waste options.

There are obvious bumps on the road to sustainable sexual wellness for both companies and consumers, but it is encouraging to see more options available.

"There is more technology, products, awareness and people willing to talk about sustainable sex now," Hall says. "But you have to compromise around what works for you."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.