It's National Condom Month, which means — well, not very much, if you go by the numbers.
We may have an entire month dedicated to talking about condoms, but we aren't doing nearly as well when it comes to actually using them: the U.S. currently sees around 20 million new STI cases each year. And worldwide, more than 35 million people are currently living with HIV and AIDS.
Luckily — with all due respect to National Condom Month — a handful of institutions have looked past talking and started doing, and there are some exciting innovations happening in the world of safer sex. The Gates Foundation is working to bring us the condom of the future, while the National Institutes of Health have poured over $224,000 into developing custom-fit condoms.
But it's not only the public sector. Businesses are now starting to get in on the action as well. Do-gooder brands like Toms and Warby Parker are well-known for their "buy one, give one" models, but quietly, another trend in social entrepreneurship has been building: the socially conscious condom.
It's no coincidence that this newest crop of condom companies is timed to the coming of age of millennials. Market research shows that our generation is more likely than any other to base purchasing decisions on the values a company holds. And with their emphasis on global health and women's empowerment, these three companies — all non-toxic, all eco-friendly and all with an emphasis on fair labor standards — are forging new connections between doing good and feeling good.
The message behind "A Call to Good Men," L. International's newest commercial, is pretty straightforward: "When you're environmentally conscious or socially conscious or respect women's bodies, that's very sexy," L. founder Talia Frenkel told PolicyMic.
By Frankel's own standards, then, L. is about as hot as it gets. Founded in 2010, the company operates on the buy-one-give-one model to reduce the spread of HIV worldwide, but in this case, Frenkel said, giving on its own isn't enough.
"There's simple data that says we've donated X amount of condoms, but what are the long-term effects of that?" she said. "Are we empowering women in the process? Are we educating about the use of condoms as a contraceptive tool?"
Yes and yes. To package its condoms, L. partners with an NGO in Swaziland that provides job opportunities to HIV-positive women. To distribute its donations, it's teamed up with a group in Uganda that hires and trains women to promote safe sex in their communities.
In empowering women abroad, L. also hopes to give the U.S. condom industry what she believes is a much-needed makeover.
The typical condom aisle "is like walking through a battlefield. It's all Trojan, Magnum, like sex is war," Frenkel said. "They're not very thoughtful or female-friendly or sustainably-made."
With L. condoms, "We're creating a brand that people want to identify with," she said. "We want to make it a cool thing to carry."
Fans of Sir Richard's have writer Tracy Kidder to thank: The company's founder, Matthew Gerson, was inspired to get in the condom game in 2010 after reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, Kidder's biography of Partners in Health's Paul Farmer.
Fast-forward four years. Calling itself "the most ethical condom company in the world," Sir Richard's has teamed up with Partners in Health to address a dire condom shortage in Haiti, donating one condom for every condom purchased.
To make the project as effective as possible, operations manager Andrew Kresge said the company wanted to make sure the donated condoms would resonate with the people they were meant for. Rather than simply ship their U.S. product, Sir Richard's conducted market research in Haiti before designing an entirely new brand. The result was Kore, a condom named for a Haitian word for "support" and, the company says, the first to include Haitian Creole instructions on the packaging. To date, Sir Richard's has donated more than 1.5 million Kore condoms.
What comes next, though, is up in the air. Earlier this month, Sir Richard's rolled out a call for nominations, calling on customers to choose a U.S. organization to receive its condoms.
All the company knows for sure is that wherever this new round of donations goes, "We'll make sure they're culturally relevant in terms of brand and marketing," Kresge said. "If they can't identify with it or understand it, the likelihood of it succeeding is much lower."
There's no denying that buying condoms is an inherently awkward endeavor. Sustain Condoms, founded by father-daughter team Jeffrey and Meika Hollender, believes that in changing that, they can help women feel more empowered to take charge of their sexual health.
"I'm literally targeting myself: a 20-something, sexually-active female who believes in contraception," Meika Hollender told PolicyMic. After surveying around 500 millennial women, she said, "We learned something critical: The women who are buying condoms hate buying them."
"There's still a stigma around women buying and carrying condoms, which we think is totally ridiculous in 2014," Hollender said.
When Sustain condoms hit the shelves this summer, the condom-buying experience may become a little less daunting. The condoms will be sold in discreet packaging — something that "doesn't scream 'sex' in a masculine way," Hollender said — and will be available in "natural food, fashion and beauty stores."
The Sustain team has also founded 10%4Women, a charity to be run by Jeffrey's wife Sheila; once the company becomes profitable, Sustain will donate 10% of its proceeds to organizations that provide reproductive health care in the U.S. The ultimate objective, Hollender said, is for the rest of the industry to catch on: "Our goal with 10 % is to enlist other companies over time, to really create a movement."
Talk about more bang for your buck.