'm sorry. I know disposables are terrible... I just haven’t had a chance to sort out cloth ones yet.”
My baby girl was just a few weeks old and I was changing her while chatting to a friend - a colleague from my days working for a Green Party politician. It was my first pang of guilt for using a disposable nappy.
Four years, and another child later, and my guilt has faded. My changing table is piled high with disposable nappies, disposable wipes and the cheapest plastic nappy sacks money can buy. I have wandered far from my old green path.
I used to pride myself on my eco-credentials. I encouraged people to live more ethically, while secretly judging those who were lax about their social responsibilities (in hindsight, I was probably quite annoying). Yet I have since piled close to 8,000 disposable nappies onto our overflowing landfill. What changed? I had children. It’s not an excuse, but an admission of defeat. As soon as I had less time and less sleep, being green fell way down my list of priorities. I became a hypocrite, a fraud, a fair-weather Friend of the Earth.
I began with good intentions. While I was pregnant, I started shopping online for cloth nappies but soon found myself lost in a confusion of liners, wraps and booster pads. I booked onto a local ‘Real Nappy Night’, where I could try different cloth nappies, but my daughter arrived six weeks early… and the rest is history.
My baby’s bottom felt a cloth nappy on two occasions. Once when I tried it on her and it came up to her armpits, and a second time as a token effort to silence my husband’s questions of ‘why did we buy that nappy if you never intend to try it?’ He wasn’t actually bothered by the environmental destruction, but rather the waste of £20 I had spent on the trial pack!
So for me, sadly, the logic is simple. Disposables make my life easier, so I carry on using them. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s not something I feel particularly ashamed of either... but maybe I should. At no time during the past four years have I been directly encouraged to use a cloth nappy or criticised for using a disposable. I was even given a disposable as part of my new parent pack by the NHS. Perhaps if using disposables became as socially judged as, say, bottle-feeding, then cloth nappies would become as commonplace as breastfeeding? Shouldn’t we all feel guilty about using disposables?
Rebecca Rapson, manager of real nappy charity Go Real, says encouragement is far more effective than judgement. “We steer away from giving parents even more guilt – it’s a turn-off. We would rather just give them information so they can make an informed choice. All we ask is that people give it a go.”
On paper, cloth nappies are the clear winner, both financially and environmentally. Yet disposables are the nappy of choice for most parents – a 2010 report1 found that just 5% are choosing real nappies. Even for the supposedly ‘green’ parents among us, ethics don’t always stretch as far as scraping out the contents of our babies’ nappies.
Annabel, mother of 3 year old Charlie and 2 month old Isabelle, has used disposables on both children. “I think cloth nappies would be harder work – all that washing! My baby is sick a lot, so I’m already doing two loads of washing every day. Any spare time I have I either work or sleep, so it just isn’t a priority for me. But I do try to be green in other ways.”
“The idea also grosses me out. With disposables you just hide it away in a bag without having to think about it.”
Louise, mother of 3 year old Rosie and 1 year old Jemima, agrees. Louise considers herself to be an environmentally-conscious parent and had initial intensions to use cloth, but was put off by the industry jargon. “I found it really complicated. It was like reading a different language and I just don’t want any more hassle in my life. If someone had explained it to me in a simple and practical way that would have helped. Although I have to admit, I also didn’t want to deal with the poo side of it.”
Excuses aside, are people who use disposables simply lazier than those who use cloth?
“If I was really set on using cloth nappies then I suppose I would have tried harder, so there is an element of laziness,” admits Louise. “But, as parents, we have enough to feel guilty about and this just seems to be another thing to add to that list.”
With so few parents opting for cloth nappies, those of us that are at least curious about them clearly need to be converted if the industry is to stand a chance. But, like Louise, many parents are deterred by the sheer volume of choices when it comes to cloth nappies, while others hold outdated ideas on what using cloth nappies is really like.
Rebecca admits this is an area that needs work. “It can be daunting because there is so much information and real nappy companies sometimes use jargon, which can be off-putting. But if people can’t find the information they want or don’t understand the jargon, they can get on the phone to the retailer or give Go Real a call,” she said.
Encouraging parents to take that inconvenient first step to try a cloth nappy is crucial. “If you put your baby in disposables to start with, it can become very hard to break that habit,” says Rebecca. “But we find that when parents do try them, they realise real nappies are actually very simple to use.”
The real nappy industry can’t compete with the marketing spend of the big disposable players, so instead rely on grassroot activities such as local nappy advisers, Real Nappy Week, and even something called Nappuccinos - combining coffee mornings with nappy chat. Their dedication is impressive, but does providing information and advice really change people’s minds? The information is out there - had I really wanted to, I could have tried harder to find it. I could have booked myself onto another Real Nappy Night, Googled a bit more, or given the trial pack... well, a proper try.
They say the easier something is to do, the harder it is to change. So if used-to-be Green parents are to be convinced to make the switch to cloth, we need a great deal more encouragement than we currently receive, whether it’s in new parent packs, advertising campaigns or on supermarket shelves. I’m not placing blame elsewhere - I know I’m contributing to our shocking waste problem with every nappy I use. But for those of us who are teetering on the edge of using cloth nappies, a gentle push of encouragement, or shove of criticism, in the right direction could just tip the balance.
Go Real helpline: 0845 850 0606 www.goreal.org.uk
1 intel, Nappies and Baby Wipes, August 2010.
Image: The Natural Nursery