Are cloth nappies a feminist issue?

The rumours in the recent few weeks that the Government is proposing a tax on disposable nappies gave rise to a wealth of debate about whether taxing single use nappies is a good way to discourage their use.  But perhaps the strangest question to come out of the furore was the question: are cloth nappies (and eco-living) anti-feminist?

It’s not a new idea: when Vanuatu first proposed its ban on disposable nappies many commented on how the policy would set back women in the country decades.  This week the supposed conflict between gender equality and the use of reusable nappies was raised again in an article for the New Statesman in which Ella Whelan asks “Why do the eco-warriors pushing nappy tax hate women so much? . 

Whelan writes: “men…consigning us to more labour intensive methods should spark the outrage of any feminist”.  As someone who has often pondered whether the use of disposable nappies is a product of the patriarchy (just who do they really benefit?) I found this a fascinating take on the issue.

Certainly the image of an exhausted mother spending her days soaking and boiling terry squares seems to be one that cloth nappies can’t shake.  But is this image right?  By being encouraged to use reusable products are women “sacrificing gender equality gains to the green agenda”?

Well, no. For starters modern cloth nappies are a far cry from the towels, safety pins and plastic pants of the past.  Modern materials and thoughtful design means it’s never been easier to use and care for cloth nappies. And there’s plenty of reasons why women might choose to use them beyond environmental considerations as well.  But Whelan’s article does demonstrate that when it comes to cloth nappies the idea of buckets of boiled nappies and piles of laundry is pervasive.

So let’s break down some of the myths around cloth nappies and explore the wider reasons why using reusable nappies really is a feminist choice

Myth: The high labour costs in using cloth nappies don’t outweigh the environmental benefits

Recent article in a popular english newspaper

The anti-feminist charge that Whelan levels at cloth nappies is that discouraging the use of disposables deprives mothers of the ease of single-use nappies:

“[t]hey are cheap, effective and useful. They give you more time to play with your bouncing baby while spending less time having to worry about leaks and laundry piles… the cost of reasonable in terms of time and effort overwhelmingly outweigh the rather marginal benefits”.

Is it the case that families that use reusable nappies are shackled to complicated labour-intensive wash routines that ignorantly boil and tumble dry away any possible environmental benefits?  Ask any potential cloth user what their concerns are about using cloth and washing comes pretty high on the list.

But over the last decade or so cloth nappies have transformed into the beautiful and easy to use product that they are today. And whilst you can easily fall down an internet rabbit hole when it comes to wash routines (because everyone has a view on how best to wash), the principles are actually very straightforward. 

Yet despite this the idea that the washing of cloth nappies neutralises their environmental benefits persists.  Unfortunately this isn’t helped by previous lifecycle assessments contain out of date information.  But in its 2021 report into single use nappies and their alternatives, the United Nations Environment Programme Life Cycle Initiative concludes that “reusable options when washed so as to minimise water use (e.g. in a fully loaded, modern washing machine) and in an energy efficient manner have lower environmental impacts”.

Spot pop-in!

For most families using cloth nappies these benefits can be easily achieved.  Modern cloth nappies can be washed at 40˚C (although you may choose to wash at 60˚C for example if you child has been unwell) and if you don’t have enough to make up a full load you can wash other items with your nappies if you run a rinse cycle first. 

When it comes to tumble drying the majority of brands advise against tumble drying as this can damage the nappy.  For example, the inserts of Close Pop-ins should only be tumble dried on a low heat for 10 minutes.  Most families find that they need a certain amount of space for drying cloth nappies (although this can be reduced by using a sock dryer that hangs from the ceiling). 

So you don’t need to spend hours toiling away in your kitchen soaking and boiling your cloth nappies. In fact there’s no reason why mums who use cloth would be spending any less time with their little ones compared to mums who use disposables. 

Myth: You need to invest in lots of cloth nappies to make it work

Another argument against cloth is the idea that you have to buy multiple sets of nappies as your child grows, again making reusable nappies less environmentally friendly.  The argument here is that not only does the manufacture of these nappies require more raw materials, water and energy but this also presents a significant financial burden to families choosing to use cloth.

The average child will need around 30 cloth nappies [see our pop-in FAQs for more on this] if they are to be in cloth full time.  The amount of nappies your child will wear in a day tends to ebb and flow so you may need more or less than this figure at different times.  The manufacture of those nappies does have a certain environmental cost but this can be offset in a number of ways.

Firstly the manufacture of cloth nappies can include more sustainable materials.  The Puffins Pop-in nappy for example uses biolaminate made from 20-30% renewable plant-based materials. Recycled materials are also commonly used in the manufacture of reusable nappies, particularly in the waterproof outer layer. This means that less virgin raw materials are required.

Secondly the vast majority of reusable nappies available such as Pop-ins are “birth-to-potty” nappies.  This means that as your child grows you can adjust the size of the nappy to grow with them.  A birth to potty nappy should do what it says on the tin, last from birth right through to potty training (which means no worrying about having to make an emergency trip to the shops to buy the next size up when your little one has a growth spurt).

Of course all babies are different and for smaller babies birth-to-potty nappies will still be too big when they are newborn.  Newborn sizes  are available to fill the gap of a few weeks that it takes to grown into birth-to-potty size but many families find it just as easy to use muslin cloths. (It’s worth pointing out here that there’s also no shame in using disposable nappies either – many families use a mix in the newborn days or switch to cloth once their baby is big enough for birth to potty nappies.)

It is true that the upfront costs required to use cloth nappies can be significant, especially when compared to the relatively low cost of single use nappies.  This upfront cost can be a barrier to low-income families especially and this is something that the UK (and England especially) needs to address.  While some local authorities offer voucher schemes to help families get started with reusable nappies this is not universal. Costs (both environmental and financial) are further reduced if you use your cloth nappies for more than one child and there’s a thriving secondhand market for cloth nappies.

Along with access, education about cloth nappies is vital to help families understand their options.  There are some amazing cloth nappy libraries up and down the country helping families get started but again not everyone will have access to these. 

All this of course has to be compared against the estimated 4000 disposable nappies a child will go through. 

The vast majority of disposable nappies are made from virgin materials including polypropylene, cellulose pulp and sodium polyacrylate and of course most disposable nappies will be bagged up in a single use plastic bag before going in the bin.  All those nappies adds up to around 3% of all household waste.

Which brings us on to…

Truth: cloth nappies can help you reduce your waste

One of the biggest environmental gains from cloth nappies is reducing the amount you are putting to landfill.  I think most of us now understand the issue of plastic waste and how it ends up in our oceans, soils and food chains.  Very little actually breaks down in landfill which means disposable nappies are likely to remain unchanged for centuries to come (because no one actually knows just how long it will take them to breakdown).

But even if they did breakdown that's not a good thing either as it puts chemicals and micro-plastics into the eco system. 

And what about fecal matter - should we really be putting human waste into landfill? The answer unsurprisingly is probably not. Although in the UK disposable nappies fall within household waste buried fecal waste can be a source of greenhouse gas emissions as well as being hazardous. 

With an increased awareness around the problems of plastics and landfill is it any surprise that women are choosing reusable nappies?

Disposable nappies in landfill

Truth: Women are choosing to use reusable nappies

For many cloth users the idea that men are forcing women to use cloth nappies will seem utterly bizarre.  And it is, because the biggest supporters of cloth nappies are women. Yes there are cloth bum dads advocating for reusable nappies too but it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that the majority of nappy choices and nappy changes are made by women.

In fact many of the UK-based reusable nappy manufacturers are female-led businesses with predominantly female workforces.  These women are disrupters; creating innovative products that are designed to make life easier for mums.  Is it any surprise that the design of cloth nappies has drastically changed since women have been in charge.

Martine Carroll Close Parent owner

And it’s not just in the boardroom that women have greater opportunities.  While the majority of reusable nappies are manufactured overseas many of brands work hard to ensure that their predominantly female workers receive fair pay and conditions. 

In Vanuatu a pilot study into the use of reusable nappies as an alternative to banned disposables found that 96%of families that took part in the study liked the reusable cloth nappies they tried and 85% would buy them again.

The findings of this study demonstrate how empowering and supporting families to use cloth nappies provides a genuine alternative to single use. 

Truth: Women are disproportionately affected by climate change

The inescapable fact is that climate change (and plastic pollution) disproportionately affects women and is increasing gender inequality globally. 

The UN estimates that 70% of those living in poverty worldwide are women.  This means that women are particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change.  As well as being more likely to be relying on natural resources, women have fewer economic opportunities and are less likely to be in positions of power.  So when environmental disasters happen it’s women who are hardest hit.

Suggesting that trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle is anti-feminist is taking a very narrow view of feminism that fails to look at the bigger picture for women worldwide.  It’s also a form of internalised sexism - the problem isn’t the environmentally friendly products, it’s that household labour falls disproportionately on women. 

While there are some brilliant cloth bum dads out there that happily do the laundry and stuff nappies (my own husband included) it remains the case that in general terms the majority of household chores are undertaken by women.  The Office of National Statistics estimates that laundry contributed £90bn of unpaid working hours in the UK in 2016. 

If reusable nappies cause gender inequality the issue isn’t sustainability, the issue is sexism.  Women need to be supported in making environmentally-friendly choices not be told that choosing single use plastic is the only way to be feminist.

Any feminist should be outraged at the idea that women have to choose between sustainability and gender equality. 

The truth is we can’t separate what is good for the planet from what is good for women because they are one and the same.  Reusable nappies are good for the planet and are good for women too – what could possibly be anti-feminist in that? 

 

 

**Footnote links

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/22/vanuatu-to-ban-disposable-nappies-in-plastics-crackdown-we-had-no-choice

https://www.lifecycleinitiative.org/library/single-use-nappies-and-their-alternatives/

https://www.mammaslaef.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/105/2021/02/Vanuatu_APilotStudy_ExecutiveSummary_English_LR.pdf


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