The invaluable yet lowly diaper was first mass-produced in 1887, a rectangle of oft-soiled, washable cotton fabric unimproved for more than 60 years, until a disposable version appeared. Ever since, the cloth diaper has fought a losing battle against its more convenient (and more aggressively marketed) counterpart. By 1990, more than 70 percent of American babies were wearing disposables; today, it's more than 95 percent.
Cloth has had a resurgence recently, however, fueled by parents aiming to make environmentally and socially responsible choices in child rearing. "Greener" and "more natural" is how parents on one D.C. online forum described cloth diapers, citing environmental factors, lower long-term costs and the health benefits of putting natural materials against their babies' skin. One or two admitted that guilt and peer pressure factored into their choices, too.
Katie Anthony, a mother of two and a Seattle-based blogger at KatyKatiKate.com, cloth-diapered for her first baby but crossed over for her second, lamenting, "When you pull the Diaper Genie bag out of the pail, and you just see this blue plastic tube full of NASA-invented synthetic fibers that are soaked in human waste, and it's just this foul little sausage, there's a part of me that is really sad."
But those bad old disposable diapers may be better than the allegedly green alternatives.
Although there is a growing market for all-in-one reusable diapers made from synthetics, most cloth diapers are still cotton prefolds — rectangles of fabric that fit into waterproof liners. And as a crop and a fabric, cotton undermines its own reputation as safe and green. Safety, a concern raised for some by chemicals and dyes in disposables, is in the eye of the beholder; cotton production is so chemical-intensive that it has been directly linked to poor health outcomes among producers.
As for environmental friendliness, the data on cotton is damning. And if "better for the planet" includes notions of what's better for its inhabitants, there is a social dimension of cotton diapers that is unequivocally more harmful than disposables. Cotton fertilizers are major greenhouse gas emitters, and trucking cotton from farms to industrial gins, spinners and weavers generates transportation emissions, compounded by repeated energy-intensive heating and cooling processes.
Stephanie Hanson Damassa, a policy communications director at a Washington environmental nonprofit, went so far as to investigate her cloth diaper service's delivery processes, to make sure the vehicles were fuel-efficient. "That was important to me, as I didn't want the environmental benefits (of cloth diapering) to cancel out from the service," she said. Yet the carbon footprint of prefolds, estimated at 570 kg of CO2 equivalent over 2 1/2 years in laundering alone, outweighs that of disposables, at 550 kg of CO2 equivalent.
Damassa was also concerned about water usage in laundering cloth diapers, but with cotton, the water inputs add up before they're ever washed. Cotton is an extremely thirsty crop. Although roughly 30 cloth diapers serve the function of 4,000 disposables, cloth's water demands are almost nine times the alternative. Thirty cloth diapers draw an estimated 1,221 cubic meters of water in crop irrigation, processing, weaving, manufacturing and 2 1/2 years of washings. Meanwhile, the water used to manufacture those 4,000 disposables comes in at a comparatively modest 141 cubic meters.
Then there's the water that cotton pollutes, as one of the world's most pesticide-heavy crops. In India, cotton covers 5 percent of cropland, but it's doused with 54 percent of the nation's annual pesticide use. These pesticides seep into the groundwater and eventually make it back to consumers — in their tea, soda and drinking water.
The industry also has a painful and persistent history of exploitation. In the world's top cotton-producing countries — China, India, the United States, Pakistan, Brazil and Uzbekistan — the crop has been linked to supplier price gouging, food insecurity and forced labor.
This is not to say disposables get a perfect score on environmental or social impacts. Today's disposables are made largely of plastics and super-absorbent polymers, both petroleum products. The world's plastic demand is so great that though polymers and plastics once were byproducts of fuel, now novel production processes are dedicated to making them. Disposable diapers in the United States end up almost exclusively in landfills, where they emit methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Some disposable brands, such as Honest Co. and Seventh Generation, claim to address this concern by selling unbleached, compostable diapers. Unless parents are composting them at home, though, these "eco-friendly" disposables are as culpable as Pampers for greenhouse gas emissions from municipal waste facilities. Seventh Generation users may be particularly disappointed to learn that the earthy color of their diapers is achieved with dyes.
But recent improvements to standard disposables shift the ecological balance in their favor. Companies have dramatically reduced the quantity of petroleum products and pine-pulp "fluff" in disposable diapers, cutting the use of forest products and landfill volume. Environmental Protection Agency partnerships are converting methane to energy and fuel at about a third of the nation's landfills, with plans to upgrade more. Plus, Pampers and Huggies manufacturers are sourcing all of their trees from certified, responsibly managed forests. Huggies has piloted a diaper composting initiative in New Zealand that is now expanding across Europe and Australia. Not to be outdone, Pampers has reduced manufacturing waste by 78 percent, CO2 emissions by 9 percent, energy consumption by 8 percent and water consumption by 4 percent in the past five years, according to Heather Valento, a spokeswoman for parent company Procter & Gamble.
If the environmental improvements related to disposables don't influence cotton-diaper fans, perhaps the labor conditions for disposable-diaper manufacturing will. Pampers and Huggies are subsidiaries of mega-corporations Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark, respectively. Manufacturing is U.S.-based, and both companies' workforces make wages above the national minimum, with salaries starting at more than $11 an hour. In Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and Mehoopany, Pennsylvania, where Pampers are manufactured, wages plus the company's benefits packages can support two adults, according to MIT's living-wage calculator. (Huggies did not furnish details on the locations of its manufacturing facilities or the nature of its benefits.)
Whether new parents opt for cloth or disposable diapers, though, the good news is that both are increasingly responsible choices for consumers, the planet and the people in the supply chain. Huggies and Pampers are in a race to improve their social and environmental records, and cotton-diaper makers are slowly, unsteadily adopting a similar trend.
While the production of conventional cloth diapers is nearly impossible to trace, responsible purveyors are advertising ethical certifications. GOTS, the Global Organic Textile Standard, certifies cotton manufacturing processes as organic while also requiring that labor conditions are favorable for workers and that air and water emissions meet stringent standards. Audits are notoriously tricky, but at the very least consumers can know that a cloth-diaper supplier is striving to eliminate child labor, forced labor, harmful pesticide usage and wasteful irrigation practices. Supporting the efforts to increase transparency and accountability in the cotton supply chain might be a real reason for anti-waste parents to stick with (socially responsible) cloth options. The textile and clothing industries are important components of economic development, and consumers who demand safe conditions and fair wages for farmers and industrial workers could help ensure that such development benefits everyone, not just wealthy factory owners.
Other opportunities to be a responsible global citizen are surfacing in the all-in-one diaper market. Cotton Babies, the maker of bumGenius diapers, runs a 70-person packing facility in St. Louis where employees are paid living wages, can bring their babies to work and get 26 days of paid leave a year. Chief executive Jennifer Labit started Cotton Babies with $100 after losing her programming job in the early-2000s tech bubble. The company she built created more than 300 U.S. jobs and provides, through charity work, an estimated 3.2 million free diaper changes for parents on welfare, who are loaned used bumGenius diapers. Its 250-person subcontracted assembly facility in Denver doesn't provide wages or benefits akin to those at Pampers or Huggies, but it does seek environmental and social improvements for everything from raw materials to the diapers themselves. And the largely synthetic all-in-ones do not contribute to the social and environmental footprint of cotton (bumGenius's cotton-insert diapers use GOTS and Oeko-Tex certified cotton).
Parents trying to do the right thing for the planet and humanity might consider pushing synthetic all-in-one producers to increase their prices to let benefits directly reach manufacturing workers. Cotton Babies audits supplier facilities domestically and abroad, but Labit confesses, "There's only so much that I control." But until business growth enables Cotton Babies and like-minded companies to leverage authority over suppliers, and until high-end consumers agree to pay more for premium diapers to ensure worker welfare, disposables may still be the more ethical and convenient diaper choice.
Kendyl Salcito is the executive director of NomoGaia, a think tank dedicated to helping multinational corporations respect human rights in their global operations.