Are cloth nappies really better than disposables?

When it comes to environmental credentials it is pretty undisputed that cloth nappies are better than disposables. But many of us who are taking steps to lower impact living are looking for something more than less plastic – we want to be buying from brands whose ethics across their business match their environmental endeavours.

And as social media went black for Blackout Tuesday, unrest was brewing in the cloth nappy community. Several brands posted black squares to their social channels, others went further, giving their customers what the brands believed they wanted – Black Lives Matter prints. Unsurprisingly customers questioned the motives for releasing these prints. One brand explained that it intended to sell the nappy at cost so that it would not be profiting, suggesting that its customers make a donation of the difference between the normal cost of the nappy and the price paid.

Another embarked on what can only be described as a total public relations meltdown. They chose to delete negative comments that questioned their actions. As more accusations came out about the brand discriminating against Black-owned businesses the brand started blocking individuals and claiming to be attacked. In the following days a series of apologetic posts were made pointing to the brand being Chinese and therefore unaware of the political situation in the USA or the expectations of free-speech.

The former issued a statement explaining their intentions and that they do not make their charitable endeavours public so will not confirm whether they donate to charities supporting the Black community. The latter have vowed to do better and learn from this fiasco, recently announcing that around $5,000 profits from the sale of their BLM prints will be donated to Black Lives Matter.

For me, the incident brought to light the fact that I have never considered the manufacturing and other practices of cloth nappy brands. I look at brands whose nappies retail at £15+ and consider them to be expensive, especially as there are plenty of cloth nappies available for much less. But I never really wondered why that was the case.

For brands, the problem with cloth nappies is obvious – most families only need a limited number of nappies. Cloth nappies generally last for more than one child so many sell their stash on once their children are potty trained. The result is that brands need to find ways to encourage us to keep buying new. Much like the fast fashion industry, these brands constantly put out new patterns to entice us to buy more, more, more.

We all love a good print in the cloth nappy community but how many of us have stopped to consider the costs of this? While some brands manufacture a small number of prints, others are in a race to the bottom, to create a huge variety of prints at the cheapest prices. But much like fast fashion, the race to the bottom has consequences, usually in the form of exploitation of workers. With that sort of business model, there is almost always some kind of exploitation, including poor conditions, unfair practices and wages that do not cover basic living costs.

So I decided to do a bit of research into the manufacturing processes for cloth nappy brands and share with you what I found. This research is by no means extensive and I have focused on the brands that I have personally used.

Image shows a Mama Koala nappy in the Earth Day print - profits of which were not donated to any environmental charities.

Alva Baby

I always thought Alva Baby were an American brand (their Instagram handle is Alva Baby USA) but they are actually the largest nappy manufacturer in China. They are well known as being the cheapest nappy on the market – making a slim-fitting pocket nappy (sold with a microfiber insert) in a wide range of prints. Alva Baby nappies make up a large proportion of my stash as I, like many others, saw them as an affordable option to build up the number of nappies I had. I always considered them cheap and cheerful with a good fit. However when I looked at the brand’s website I was shocked. Here’s how they describe themselves:

Whoever you are, and wherever you are, Alvababy offers the same price to all: the lowest possible. Whether you’re a retailer who refuses to pay the high prices in your country, or a shopper looking to get hold of the latest products, Alvababy provides great service and fantastic prices. We are the biggest diaper manufacturers in China so we can keep costs low while maintaining the highest of standards.

That final sentence is particularly troubling. It’s not clear from the information that Alva Baby make available how they achieve this but I’m willing to bet that those low prices come at the expense of the welfare of those working for them. Now I’m not suggesting that we should all boycott Alva Baby. I recently had a discussion with an online retailer about compromising on this point in order to be able to offer more affordable nappies. And I completely understand that desire. I think that we all want as many people as possible to use cloth and for many the initial costs of cloth are prohibitive. But I do think that if you are in a position to be able to afford nappies from manufacturers with more transparent processes then you should consider that.

Mama Koala

For a long time Mama Koala were my favourite brand. They were my introduction to pocket nappies and I was a complete convert. I loved the patterns, I loved the fit and I loved the absorbent bamboo inserts.

I thought that Mama Koala were US-based but in fact the company was sold to a Chinese firm a number of years ago. I also thought that as the nappies were sold in limited runs of prints (most retailers only ever have available one or two collections at once and a small selection of single prints) that they were a small manufacturer.

I first started to suspect that Mama Koala were not the small outfit I thought when I went on their website to find a specific print. Instead of the small collection of nappies I was expecting I found hundreds if not thousands of different designs.

In my view Mama Koala are potentially the worst offender when it comes to making cloth nappies like fast fashion. They create thousands of prints (admittedly many are beautiful) and create scarcity by keeping to a limited run. As retailers’ websites say, each print is limited so when it’s gone it’s gone.

But again there is very little information on their website about how their nappies are manufactured. I contacted Mama Koala to ask them about this and this was their response:

“We are committed to produce [sic] quality cloth diapers with a lower price to every baby all over the world for a better environment. We do giveaways each day for the purpose of letting more families know cloth diapers [sic]. As a business, we respect the equality of all races and we should be ethical and diverse.”

It’s also worth noting here that Mama Koala put out many prints linked to charitable causes but do not appear to make any donation of profits to relevant charities for those causes.

I put Mama Koala in the same category as Alva Baby – I can afford to buy from other manufacturers with more transparent processes and therefore will not be buying from Mama Koala anymore (despite the beautiful prints!).

Seedling

It feels like Seedling have absolutely exploded onto the nappy scene in recent months. This Australian-based company have a stunning range of prints. Their pocket nappy which comes with an insert that is more akin to a prefold offers great flexibility and is one of the softest nappies I have.

I found that there wasn’t much information available on their website so I reached out to asked them about their business. Eva, the owner responded to let me know that she oversees the running of the company, assisted by family members with packing during busy periods. She also told me that the nappies are produced in a factory in China that manufactures exclusively for cloth nappy brands, including a number from the UK and US. Seedling say that they have a great relationship with the production manager with whom they have been working with for over a decade.

The factory that produces Seedling nappies has around 80 employees in total, with around 10 dedicated to working for Seedling. Staff work eight hours a day, five days per week and receive well in excess of the $270 minimum monthly wage (operational garment workers are paid $700 per month with management levels receiving wages above that). Staff also receive holidays, sick leave and maternity leave and an equal pay policy for men and women is in place.

This information (and much more detail) was made available in Seedling’s 2020 manufacturing report and suggests to me that Seedling take seriously the need to ensure that workers are treated fairly.

Tickle Tots

Tickle Tots are a very popular UK brand and have grown from one mum making nappies at her kitchen table to one of the most well known brands in the UK. Tickle Tots include in their ethos statement that they believe everyone is entitled to a fair wage, safe working conditions and reasonable working hours. I asked them for some more information and this is what they told me:

“Our nappies are made by a lovely family run, small manufacturer in China. All materials are sourced locally to them to reduce carbon footprint and we sea freight wherever possible. For every 1000 nappies we manufacture we also plant a UK native tree. We did try to source manufacturers in the UK or Europe but unfortunately we do not produce the specialist materials locally so all would have to be individually imported causing a much higher carbon footprint.”

Tots Bots

Tots Bots were the only brand I found that undertake all their manufacturing in the UK, with a factory in Glasgow. I hope that that continues to be the case following their buy-out by Frugi and launch in Boots stores. As a UK manufacturer Tots Bots are subject to UK equality and employment legislation.

Bambino Mio

Another very popular brand in the UK, not least because they are regularly sold as part of Aldi’s baby event. Bambino Mio are also a brand that have very little information on their website. I contacted Bambino Mio on Instagram to ask them for more details and was told to email their customer services, which I did. Unfortunately I did not receive any response and therefore I can’t tell you any more about how their nappies are manufactured.

Edit: After I published this post Bambino Mio got in touch to apologise for not replying to my original email. They also sent me the following information:

  • Bambino Mio don’t publish any diversity statistics (although as an employer they do hold this information) but they say that inclusivity and diversity are part of their culture and this is demonstrated by 30% of the senior leadership team being of ethnic minority, with 38% non-UK nationals and 75% women.
  • The percentage of employees from ethnic minority backgrounds is currently higher than the percentage of BAME individuals in the local area for the company’s location in Northamptonshire, UK. Bambino Mio say that as a company they continue to take steps to ensure that their brand reflects the diversity of their community.
  • Bambino Mio have multiple factories around the world, including in the UK, Europe and China. The label on each Bambino Mio nappy confirms where it was made. They say that they have longstanding manufacturing partners that are expert manufacturers producing high quality products.
  • Bambino Mio say that all of their manufacturing partners are Sedex® or amfori BSCI approved members which ensures the highest standard of working conditions and worker’s rights.
  • Bambino Mio also regularly audit their partners to ensure the highest ethical, environmental and product standards are obtained.  

Baby Bare

Baby Bare are an Australian brand that have recently set up a UK distribution centre in Hove. Their bright print designs are fabulous and they are fast becoming one of my favourite nappies.

Like many brands, their nappies are manufactured in China. Here’s what they have to say in their website:

“We have sourced an ethical, small, family run factory that we have partnered with for many years, to ensure our nappies are made with love, and that the people who make them are treated as they should be.”

Ecopipo

Ecopipo are one of the few brands that are really upfront and transparent about their manufacturing. They describe themselves as a family business that has been making reusable products in Mexico for the last decade. Ecopipo say that they are socially responsible with work conditions within international health and safety standards and wages well above the national minimum wage for Mexico. They also say that they are committed to ensuring that there is no child labour within their supply chains.

I only recently discovered Ecopipo through Eco Mama and Baby and it’s certainly a brand I will be buying from in future – the G3 pocket nappy is fantastic. I purchased a limited edition sea turtle print and Ecopipo donates 30% of sales from this nappy to an NGO that protects sea turtles. This is pretty unusual in that a huge number of manufacturers put out environmental prints, but very few directly donate sales from those prints to environmental charities.

Close

The Close pop-in is a pretty iconic nappy. The brand itself is based in Welwyn Garden City and fairly transparent about their manufacturing and ethics. Here’s what they say on their website:

“We have a very close working relationship with all our suppliers, one where we can share our ideas and foster improvements year on year. We have carefully selected them based on their excellence and ability, rather than cost, and as a result our relationship outweighs global economics. The Close products you buy today are either made in Turkey or in China, with manufacturing partners who have underpinned our growth during the last decade. We see them as part of the same Close team and we are both engaged and invested in their ethics and working environments and committed to regularly spending time in the factories with them throughout the year to ensure our award winning ideas are always manufactured to exacting standards in order to deliver the best experience possible.”

However, this doesn’t really tell you much about how the workers are treated so I’ve asked Close for further information.

Baba and Boo

Baba and Boo are another incredibly popular brand that I reached out to for more information and received a really positive response. Baba and Boo admit that they are still learning and striving to do better when it comes to diversity but have taken steps over the years to encourage diversity within their small team as well as putting in place family friendly hours. Two thirds of their senior management team is female.

Baba and Boo work with a factory (presumably in China) that ensures employee welfare. Baba and Boo say that all their manufacturers need to adhere to their sustainability and environmental guidelines, which includes ensuring workers rights and fair pay. 

Thirsties

Thirsties are well-known for being an American brand and all their nappies are manufactured in the USA as well. They say on their website that their nappies are made in Colorado by a workforce that includes many mums working from their own homes. Thirsties also try to source all their materials from the USA.

As a US-based manufacturer Thirsties will be subject to US employment and equality laws. I asked Thirsties for more information about their workforce diversity and here’s what they said:

“We are a somewhat small family owned and operated company! Most of our employees are part of the Merrill family and we certainly strive to be inclusive and diverse in our hiring process when adding to the team.”

One thing to be aware of in the USA is the use of prison labour, which is exploitative (the documentary 13th on Netflix covers this really well. John Oliver has also looked at this on his show several times). Essentially the massive US prison population are employed in various industries with inmates earning in many case less than $1 per hour and often without proper health and safety procedures. The practices amount to modern slavery and are completely legal under the 13th amendment of the US constitution.

Thirsties have confirmed that they don’t use any prison-based labour in their manufacturing.

Blueberry

Blueberry are another US-based company, this time with manufacturing facilities just outside Washington DC (their website says they use a factory in Arkansas, although I think that they use several manufacturing contractors). Blueberry say that they briefly used manufacturing facilities in China but were unhappy with the quality of the products.

Blueberry will be subject to US employment and equality laws. I asked Blueberry for some more information and here’s what they told me:

  • It is very difficult to recruit and retain skilled employees in the USA unless you pay way above minimum wage.
  • Blueberry have one employee (everyone else I assume is family) and he is paid double minimum wage plus has healthcare benefits.
  • The main factory Blueberry use is family owned and operated. Most of the approx. 15 employees are either family or friends of the family. Everybody working there has been there for a long time and it does not have much turn over for staff.
  • The factory is heated in winter and air-conditioned in summer.

Blueberry have also confirmed they do not use prison labour in their workforce.

Final thoughts

I had sadly been very naive about the manufacturing of cloth nappies. If I’m completely honest I’d barely given it any thought. And I trusted the websites I was buying from to only stock brands whose ethical practices were assured but this doesn’t seem to always be the case.

I totally understand the desire to make cloth nappies accessible to all and for some retailers that justifies stocking some of the mass manufactured brands. But I also hope that pre-loved nappies and nappy libraries can help to make cloth more accessible too.

I also think it’s important not to write-off brands for using manufacturing facilities in China. The reality of global trade means that China is often the best option, including to reduce the carbon footprint of materials. But it is important that those brands using factories overseas are involved in the running of those factories to ensure that workers receive fair pay and good conditions. I would like to see brands be more upfront about this.

For me, I’ve certainly learnt a lot and will be changing my purchasing behaviour in future. But I also acknowledge that I have the wealth privilege that allows me to do that and for many it may not be that simple. But if you have one takeaway from this blog post I hope it is this, to pause before you buy that absolutely must have print and consider whether you do need another nappy or whether you are being enticed by fast fashion.

I’ll be keeping this post updated with more information as I find it. Let me know if there are any other nappy brands you’d like to know more about.

R x.

Note: This post was edited on 1 July 2020 to include the further information provided by Bambino Mio and confirmation from Thirsties and Blueberry that they do not use prison labour.

Published by Rebecca

Photographer, explorer, travel and lifestyle blogger

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