They may be smelly and messy, but let's face it—diapers are a fact of life for all new parents. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that yearly more than 3 million tons of disposable diapers arrive in landfills in America. The average baby uses 60 diapers a week before toilet training kicks in. And according to estimates, it takes up to 500 years for a single disposable diaper to biodegrade.
Until recently, environmentally conscious consumers had little choice but to forgo the convenience of disposable diapers and use cloth. Of course, the amount of water necessary to clean the cloth diapers has its own environmental consequences. But in the last few years, several companies have introduced diapers that offer the convenience of a disposable diaper while providing an ecologically sound alternative. Seventh Generation, Nature babycare, Tushies, Mothernature Diapers and gDiapers are all part of the reason the disposable diaper category is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the naturals arena.
"When we got in the business more than two years ago, the category [was] not doing all that well in the natural [products] industry," says Jeffrey Hollender, chief executive officer of Burlington, Vt.-based Seventh Generation. "But since we've entered the diaper category, the category has grown over 300 percent in the last few years. That's our argument [for the strength of the category]. There's a real demand for this kind of product out there."
Seventh Generation's primary selling point is that its line of diapers is 100 percent chlorine-free. Why is this detail so important? Most diapers are bleached white with chlorine, a process that creates dangerous toxins such as dioxin, furans and other organochlorines. Studies have shown a direct link between dioxin exposure and cancer, birth defects and reproductive disorders.
"Dioxin [is] the most carcinogenic chemical on the face of the Earth, 800 times more carcinogenic than Agent Orange," Hollender says. "Traditional diaper companies will tell you, 'Yeah, there might be some residue on the diaper but at such a low level that it hasn't been proven to be dangerous.' Well, I don't find that particularly reassuring. If I have the choice of no residue and a product that's made in a safe fashion versus a product that has no proven health risks, but might have some, why take the chance?"
Seventh Generation's chlorine-free diapers, with their brownish hue, appear different from the blindingly white diapers consumers are used to, but Hollender claims that they are just as effective. The chlorine-free materials and absorbent polymers help keep the baby dry between changes and through the night. In addition to being effective, the absorbent polymer is nontoxic and nonirritating to baby's sensitive skin.
"One thing that we do when we introduce a product like this is what's called a home-panel study," Hollender says. "We get 100 to 200 families to use the product—often in a comparative setting—for three to four weeks. We have them rate the product in terms of rashes, leakage and comfort. We are thrilled at, from a performance perspective, how well this diaper performs. In terms of metrics like absorbency, I think we actually outperform Huggies and Pampers."
The forces behind gDiapers, a new Portland, Ore.-based company, have taken Seventh Generation's chlorine-free approach to diapers and gone a step further: Their product is flushable and compostable. gDiapers include a washable, reusable outer pant and a flushable liner made of biodegradable, all-natural fiber. The interior uses elemental, chlorine-free, tree-farmed fluff pulp and tiny sodium polyacrylate crystals to absorb wetness.
"It's really about redefining convenience," says Jason Graham-Nye, co-founder and CEO of gDiapers. "There's really nothing more convenient than a disposable diaper. You put it on, you take it off, and you put it in the trash. You can't beat that in terms of convenience. What we've found is that it redefines convenience in that it's putting waste where it belongs—down the toilet."
Graham-Nye and his wife, co-founder Kim Graham-Nye, were once simply new parents on the hunt for an environmentally conscious alternative to traditional diapers. "My wife and I had a child three years ago in Sydney, Australia. We went to a baby expo, and we stumbled across this Tasmanian company that made flushable diapers. And we used them for about six months and loved them," he says. "It was great because I thought, 'Hey I don't have any garbage anymore!' That was kind of key. We started thinking about it and saw it as a great opportunity. We were simply happy customers. We wanted the sensibility of cloth diaper users because that's what we were. We wanted to do something that wasn't environmentally devastating, but we also wanted something that was convenient because we both work. We really describe gDiapers as the Toyota Prius of diapers. It's a hybrid."
The couple bought the worldwide rights for the flushable diapers, relocated to Portland, Ore., and launched the company. As of this month, gDiapers are distributed nationwide. Graham-Nye says the diapers have earned positive consumer feedback not only for their environmental benefits, but for their look as well. "We're getting a lot of moms who might not otherwise look at these kinds of products," he says. "They're seeing them and saying, 'Well, they're pretty cute little diapers for my son or daughter to wear, and I can help the planet at the same time.'"
Seventh Generation's Hollender believes his company has met the challenge of offering an alternative to traditional disposable diapers that works as well and is competitively priced. "The bigger challenge is that you need to educate the consumer about why they need to buy this product," he says. "They understand why to buy organics; they understand why to take vitamins. But some of the fundamental propositions that underlie the household and personal care category are not well-understood. Like feminine products, diapers are incredibly underdeveloped [in the naturals industry]. People are walking into natural foods stores and walking out to buy a product that they could be buying in the natural product channel."
Both Hollender and Graham-Nye agree that new parents are more likely to try natural alternatives than are other consumers. "I think having more baby products in natural foods stores is going to solve one of the basic issues of the industry, which is, 'How do you get your shoppers to do more of their shopping in your store?'" Graham-Nye says. "If you look at the mainstream, where you buy your diapers is where you're going to buy everything else, most likely."
"I think that there is a particularly unique opportunity to enter into a conversation with a family that has a new baby," Hollender says. "It's a time in their life when they re-evaluate the products they use. They take a little extra time and pay a little more attention to the products they're going to surround their child with."
Tyler Wilcox is a Longmont, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 48