I guess you can’t fault WebMD for their transparency. In a recent article on baby diapers, they found that neither reusable cloth diapers nor throwaway disposable diapers is a clear winner. This article is framed by five logos and banners and two funding statements. Who sponsors WebMD? Huggies. They are very open about it. And they still found it a toss up? If they had asked Real Diaper Association or Real Diaper Industry Association to sponsor their article (I asked—they didn’t), I wonder how that would have tipped the balance.
Sources unfamiliar with real diaper choices
Part of the problem comes in seeking opinions from those who favor throwaway diapers. Especially in a difficult economy, when they receive funding or samples from only one type of product, which do you think they would favor? Would you ask a pediatrician pushing free baby formula samples whether you should breastfeed or formula feed your baby? Breastfeeding advocates are working to educate those health care providers to rebel against choices that are clearly not better for babies. Cloth diaper advocates have started a similar project to expose childbirth educators to cloth diapers. If health care providers are going to be the source for so much parenting advice, they need to be educated by more than big business with an interest in high turnover and big profit.
The faulty logic of comparing apples to oranges
Just because two different products are both called diapers does not make them comparable. You can’t even really compare a reusable polyester pocket diaper with a microfiber insert to an organic cotton diaper and a wool soaker. They have a similar intended end result, but they are not the same product. This has been a problem with studies and superficial articles that attempt to make comparisons between any two kinds of diapers. What works for any family depends on their own values and needs.
It also amuses me when I see people try to put transportation on cloth diapers as an issue. The new article falls prey to the failure of follow-through logic when it claims that “commercial diaper service delivery trucks consume fuel and create air pollution.” I’m thinking the person who wrote this might be thinking back to another era. Most diaper services today are small and lean. Ask around and see if they laugh when you ask about “commercial delivery trucks.” May I just ask, how did those plastic bags of disposable diapers arrive on store shelves. Did the delivery guys carry them in giant reusable bags on public transit? Were they flown in on the wings of eagles? Uh, no. Massive pallets of disposable diapers are shipped from their offshore manufacturing facilities by sea freight and by commercial delivery trucks. You get the picture, right? Any time you buy a product in a store, you need to add transportation costs. If you use a diaper service, diapers are delivered long-distance one time to the service. The rest of the deliveries are local, which means there are fewer environmental costs to the transportation than deliveries of disposable diapers, since every bag of disposable diapers a parent buys have to be shipped very long distances. The argument that cloth diapers require more energy to transport begs a reader to be blind to the manufacture and delivery of disposable diapers the way they are to the waste of disposable diapers. The argument is tired to the point of being worn out. I would expect more education and clarity from a health care provider.
Another part of the problem is in seeing all cloth diapers as equal. Studies in the UK a few years ago fell into this trap. They took the highest impact cloth diapers and compared them with the lowest impact disposable diapers, found an overlap in environmental impact, and called it a tie. Obviously, that kind of logic is flawed as well. If you want to lower the impact of your cloth diapers, you can easily pull cloth diapers far out of reach of disposable diapers where the environmental impact doesn’t come close to overlapping.
The question about cloth diapers vs. disposable diapers isn’t about logic, though. It isn’t even a question except among those who want to push disposable diapers or those who buy into their terms. This is a question of marketing, branding, money, and profit. Where is the big money? You know the answer. The big money knows that if you make an advertisement a nice, light spring green and put a leaf on it, the part of your brain that bypasses logic will associate that product with nature. That’s nice, isn’t it? Your not-quite-conscious voice says, “I like nature, so I’m going to buy that bag of plastic diapers because it contains some organic cotton somewhere deep inside with the superabsorbent polymers and other petrochemical products.” Well, your voice might stop short of that, but it might get halfway there to say, “I’ll buy the green thing.” That’s why it’s a good idea to bring this into your all-too-conscious mind to ask, is that green thing really green or have I just been a sucker for greenwashing, what SourceWatch calls “unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue.”
If you are looking for facts about cloth diapers, check the people who know about cloth diapers. Look at Real Diaper Associations real diaper facts, all from published studies. They are a nonprofit dedicated to cloth diaper education. If you want to know about disposable diapers, ask the people who make them what they are made out of. If a product says natural, figure out what that means and how much of the product it represents. Check out their MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) for all of the ingredients, and ask if these are the materials you want to put on your baby’s sensitive bottom. Pull it all into your logical mind and ask, what is this green thing and do I really want this for my baby?
Thanks to Real Diaper Association Executive Director Heather McNamara, who tweeted about this article yesterday. From there, the news spread quickly. (If Twitter is still a foreign language to you, look for a quick Twitter intro in our post last week.)