Laura Tweedale explores how the pandemic accelerated the real nappy revolution
There is nothing quite like a crisis to make people address their values. This was certainly the case for me. But one person’s impasse doesn’t create global change. It turns out, it takes a pandemic to reach the masses.
When the pandemic approached Britain, supermarket shelves were stripped bare and everyday ‘essentials’ became commodities to be traded. Disposable nappies were one of them. Parents up and down the UK were left bereft by empty aisles and panic buying. However, hoarding disposable nappies came at a price, and parents sought an alternative that didn’t require a spare room to store the 500 nappies needed for 12 weeks of lockdown. People who had never heard of a ‘real nappy’ just weeks before were suddenly in the market for reusables. As a ‘cloth bum mum’, how joyful it was to see.
In 2018, at eight weeks pregnant, I found myself with overwhelming nausea and vomiting. I had enjoyed a low-risk pregnancy in 2015 while expecting my daughter, and anticipated this pregnancy would follow suit. But by 10 weeks, I was so unwell I sought help and was diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidarum. It was, quite frankly, a living hell. But it was a tipping point. Hyperemesis was the crisis that made me evaluate my values, and all because I could no longer tolerate artificial fragrances. Every product containing scent was stripped from our home. It snowballed. I read, I watched and I learned, and by the time my son safely arrived in February 2019, we had adopted every basic change we could to embrace a sustainable lifestyle. Except for nappies, and all because some (old) statistics had put me off.
If you type ‘Are reusable nappies better for the environment than disposable nappies?’ into a search engine, the answer that comes back is effectively, no. The top responses reference a report published by the Environment Agency in 2005. Juggling two small children and the after-effects of hyperemesis, my research stopped there. My conscience did not: it nagged at me, it berated, it vexed, with every single nappy change. By the time my son was 8 weeks old, I could stand it no longer. My gut told me I could find a way with reusables to defy the data. But everything seemed so complicated online. I fell down the YouTube rabbit hole. I nearly lost my head. I needed support. And so, I turned to Instagram.
Instagram: the place of glamour and excess. How would this give me the community I longed for? And how could I navigate the ‘buy, buy, buy’ that comes with social media, when I live and write about the joy found in minimalist living? I knew no one in my town who used cloth nappies, I had no friends to ask, but I dreamed of finding like-minded parents to talk to. I needed advice – a voice of encouragement taken from personal experience. I was looking for kinship without the hard sell. Hashtags became my ally. And find friends, I did.
Since October 2019, I have collaborated with eight other parents to promote the ethos that cloth can be simple for all. We may have different experiences, different reasons for using real nappies, but we are united by one common goal: dispelling myths and sharing advice under the hashtag #clothmadesimple. A community began to grow and one I finally felt I belonged to. Our videos for Instagram TV cover topics including how to use cloth nappies out of the house, the types of reusables on the market, and how to clean cloth nappies.
A few months later, the pandemic struck the UK. Seeing the rows of empty shelves in the baby aisle of my local supermarket supported anecdotal evidence of parents switching to cloth. Real nappy retailers quickly became overwhelmed. Websites were temporarily closed for sales while orders were frantically processed. Nappy libraries were forced to suspend their vital service. Selling groups on social media made public calls to long-time real nappy users to give people new to reusables a chance to buy what they needed. Michelle, who runs the Milton Keynes NCT Nappy Library, found it a frustrating time. “Following the NCT’s guidance, we had to pause loaning kits in March 2020 until we had a Covid-19 secure process in place. We had a large number of enquiries for hiring cloth nappy kits, but also advice on where to start and what to buy. We take pride in offering each client tailored advice, but we certainly found it frustrating having five kits lying dormant.” But while nappy libraries languished, online sales boomed.
Guy Schanschieff, Founder and Managing Director of the reusable nappy brand Bambino Mio, told me: “During the pandemic, a positive uplift in sales was reported by our distribution channels including supermarkets, pharmacies and independents, and our own website sales increased significantly, with daily orders seeing an increase of over 150% month on month.”
Change was taking place and I found myself a part of it.
In May 2020, I was the guest speaker for The Sustainable(ish) Online Festival, organised by the author of The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide, Jen Gale. I found myself, in my bedroom, showing strangers (live!) what cloth nappies are, how to use them and how to wash them. (I said the word ‘poo’ in multiple utterances, something a year ago my introverted self would have broken out in hives over.) I had seen the demand and wanted to provide the voice of encouragement I had longed for when I started my cloth nappy journey. With nappy libraries closed, I wanted my talk to fill this void. It felt like my chance to ‘do my bit’ in a way that supported this change for good. I didn’t use cloth nappies with my daughter. (I’d never heard of them in 2015.) I estimate I sent over 5,000 disposable nappies to landfill or for incineration. But I cannot change the past. And my guilt serves no use. I only hope I can continue to influence the future, for the better.
One year on, we are still enduring the effects of the pandemic, both positive and negative.
Louisa Douglas, who runs the Farnborough Cloth Nappy Library, explained that while strict quarantine measures for clean kits are still in place, the library is always in use. “I think the library would have been busier if we could have offered face-to-face meetings,” Louisa explained, “but our online tutorials and contact-free service is working for us. The kits are generally always out, and our waiting list is short. I only hope we can return to in-person group meetups soon to help even more parents make the transition to cloth.” The boom in demand for reusable nappies continues to thrive for Bambino Mio. “Year after year, Bambino Mio has experienced impressive increases across online sales, mainly attributed to the fact that parents and retailers are consciously opting for environmentally-friendly products rather than single-use plastic products,” Guy told me in December last year. “To meet the growing product demand in 2020, and build on Bambino Mio’s success, we continued to increase our output by making big investments across the business. This included a 33% increase in workforce, significant IT investment and expansion of the brand’s warehouse and office space.”
I believe in my soul there is a way reusable nappies can be simple for all; that there is no ‘one way’ everyone must follow; that guidance can be given without judgement, sales or jargon. I think that may be one of the reasons I am here. I have a story to tell to help play a positive part in finding a solution to the climate crisis. I never expected the pandemic to support this mission.
Laura Tweedale is a writer and content creator based in Cheshire. She lives with her husband, their two children, one dog and three chickens. She writes to inspire, galvanise and simplify life, on the themes of being a mother, sustainable living and minimalism. The Joy of Reusable Nappies is her first book.
This feature is published in the Early Spring 2021 issue of JUNO Magazine, find more here.