At the Bottom of Diapergate

Well here I am once again, finishing off a week long journey into the world of cloth versus disposable diapers. Asking and answering the questions that caused such a big stir after the airing of Jeffrey Hollender's, CEO of Seventh Generation, Big Green Lies on the Fine Living Network

In a nutshell, Big Green Lies aired a segment on it's Earth Day show about the environmental impacts of cloth versus disposable diapers. In the segment the conclusion was that when all environmental factors are considered a user is fine to use either type of diaper... but is this true?

I had an hour long conversation with Geoff Davis, a representative of Seventh Generation. Geoff, who also did the research for the segment that aired, was very personable and open to all of my questions. At the same time, over the course of our conversation he did mention he and his wife chose disposable diapers because they felt cloth diapers were hard to deal with. As I disclosed in my previous post, my wife and I are going with cloth for our upcoming birth - so obviously both of us have to have some level of personal bias if we are all being completely honest. But just like Geoff claims that Big Green Lies looked at the issue objectively, so will I.

One of the first things that I asked him was if he would go on record in saying there was no bias in the study, without hesitation he said that he stood by the information presented and that he spent a day to a day-and-a-half researching online and other places for this segment. When asked what research he used to prepare the segment he pointed specifically to two studies that came to similar conclusions. 

The first, a Franklin & Associates study done in the 90's, which even he mentioned was done for the disposable industry and should be taken with a grain of salt since reports like this can obviously result in a clear bias.

If this is true though, then why was it used in the analysis of the debate? The second report he referenced was done by the Union of Concerned Scientists. One source Geoff did not mention was the RDA. By looking at their site you can see a counterpoint to most of the arguements raised in the BGL piece. Knowing now at least a portion of the data used I had to ask the obvious question... how can a company like Seventh Generation that has a stake in the disposable diaper industry be seen as credible on this topic, how was this not an hour long infomercial to promote products?

Geoff immediately pointed to the fact that they were very careful not to mention any products, which is true. He noted that of course a certain amount of this discussion will happen when Seventh Generation people appear on the show. When he and Jeffrey started this project it was originally supposed to be a book but it evolved into the eventual TV show. The intent the entire time was to educate the public to make better decisions to protect the environment. Geoff pointed to a couple of publications he did work on with Jeffrey that actually tell people how to make some of their own earth friendly products (Seventh Generation Guide to Creating a Healthy Home and Naturally Clean.) 

While I completely agree that they did do a good job of not directly pushing product in the show, there still is the issue that there was the potential for bias in the reporting (remember the grain of salt analogy.) This was a big reason for a lot of the initial backlash on twitter. Geoff did raise a good point that what this did is it got people talking, and he felt that as long as people were talking then they did a good job. 

And people are talking, believe me I have heard from a lot of people and there is a lot that people want to say.

A big question was one touched on in the segment and that is the fact that disposable diapers are currently the third most common consumer item in landfills. In further research I found no one knows how long it takes for a disposable diaper to decompose, but it is estimated to be about 250-500 years. Also, disposable diapers generate sixty times more solid waste and use twenty times more raw materials like crude oil and wood pulp. When Geoff and I started the conversation on landfill waste he said that life is full of gray areas and everything involves a trade off, that every benefit comes with a disadvantage.

The next bit of conversation he said is somewhat subjective, but to him the single greatest environmental concern is climate change, and because of this he views landfill waste as less of a problem. He believes in looking more at the greater impact caused by carbon emissions than the impact of disposables in the landfills. I will add that I agree that one of the greatest environmental issues is the effects of global warming and the melting of our polar ice caps - but to me, why does it have to be an either or?

I asked him about a place like Hawaii that is seeing the closing of landfills, where they are running out of places to dump their trash. Geoff pointed back to the video where they do mention that people who live in areas like this should focus more on the landfill issue and for them cloth might be better, but for people in areas where water consumption is an issue that the greater focus should be on the effects cloth diapers and washing have. But to me, shouldn't we look at Hawaii as an example of what the rest of us might face if we don't limit waste? Anyway...

This was an interesting transition because the topic of water usage and environmental impact were also high on the list of things people were talking about. One of the first things I asked was specifically about the segment on the show where the woman who served as the pro-disposable advocate talked about being opposed to using too much water. The irony was that she was standing on a lush green lawn, so I asked about that and about why they didn't ask her about other ways she could be conserving water. Geoff couldn't speak to this issue because he was not there during the taping of that particular segment and mentioned that hours of filming were cut down to fit in the six minute segment. At that I mentioned there is a certain level of being unfair since it is placing an additional level of negativity on cloth diapers when the greater issue is water consumption in general.

To this Geoff gave the stats that washing diapers will average an additional 50-70 gallons used every two days at home, and that homes that wash cloth diapers use 27% more water and diaper services use 13% than if you were using disposables. What Geoff didn't mention is something I found in other research, the manufacture and use of disposable diapers amounts to 2.3 more water wasted than cloth. I am not a huge math person, but to me it looks like that both forms of diapering do have an effect on the consumption of water. If this is the crux of the argument for disposable, does this mean that the pendulum can't swing as far as disposable manufacturers want it to? This is not a reflection on Seventh Generation diapers since Big Green Lies was not meant to be, it is about all disposable manufacturers.

In addition to this information I asked Geoff if there were other ways to lessen the washing impact of cloth diapers. He said that  by lowering the washing temperature from the standard 160-170 down to 130-140, by using energy efficient washers and line drying that the impact caused by washing would be lessened. He added to this that it is not only the water, but products like bleach that are added to clean the diapers.

I questioned him about this, because in my discussions with cloth manufacturers (like sloomb and bum genius) they both recommend that chlorine bleach never be used on their products. In fact there are some cases where warranties are voided if bleach is used. Geoff had a reasoned reply that they looked at this based on what people actually do, and that people are using bleach. Since I don't know what every consumer does it seemed logical. But at the same time if they used time to mention this in Big Green Lies maybe more people would know and learn the appropriate way to use cloth diapers and lessen the environmental impact.

At the same time, some of the argument on consumer behavior benefits disposable manufacturers since the instructions on a disposable diaper package advise that all fecal matter should be deposited in the toilet before discarding. If all disposable users did that, how much water would be wasted with each flush? The fact that this is not happening means that it is not only the diapers building in the landfill, it is also fecal matter. Again, I am not an expert, but that seems just as nasty as washing a cloth diaper probably seems to some. 

I did ask if the Seventh Generation baby laundry detergent would work since the cloth manufacturers don't advocate bleach and he said it is not designed to be a zero residue product, that it is designed more for garments and not diapers. (So to a degree this adds to the argument that Seventh Generation has more of a stake in seeing disposables win this debate, but maybe that is just me.)

I wanted to find out why diapers are the only disposable product being put under the microscope, so I asked if Geoff recommends using disposable dishware and paper towels to regular tableware and cloth rags. Geoff felt this was a case of comparing apples to oranges - in his opinion we can't apply what we know about diapers to other things in the house. That in general reusable products are better than disposable and in general rags rule because of the lower impact they have due to the ability to clean your entire house with one rag before you toss it in the laundry. He also mentioned how often Jeffrey, even as the CEO of a consumer product company, goes out of his way to tell people to reduce consumption. I will agree with Geoff here that anytime you can reduce consumption you are doing a positive thing. But knowing some of the other data about how you can reduce the effects of water usage from cloth and the growing impact of disposables in landfills maybe cloth diapers have their place in this conversation too.

Geoff and I got back on to the topic of ways to reduce the effects from laundering in general, some of the tips he offered (and these do not all apply to diapers) are the ones mentioned above, also washing in cold water, use detergents that are 2x-4x concentrated as they use less packaging (along with a lower impact on shipping due to volume,) hanging clothes to dry and using naturally based products to launder with (he did reiterate he was talking in general and not just about 7th Gen products.)

When I asked again how by doing all this the pendulum does not completely shift, he mentioned the cost involved in purchasing these next generation washers that can run inthe $700 range. 

So I asked about the cost information I showed in my previous post and he agreed that you can more than make up this difference, but it is having to incur that large one time cost to purchase the washer that makes it much harder to justify for a lot of people. That people can find the extra few dollars every week to purchase disposables. While I see his point, the fact is still out there that there are ways to lower the environmental impact of cloth diapers and there is a way for people to save money (maybe enough to buy a better washing machine.)

Having felt at this point we had pretty much talked enough about the environmental impact I want back to the potential for a biased report. In the show there is a portion where it is mentioned that cloth diapers interfere with the enjoyment of the baby, I had to find out what this was all about. Geoff said that this was more about the fact that cloth diapers can be seen as a chore and that time spent cloth diapering could be time you are spending with your baby. That this is where the blush comes off the rose because of all the work involved. 

Now if this is truly unbiased reporting, why was an implication like this used for the cloth diapers and not something similar for the disposables (editorializing if you will). And also, why when they showed cloth diapers did they only show the old school diapers at the service and not any of the easier to use cloth diapers that are gaining popularity? 

To the first point, Geoff did mention that if they were to do something like this again this might have been looked at more closely and that he could see the point raised on editorializing. He said they might have bit off more than they could chew by trying to touch on so many issues in BGL. But in the end, he is absolutely pleased with what they did.

So, about the name, Big Green Lies - if disposables control 90-95% of market share, then is it really appropriate to call cloth diapering a BGL and to have devoted the time to it on the show if all things are unbiased? 

Yes, was the answer from Geoff. It was right to put it in the show even though most people choose disposables. Because many people struggle with this decision before deciding on disposable diapers and they wanted to let these people know that their decision is still a good one. And it is fair to call it a Big Green Lie because they believe the decision for cloth is not as clear cut a better environmental choice as some make it out to be.

Again, as I have said in previous posts, I agree that no one should feel guilty about a personal choice - but in all honesty I would like to see another media outlet pick up the torch to remove the element of bias that will be perceived here due to the relationship of Jeffrey, Seventh Generation and Big Green Lies. 

Geoff felt, and I agree, this is a topic worthy of discussion, and the blogosphere spreading this message shows that this has hit a nerve. Geoff closed with saying that he does not see what they have done since the airing as damage control (which is what I originally called it.) He said they love and encourage debate if it leads to healthy purchasing decisions, and that a healthy decision is one's own to make. He said that Seventh Generation always puts the earth first, customer second and company third.

Now, we have heard a lot from Geoff, but I wanted to speak directly to people on the other side of the argument too and give them a voice on this issue. One such person was Paula, the owner of BabyWorks in Portland, Oregon. When I asked Paula for a statement it was easy to see how passionate she is about the issue, and although she had a lot to say the following really speaks to her point of view:

"I think disposable diapers should be what they are - a convenience product that is simply not an environmentally sound choice.  That does not mean they do not have their place, nor does it mean a number of people won't use them anyways for whatever reason.  There are occasions they are useful for - mainly, situations which do not have access to laundry facilities (e.g., travel, no washer/dryer, etc.).  We need to let go of the environmental argument.  When I eat a take out meal, I am well aware that I am throwing the (paper) box away and that it creates trash, and so I don't do it often.  The restaurant does not tell me this is "better" than using my own dishes to try to get me to buy more take-out.  We all know what is going on, and in that moment, have made a choice.  People using disposable diapers should be aware they are creating trash.  It is not about making people right and wrong, it is about awareness.  This awareness might drive more people to make a diapering choice from an informed point of view.  They don't need more confusion from spin doctors
as in this infomercial."

So, with that I am drawing my own end to diapergate. I may not have done anything to sway anyone elses point of view, but at least I was able to look at all sides of an arguement and make a decision for myself... one that I am happy with. I encourage all of you that read this to do the same. Don't just accept the information given to you, seek out answers, educate yourselves and get involved. Find out what you can do to make an impact on the world we live in and make informed choices so you can be happy that you are doing all you can for the world all of our children will live in.


  1. Thanks, good read. No one will ever convince me that "spoises" are better. I live in Colorado where water is a big deal, but I would take less showers and water my lawn less to keep washing my cloth diapers. I NEVER bleach my diapers, but on occasion bleach the inserts with like a tablespoon of bleach :) I love cloth diapers and the washing takes maybe 5 min of time out of my life. I think my kids will than me when they don't have to live on a pile of trash later in life.

  2. Did he ever mention anything about the energy, water and chemicals used to produced and distribute disposable diapers? I've never seen a study that compares cradle to grave energy water and chemical impact, and I think that's where cloth will easily come out on top.

  3. Cathy - we did not talk about the energy, water and chemicals used in making disposable's - I am sure that someone from 7th Gen will read this (hopefully comments too) and I hope they can reply here. Again, I want to encourage everyone to have a voice and I want them to be able to answer the questions posed to them if they so chose.

    Thanks to all of you that have read this and my other silly little posts.

  4. A post well done, MrBoilermaker. I read recently that the amount of water used to wash a load of cloth diapers could be compared to 5-7 toilet flushes. When my son learns to use the toilet, I'm guessing he'll use about that much water. So what's the difference if we're trying to conserve elsewhere?

    Thank you for shedding light on the other side of this issue! I'm really disappointed that the big money media coverage (and studies) are always done from the disposable companies' bias.

  5. The best way to clean cloth diapers is to pre-rinse them off in the toilet using a Hand Bathroom Bidet Sprayer. So convenient and if you are trying to help the environment (and your pocket book) you can give it a double whammy by virtually eliminating toilet paper use at the same time as you benefit from using it on the diapers, by using it on yourself. I think Dr. Oz on Oprah said it best: "if you had pee or poop on your hand, you wouldn't wipe it off with paper, would you? You'd wash it off" Available at http://www.bathroomsprayers.com they come in an inexpensive kit and can be installed without a plumber. And after using one of these you won't know how you lasted all those years with wadded up handfuls of toilet paper. Now we're talking green and helping the environment without any pain. One review: http://jonathanandandrea.blogspot.com/2009/04/spray-it-or-scrub-it.html

  6. Jeff - I will keep your comment up here because if I read your comment correctly, along with the gist of your blog - you are trying to use this blog as a vehicle to sell your product.

    But I wonder what you thought about the parts where I talk about perceived bias due to the sources of information? About people close to a specific product being possibly biased in the way they present information. Since this is a marketing blog after all - let me know if you have a feeling either way on that.