Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Having kids need not cost the earth

Find below an article on the ethical dilemmas of modern parenting published in October 2005, in the brilliant ethical living magazine, New Consumer.

From nappies to toys to prams, we must have it all! As new parents become perfect prey to the advertising industry how can we continue to consume responsibly and do the best for our children? Georgiana Treasure-Evans examines some of the ethical issues facing parents today and looks at the alternatives to the mainstream production and consumption of disposable nappies, baby’s equipment and toys.
Born free

I thought becoming a mother would mean I could switch off from the world for a while and think about nothing but my new baby. But as I came away from my last antenatal class with my Bounty Bag full of free samples of Persil, Johnson and Johnson baby oil and a Pampers disposable nappy, I realised I was in for a rough ride.

My conscience troubled me enough before I had Jemima, but parenting is an ethical minefield. Not only do I see her face in every child worker in a toy factory, I also know that even if I don’t live to see the impacts of environmental destruction and overflowing landfills, she might.

Balancing this heightened conscience with the desire for everything to be just perfect for your baby requires more energy than most new parents can muster. If we buy a second-hand car seat in the interests of the environment will it be safe enough for our child? Will her development be hindered without the latest toy from the Early Learning Centre? Once confident individuals who knew our own minds, we can soon become timid, vulnerable creatures desperately seeking approval as we stumble precariously into the baffling world of parenthood.

Not only are we ideal prey for advertising agencies, we also have to cope with peer pressure – real or perceived. There is nothing like a mums and babies coffee morning to destabilise your confidence in everything you believe in. I have always followed the three Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle (the National Childbirth Trust’s Nearly New sales are hard to beat.). But my bargain second hand pram did not seem so great when parked up in a line of shiny new buggies half its size. Suddenly it seemed huge and ungainly: positively pre-war. Luckily for me Jemima prefers to ride on my back. It will probably end up back with its friends at Winchester’s recycling centre - a fine home for all those things we thought we could not do without.

Bombarded with advice from all corners we rush out to buy toys, cots, highchairs, car seats, baby baths, bouncers, bottles, sterilisers…the list goes on. Much of it comes from China, whose government forbids any Trade Union to operate other than its own, and other countries where many factories employ cheap labour under sweatshop conditions. And it is nearly all made of plastic.

Most major toy companies, (e.g. Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, Disney, Mattel, Hasbro), children’s fashion retailers, (e.g. Gap, Matalan, Asda), and baby equipment retailers (e.g. Britax, Graco, Mamas and Papas, Maclaren), have sourced their products from sweatshops in the past, have poor environmental records. Though they are apparently in the process of improving their working conditions, they remain under the eagle eye of corporate watch groups. Many of the big pharmaceuticals (e.g. Proctor and Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, Johnson & Johnson) that produce disposable nappies, medicines, and baby bath products, are more powerful than governments. Their influence is more often used unethically, e.g. to support oppressive regimes or deprive poor countries from life-saving drugs, than as a force for good.

Despite this most corporate watch groups (e.g. Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Corporate Watch, Asia Monitor Resource Centre) and campaigning organisations (e.g. War on Want, Clean Clothes Campaign, Friends of the Earth) agree that it is better to lobby the companies to encourage best practice, than to boycott.

If this advice does not sit comfortably with you then do not despair. From PVC free potties to recycled cardboard Wendy houses, there is a world of green and fair trade alternatives out there and they are thriving. Jill Barker started her company Green Baby five years ago when she couldn't find environmentally friendly, safe products for her son. She started out selling real nappies from a tiny shop in North London, and since then the business has → grown and grown. Now they sell organic cotton clothing and nappies, organic toiletries, maternity wear, baby equipment and colourful toys - all produced in an environmentally sustainable way, and following the principles of fair trade. Although a little more expensive than the impossibly cheap mass-produced high street brands, they do not cost the earth.

Which brings me to what is arguably the biggest single ethical issue facing parents today: the great nappy debate. Despite the recent controversial Environment Agency findings that there is no significant environmental difference in using real nappies instead of disposables, the overwhelming evidence shows that Britain cannot ignore the devastating impact of the latter on our environment.

In the UK we throw away about eight million nappies a day - nearly three billion every year - according to the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN). 90% of these end up in landfills, costing individual local authorities hundreds of thousands of pounds per year (Nottinghamshire estimates £1 million per year). Disposable nappies are the largest single product in our household waste. While waste amounts are still rising, the EU Landfill directive requires a reduction of 35% in biodegradable waste over a 25 year period.

WEN advocate the use of real nappies, preferably organic cotton or hemp, washed at 60°C with eco-friendly detergent and dried by airing rather than tumble dryer. Following this advice can have a low global warming impact → compared to the hugely destructive manufacturing processes and waste management of disposable nappies that contain superabsorbent chemicals, paper pulp, plastics and adhesives.

Washable nappies can also save a family £500 per baby. While disposables will cost parents about £800 per baby over a period of two and a half years, real nappies can be used over and over again, becoming more absorbent each time. My daughters’ nappies are on their 4th life and are already promised to another baby who is yet to be born.

Sceptics take note. I am not talking about the terry towelling square and safety pinned affair that our mothers had to struggle with. Modern washable nappies come in all shapes and sizes, are colourful, practical, easy to use and effective. No boiling or pinning required.

Fiona Garrett, of WEN Scotland, set up the Renfrewshire Real Nappy Network, with the aim of educating mothers in the most disadvantaged local areas. She and fellow volunteers visit mothers and toddlers groups, nurseries, and health professionals, to introduce the idea of using real nappies. She says: “The women are very receptive. They are concerned about the cost of disposables, but they also care about the environment. We describe the landfills in some of the most socially deprived parts of Scotland. They relate to that. And they are always amazed by how easy real nappies are to use.”

So why, given the benefits to our environment and to our purse, do few parents use real nappies? The extra effort involved may put some people off, but surely the fact that supermarkets and chemists do not stock real nappies is a greater disincentive. Once again we are at the mercy of advertising. There are many parents out there who are simply unaware of the alternatives to disposable nappies. Even the existence of partially biodegradable, compostable nappies is a well-kept secret. You can find them in the bottom far corner of the supermarket shelves if you look carefully, though WEN would urge you to limit your use of these to times when you are without your nappy bucket!

The women Fiona meets often feel angry about the poor availability of real nappies in the big stores, and the aggressive marketing campaigns by disposable brands: “They are frustrated by the lack of information about real nappies in antenatal classes. Instead they are given disposables in their Bounty Bag.”

For low-income families the initial investment in a set of real nappies may be hard to afford, despite being so much cheaper in the long-term. Such families are currently entitled to formula milk vouchers. Surely the government could concentrate its efforts in encouraging and supporting women to breastfeed, in the interests of the baby and the economy, and offer real nappy vouchers instead?

Fiona agrees that women need an incentive to use real nappies from the start, when motherhood is at its most overwhelming. She hopes to set up a scheme similar to the West Sussex Real Nappy Incentive Scheme, which offers the choice of cash for a starter nappy pack or a free nappy laundering service for a number of weeks. They are also currently working on an alternative bounty bag with cotton nappy samples and organic baby wipes.

Motivated by the success in her work so far, Fiona hopes for one more thing: “all nappies should be fair trade and organic!”

Now that the nappies are washed, dried and folded (instructions for which can be found on the WEN website below), I must tidy up. I am hosting the next mums and babies tea and already worrying about what my new friends will think of my eco-friendly nappy system – unhygienic because I only use water & cloth instead of wipes and lotion? Will I sound like a spoilsport if I decline the invitation to go on a group outing to Toys r Us? Should I abstain quietly or suggest we support the local toyshop instead?

All these dilemmas and Jemima can’t even talk yet. Just wait until she asks me to take her to MacDonald’s. How will I succeed in raising her ethically without ruining her fun? And heaven knows what she’ll say she learns that we asked our friends not to buy her any presents for her naming ceremony but to join the Make Poverty History campaign instead.

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What I Didn't Say... said...

What a wonderful blog! I am a recent transfer from Texas to New York, where there is much more emphasis on recycling. It is indeed a change in lifestyle that I'm struggling with amidst the culture shock.

I saw a great little article on julib.com(LA edition)about a new store in Los Angeles for eco-babies! It's called The Little Seed. They are online too if you wanted to check it out.

What I Didn't Say... said...

What a wonderful blog! I am a recent transfer from Texas to New York, where there is much more emphasis on recycling. It is indeed a change in lifestyle that I'm struggling with amidst the culture shock.

I saw a great little article on julib.com(LA edition)about a new store in Los Angeles for eco-babies! It's called The Little Seed. They are online too if you wanted to check it out.

Georgie said...

Thanks for stopping by!

Tara said...

Loved this article the first time it came out - and reminds me of all the CHOICE availabe in the UK in this regard.... sigh. I fortunately do know around 3 or 4 other expats using cloth here and lots of people have asked me about it all since seeing E.... I even looked into selling it here for expats - but soon gave up on the idea due to difficulty of importing here. Anyways, this post did bring a lump to my throat as only last week, we folded up most of her cloth and put them in the cupboard, ready for any potential number 2. She has toilet trained herself and only needs one or two for nap / nighttime now - the 'nappy shelf' looks so forlorn and empty ;-( (You don't here many people saying that about disposables now, do you!!)

David & Ruth said...

A friend just sent me the link to your blog... just skimming some of your writings is oh so cathatic!
I've been living in Phnom Penh for just over a year here with my husband and 17month old Abby. We live in a poorer cambodian area so when you talk about what you love nd find hard about life here I completely relate! We love it here and it's exciting for us to see Abby learning as many Khmer words as english and having strong friendships with the kids living in our neighbourhood. but yes... green parks, absence of cheek pinching etc is somtimes something I long for.
Anyway .....
Just wanted to mention we use Eeny cloth nappies we bought from Aust. they generate lots of interest among our neighbours who think we're a little crazy to wash our daughters nappies and not use disposiables as surely we could afford them! But this week my landlady - who's daughter is 5 months came for a visit and triumphantly showed me her velcro nappy cover that she'd bought at Cha Bo on Po Market for 1000R. So ou can buy decent cloth nappies in the market here.

Georgie said...

Hello! Thanks for commenting and what brilliant news about washable nappies! I have a friend in Kampot who needs more velcros so I shall let her know. Where do you live and what are you doing here? I do sometimes think we might be happier living in a more integrated way here but also know my limits. Then again after a weekend in Kampot I know I could handle living in a village!

Hope you come back again :-)

Anonymous said...

Georgie, I can totally sympathize with your feelings about finding so few othere expat families in Cambodia using cloth nappies. I never understood it. We could sit around for ours at our little posh parties criticizing everything from global warming to the way families send their babies to collect scrap material from the dump....but then we couldn't bear to spend the extra time to do something as simple as wash out our babies' cloth nappies.....

Of course I'm sure I have my own severe blind spots, really. Thinking now about how much plane travel we undertook when living there - the once a year trip home and the several trips around Asia per year.

Georgie said...

Yes definitely - we travel home too often but here we don't drive and have decided to only go overland when we head to Vietnam iniApril for a hol. I would g ladl;y go and live in an eco holding in herefordshire for rest of my life but my husband has travel in his blood.... so I concede to seeing Asia by boat, bus and train while we are in it!