Nappies/diapers take the lead in sustainability

Although the use of disposable nappies/diapers is viewed by many as the antithesis of sustainability, more advanced measures of environmental impact and manufacturer's efforts with new product development have made the category something of an unlikely trail blazer.

Euromonitor International

World approaching tipping point? In spite of the global financial crisis and the catalogue of natural disasters during the first half of 2011, sustainability remains right at the forefront of the political, economic and social agenda. While the recession did bring some respite from the food and raw material price rises evident in 2007 and 2008, there was clear evidence that the underlying long-term trend was for a return to high prices, with demand likely to outstrip supply on key commodities such as oil and paper pulp once again. The indication is that the world is near ‘tipping point', with the balance between a whole range of metrics from carbon output, the supply of raw materials and energy all being in excess of what the world can easily sustain. With the world's population also growing and set to reach nine billion by 2050, pressure on resources will increase, presenting significant structural problems, which have seen some commentators call for a rethink and ultimately an overhaul of the world economy so that these pressing issues can be successfully tackled. Whilst a fundamental redesign of the way business is done appears unlikely, at least at this stage, there is clear evidence that FMCG1 manufacturers and retailers, at least in developed markets, are looking at sustainability as a high priority, with tissue and hygiene anything but immune from this trend.

Consumer attitudes conundrum. At least in part due to the close proximity of tissue and hygiene products to the environment, trends for sustainability have been developing apace, with recycled mate-rial apparent in toilet paper for many decades and the somewhat niche use of organic cotton in sanitary protection and nappies/diapers. These are however trends very much associated with the developed world and represent something of a luxury for a relatively small number of consumers who can afford to buy into the trend. For this reason, it is probably unsurprising that Scandinavian countries, which boast some of the highest standards of living, also report the greatest interest in green or sustainable pro-ducts. The challenge for manufacturers is however how to appeal to the much wider grouping of lukewarm consumers who report some interest in sustainability but are loath to pay a premium for sustainable products. This aversion to paying a premium for sustainable products is not specific to tissue and hygiene however, with home care and even packaged food seeing similar consumer apathy towards inflated prices.


Nappies/diapers set a green trend. Although there remains a significant gap between consumer sentiment and behaviour, the nappies/diapers category appears as something of a leader in terms of developing products which attempt to bridge this gap. It is understandable that the attention of parents with a new baby in the home will turn to the future, and for many, mounting piles of nappies going straight into the bin is therefore doubly uncomfortable. Motivation is therefore unusually high in this group, with calls for more sustainable sanitary protection or incontinence products very much few and far between. Indeed, where in most categories across FMCG, consumers have little direct influence over the kinds of products available, nappies/diapers are curious in the fact that manufacturers have moved so quickly to pander to these growing concerns. Certainly, retailers have been complicit in ramping up this pressure, recognising that consumers with a green leaning and children are, on the whole, more frequent shoppers, purchasing more per trip and at a higher average spend per shop. Young families make for even more alluring consumers to tempt through retailers' doors. To this end, even private label nappies/diapers now have their own green credentials, with ASDA2 in the UK, for example, promising biodegradable and organic products.


Competition. Nappies/diapers are also unusual in as much as there is an alternative product format available, with reusable and cloth nappies still accounting for in the region of 5% of overall sales across developed markets. A quick search of the internet reveals a very vocal if not evangelical group of consumers promoting the use of reusable nappies instead of disposables. Although still a niche product area, there is in any case something unique about the pressure this places on disposable manufacturers, a pressure which does not exist in other product categories such as sanitary protection or incontinence, where issues of hygiene dominate purchasing considerations much more than in the case of nappies/diapers. Certainly, studies on the environmental impact of reusable and disposable nappies using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) have revealed little benefit from using reusable nappies due to the high energy input needed during laundering. For disposable nappies, LCA points to raw materials assimilation and processing as the stages with most impact and, as such, this has seen manufacturers of mainstream brands such as Pampers, Huggies and Libero bringing down the weight of products over the past two decades. As with other markets, weight reduction, mirrored by the compaction trend in laundry detergents, which sees pack sizes ever decreasing as concentration levels rise, has a happy coincidence of being cheaper to manufacture, distribute and store.

Sustainability or at least products which have some success in this area are unable to divorce themselves from commercial realities which places competitive pricing through the supply chain as prerequisite. The introduction of Dry Max across North America and Europe in 2010, with its 20% weight reduction, was however one of the biggest sustainable innovations in the category in decades, although it was devoid of organic or biodegradable positioning. With reduced weight disposable brands certainly less commonly viewed as sustainable by consumers, manufacturers are left with the problem of how to convey the conclusions made by LCA.


Eco-labelling. Whilst the use of eco marks, which has developed as a kind of de-facto legislation for the industry, has allowed for more informed choice, the sheer number and variety of these marks is also leading to confusion. This confusion flies in the face of the current certainty which surrounds the cause for improved sustainability. According to a Consumer Empowerment Survey published by the European Commission in April 2011, only 2% of consumers recognised five common public information logos. For example, 33% of consumers thought that the CE mark meant "made in Europe" and only 25% correctly knew that it meant that the product "complied with EU legislation"; appreciation of environmental logos is said to be even lower. Moves are afoot to look to standardise or at least rationalise these labels in Europe, which should help consumers to make more informed brand choices even if the science behind the sustainable accreditation is vastly complicated.


The social aspect. Whilst sustainability from an environmental perspective is a well-trodden path, more recently, a social dimension has developed as a further key measure. Surveys in Europe indicate that women rank disposable nappies/diapers as the second most significant development after the automatic washing machine, allowing women to become more economically productive and have a broader social life when child rearing. Nappies/diapers have had a profound influence on lifestyles and, for this reason, sales to the developing world have boomed for a decade, as more consumers everywhere - from Mexico to China - have used their rising income levels to buy into disposable nappies/diapers as they offer a significant boon to family life. The popularity of disposable nappies/diapers in the developing world is illustrated by the fact that in 2010, 60% of global volume sales of nappies/diapers were accounted for by the developing world. This figure is likely to expand to 75% before the end of the decade and represents a major challenge as these are the very regions where issues of sustainability are the most undeveloped and remain largely unknown.

The funny thing about sustainability is that, inevitably, with at least a billion new consumers reaching the point where they can buy into the nappies/diapers category over the next decade, supply and demand will, for the first time, have its own influence. Simply, there is a clear and present lack of supply of all manner of raw materials, which will inevitably see price rises ahead of those already seen in 2010/2011 and again lead manufacturers to look to reduce weight or face pricing poorer consumers out of the market. Necessity is the mother of all inventions, and progress in the West in terms of sustainability can be seen as a prelude to a much larger global movement.

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