Combating the cost of living crisis with cloth

26 April 2023

Gloucestershire Real Nappy Project advisors, Kirstie Clarke and Lucy Hague, share different strategies for buying and using cloth nappies, as well as tips for optimal drying.

In a 2022 newspaper article, Dawn Dolphin, Founder of baby bank charity Gloucestershire Bundles, shockingly described having heard (from another baby bank) how mums were scraping poo out of babies’ disposable nappies because they could not afford to buy more. In response, many commentators pointed out washable cloth nappies would be a far better solution both economically and environmentally albeit for two main barriers: a lack of knowledge about what nappies are available and how to use them, and a lack of money to purchase a reasonable supply.

The Gloucestershire Real Nappy Project, managed by Resource Futures, aims to reduce these barriers by providing free expert and independent advice. Its two Real Nappy Advisors visit groups across Gloucestershire advising on everything from choosing and fitting cloth nappies to how to optimise washing routines. Gloucestershire-based parents can also take advantage of a £30 incentive voucher towards the cost of cloth nappies, while those in other areas can contact their local authority to ask if they run a similar scheme.

The current cohort of new parents faces unprecedented pressure on their finances and many feel that they simply cannot afford the initial outlay of washable nappies, despite them often working out more cost effective in the long term.

“The good news is that it is possible to purchase a full set of reusable nappies for around £150, and even less if you buy preloved. Many families sell their lovingly used cloth nappies online and buying second-hand can significantly reduce the initial investment cost AND further reduce the carbon footprint compared to buying new*.”

Kirstie Clarke, Real Nappy Advisor

In contrast, single-use, disposable nappies are one of the biggest expenses for families with young children. The average child will go through around 5,000 single-use nappies before they are potty trained, at a total cost of between £500 and £2,500 depending on whether supermarket or top-name brands are used.

Another strategy is to use cloth nappies part-time instead of full-time – disposable nappies at night or when out and about, and cloth nappies at home. This reduces the number of cloth nappies needed, which in turn reduces the initial set-up cost for those struggling with the up-front expenditure.

“In the past it has not been unusual to meet parents who have built up a collection of 50 or even 100 nappies. However, you don’t need to spend hundreds of pounds on the latest prints and style. A baby only needs around 20 nappies for full-time use, and we now regularly advise parents on how to purchase nappies for the minimum of cost.”

Lucy Hague, Real Nappy Advisor

With various cloth nappy brands and styles on the market, it can be overwhelming for a first-time parent. Helping to address this, the Gloucestershire Real Nappy Project offers a free loan kit service, allowing parents to try different nappies before making a larger investment.

According to Defra’s latest lifecycle analysis (published in March 2023), the largest area of impact in using disposables is in materials and production – around two-thirds of the total figure – and end-of-life disposal makes up a further 32.6 percent. In contrast, the majority of the impact of reusables is in the usage – namely the washing and drying of the nappies. Consumer behaviour in this area is key to minimising this.

Depending on the type of washing machine (and potentially dryer) used, families are likely to see an increase in their utility bills when they start using washables. Line drying cloth nappies is optimal, both to save money on electricity costs and to preserve the longevity of the nappies. This can sometimes be challenging during the winter months, but the Gloucestershire project supports parents with constructive suggestions for how to alleviate these difficulties.

Resource Futures has calculated that washing cloth nappies for one child can cost approximately £1.50 per week (based on two wash loads of nappies per week) as shown here:

Washable nappies can be a great solution for reducing waste and saving money, however there remain financial pressures that families may face when deciding to use them. By considering the initial investment, laundering and drying costs, families can make informed decisions about whether cloth nappies are right for them.

*Defra’s latest life cycle analysis (published March 2023) shows that the carbon footprint of using reusable nappies until a child is potty-trained is far lower than using disposables; 344.57kg compared to 456.91kg CO2 eq.

About the Gloucestershire Real Nappy Project

The Gloucestershire Real Nappy Project is part of a wider movement towards more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices. The project, funded by Gloucestershire County Council, has been running for 15 years, helping new families each year to get started with washable cloth nappies. By encouraging parents and caregivers to use cloth nappies, the project is helping to reduce waste and promote a more sustainable way of life. It is an excellent example of how local councils can work with people in their communities to make positive changes for the environment.