Switching to washable nappies – when the shelves are laid bare

1 May 2020

What normally makes parents switch from disposable to washable nappies? Until recently we would have said the main reasons for changing to ‘real’ nappies would have been either environmental or financial. Not forgetting the lure of beautifully designed and made modern cloth nappies. And occasionally, peer pressure.

Then came Covid-19. Panic-buying ensued, and shelves were stripped of toilet paper, baked beans and, crucially, disposable nappies. So, what happens if the decision to switch to real nappies comes from necessity, as in this situation?

Parents have started to consider something that they had previously written off as being too much like hard work. Amongst the skills being learnt – or relearnt – during lockdown, like yoga, baking and DIY, another new idea has taken hold. Except it’s not a new idea at all, but a new way of doing something that has been going on for a very long time. After all, what did our parents and grandparents do before the invention of disposables?

Our real nappy project has been running for over ten years in Gloucestershire. The project provides a £30 incentive voucher to families to get them started with reusables and as they do so, our outreach team is there to provide a wealth of help and advice. And as the supermarket shelves emptied, so the enquiries started to come in – via email, by phone and on social media:

“So, how do I use these?”

“Where can I get them from?”

“Do these actually work?”

At the height of the shortages on supermarket shelves, applications to the real nappy incentive scheme more than tripled. Across the UK it is estimated that 5% to 10% of families are currently using washable nappies. It’s a trend that has been increasing over recent years, with campaigns such as ’Real Nappy Week‘ encouraging parents to swap disposables for reusables, and numbers of online cloth nappy retailers swelling.

The so-called ‘Blue Planet Effect’ has brought single use plastics to the forefront of public consciousness.  Up to 88% of consumers say they have made changes to their lifestyle and shopping habits since the release of the BBC documentary. However disposable nappies have rarely been mentioned in media reports on single use plastics, with coffee cups and drinking straws stealing the limelight.  Yet in the UK, some 8 million nappies are discarded each day, costing £42 million annually to clean up. A shortage of single use nappies may be the nudge people need to find alternatives that work for them – and for the environment.

Gloucestershire’s outreach workers have been supporting parents in getting to grips with this change to their lifestyle and have even provided a few pre-loved washable nappies to parents in an immediate fix. But the challenge will be to help them carry on using cloth nappies long term. Explaining the cost saving potential, even when taking into account any additional laundry generated by cloth nappies, is powerfully persuasive and may surprise many who have made the switch somewhat unexpectedly.

To date, feedback has been positive, and parents have been keen. We’re hopeful that as supply chains get back to normal, at least some of these parents will choose to bypass the disposables in the supermarkets and stick with the washables. The Gloucestershire Real Nappy Project will certainly be talking to parents to find out if they are, to help understand what makes people switch – and stick.