Why I’m allergic to ‘green parenting’

Guide to Subversive Parenting, Rule No.4: Ignore the worthy exhortations to use ‘real nappies’ and wash clothes in cold water.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

In her monthly column, Jennie Bristow sends today’s parenting fads and panics to the naughty step. This month: The Real Nappy Scandal and other rubbish government initiatives.

Children’s TV makes you a sitting duck for washing powder ads – and the latest is Ariel, advising mums to ‘turn to 30’ (degrees centigrade on the washing machine) for the sake of the environment. Apparently Ariel’s new detergent gets clothes clean even at low temperatures, so you can look sparkly white and save the planet, too! Hurrah!

Maybe it works; sadly, thanks to allergies, I’ll never know. I have dermatalogical ‘issues’ with biological washing powder, and I can certainly tell you that washing everything at 40 degrees (the price you pay for buying cheap clothes) with non-bio does not get orange stains out and your pants still go grey. However, a far more bothersome allergy is the one that I have developed to the constant exhortations that we should do our parenting greenly, somehow marrying up Doing Our Bit for the Planet with coping with the endless toil and squalor produced by its future citizens.

So the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, along with Ariel, wants us to wash clothes in cold water (1) (and eco-Ken would rather we didn’t even flush the toilet after we’ve been for a wee-wee) (2). Local councils throughout the land want us to scrutinise and separate our rubbish, and they only come and pick up the smelly stuff once a fortnight (in that respect, at least, this year’s pathetic excuse for a summer has brought some relief for parents of under-twos). And until very recently, the government was spending oodles of cash trying to get us to swaddle our children’s bottoms in reusable cotton nappies. What is all this rubbish about?

In their own terms, the environmental benefit gained from any such ‘DIY planet repairs’ (to coin the mayoral phrase) is highly doubtful – while the loss to parents’ time and convenience is hefty and instantly quantifiable. Take rubbish collection: the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee has just issued a report confirming what any family suffering the indignity of alternate weekly collection (AWC) has known for ages. ‘AWC is not suitable everywhere: in cities and urban areas, congestion and limited storage space rules against it’, states the report’s summary. ‘Most controversy has arisen over food waste, with householders concerned that storing leftover food for a fortnight means more rat, fly and animal activity, with consequences for public health.’ (3)

In other words, alternate weekly collections stink. Furthermore, notes the committee, the ‘enormous variety of collection and recycling schemes in existence have left the public confused’, and in any case domestic waste is hardly the problem: ‘For all the political heat it generates, municipal refuse represents only nine per cent of the total national waste stream.’ So for the sake of a political bandwagon, households have been bludgeoned into a rubbish-management scheme that is mentally taxing (you try categorising rubbish on three hours’ sleep), time-and-space consuming, and above all unhygienic; yet even those pushing the environmentalist agenda cannot justify it.

I have often thought that a good protest against Alternate Weekly Collections would be to dump a fortnight’s worth of nappies outside council offices in the heat of summer, to make a simple point about the difference between real-life waste disposal and the priorities of pen-pushers. But that train of thought only leads me on to the Real Nappy Scandal.

On 3 July, the website This is London reported that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has ‘quietly dropped’ the Real Nappy Campaign – a three-year campaign that ‘has cost taxpayers at least £30million’ (4). The Real Nappy Campaign, reports This is London, was run through a quango linked to DEFRA called the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), forming ‘a major part of WRAP’s “waste minimisation” programme, which has soaked up more than £82million over the past three years’ (5).

‘Real nappies’, for those who may be unaware of the concept, are bits of cotton cloth that you can fold in a tricksome way under your baby’s bum and wash when the baby has done its business. For parents up until the 1970s, they were a necessary evil, involving industrial quantities of bleach and washing, an ever-present smell in one’s nostrils, and babies with inflamed, constantly damp bottoms. For parents today, they are an entirely unnecessary evil, easily avoided through the judicious use of disposables (put them on, take them off, throw them away). Disposable nappies are brilliant for parents and babies, which is why they account for 95 per cent of the nappy market. And, it turns out, they are no worse for the environment than any of their ‘real nappy’ alternatives.

As Robert Smeaton argued on spiked during ‘Real Nappy Week’ 2007 (6), the arguments put forward in favour of reusable nappies are entirely bogus – to the extent that a major study by the Environment Agency in 2005 found that ‘there was no significant difference between any of the environmental impacts’ of disposable nappies, home-laundered cloth nappies, or commercially-laundered cloth nappies (7). Yet despite this, the ‘real nappies’ campaign continued apace. WRAP’s annual report for the year ending 31 March 2006 shows just how big a political deal it was: the tenth national Real Nappy Week ‘saw more than 500 local events take place and the support of 90 per cent of local authorities and the involvement of more than 150 Members of Parliament or their equivalents in the Devolved Administrations’. On the basis of this thrilling success, WRAP claimed that it would ‘now seek to extend ownership of the Real Nappy Campaign to a broader group of stakeholders in order to give it a longer-term structure.’ (8)

Of course, now the government (WRAP’s VIP ‘stakeholder’ – its total grant income for 2005/6 was £78,597,000) has pulled out of backing the Real Nappy Campaign, the ambition to give it ‘a longer-term structure’ might be somewhat dented. But let’s not kid ourselves that it will go away. There’s a lot more to the real nappies thing than the evidence.

First, there is politics – or, more precisely, realpolitik. A useful ‘Q&A’ circulated by the Environment Agency to accompany its nappies study asks, ‘What is government policy on this issue?’ The answer: ‘Government policy has always been that the choice of nappy is for the parent to decide. There are nevertheless targets to meet under the Landfill Directive to reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal waste landfilled, and use of reusables can help contribute to achieving that target. The [Environment Agency’s report] shows that they are no more harmful for the environment than disposables.’ (9)

In case you missed it, a later question asks: ‘Why has government via WRAP promoted the use of reusables when clearly the picture is more complicated than an either/or option?’ The answer: ‘The government has tough targets to meet under the Landfill Directive to reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal waste. This involves, among other things, measures to minimise the amount of waste. The Strategy Unit and government recognised that even modest initiatives to displace disposable nappies can have a significant waste minimisation impact. That is why the government has undertaken, through WRAP, to undertake work on reusable nappies.’

So, while sticking to the rhetoric of parental choice in nappy-wear, the UK government has deliberately promoted a particular choice that parents should make – not on the basis that reusable nappies are better for the environment, but because reducing the number of nappies in the waste-bins could help the government meet certain targets. Parents of young children, who goodness knows have enough to do already, are officially told to spend hours up to their elbows in washing, with their babies whimpering damply on the floor, for the sake of some creative accounting in the Landfill Directive Department. Now that’s what I call shitting on parents.

But then there’s the flipside, which is: why would the real nappies thing have any purchase with parents? Clearly, for the most part, it doesn’t – whatever the government might want us to do, according to the Environment Agency only six per cent of parents actually play the game by using cloth nappies. However, even the fact that this six per cent are prepared to fly in the face of sanity on this issue is interesting; as is the grudging awareness, harboured by most parents, that real nappies are The Thing To Do. Like organic food boxes, ‘real nappies’ have gained an association with middle-class Good Motherhood, in which they are symbolic of your empathy with the natural world, and the depth of your commitment to your child.

Understanding this point requires a brief suspension of disbelief. You have to forget that real nappies don’t save the planet, that there’s nothing natural about washing machines and detergent, and that cloth nappies are less absorbent and generally less effective than disposables, and concentrate on the mythology. Real nappies speak to the idea that you show your concern for the planet through trying your best to wash away all traces of your human footprint (or, in the case of nappies, something rather smellier). So all the washing and drying, whatever it might mean in practice, is a way of hanging your principles out on the line, of showing that you care enough about the environment to do all this work that no-one else does while also having the responsibility of a new child.

As for the child: washing nappies, like other features of intensive motherhood, speaks to the idea that you show how much you care by how much effort you put in. The time spent laundering nappies is therefore a labour of love, showing that you care enough to eschew convenience and get your hands dirty – even when you don’t have to. There’s something wholesome and natural about the image of the cloth-nappied baby used by all these real nappy companies, which people do buy into – emotionally, if not literally. It’s utterly irrational of course, as if babies in disposables are somehow being deprived of something (the spiritual experience of sitting in their own wee, perhaps?). But then, it’s no more irrational than the government’s strategy of spending £30million on getting parents to help cook the books over landfill targets.

Like washing machines, tumble dryers, dishwashers and vacuum cleaners, disposable nappies have been a key consumer milestone in taking some of the drudgery out of raising young children, giving us more time to fulfil ourselves and enjoy our kids. The only thing wrong with them is that they stink your bin out – and the only thing that means is that alternate weekly collections should be scrapped. Anyone want to join me on the Nappy Dump Protest?

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked, and has two young daughters. She is a freelance writer and researcher, and editor of the bpas journal Abortion Review. Email her at {encode=”jennie@bristow.com” title=”jennie@bristow.com”}.

Read on:

A Guide to Subversive Parenting

(1) DIY Planet Repairs website

(2) Think before you flush – mayor’s latest message to Londoners, Guardian, 29 June 2005

(3) , House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee, 16 July 2007 [pdf]

(4) The great real nappy myth – they are just as bad for the environment as disposables, admits Minister, This is London, 3 July 2007

(5) Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP); Also see: Waste Implementation Programme: Waste Minimisation, DEFRA website. Accessed 16 July 2007

(6) Real Nappy Week stinks, by Robert Smeaton

(7) Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK. Environment Agency, May 2005

(8) The Waste and Resources Action Programme Annual Report and Accounts for year ended 31st March 2006 [pdf]

(9) DEFRA Q&A re Environment Agency: Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) on Nappies, 14 May 2005

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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