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What a Bummer!
January 8, 2008, 7:26 pm
Filed under: 2008

What a Bummer: The Social Shaping of the Diaper in North America (1994), is an article published in one of the very first academic e-journals (now defunct), HOST: An Electronic Bulletin for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, which came out of the University of Toronto’s Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.

As a relatively new PhD student, I wanted to write about the internet in terms of a social shaping of technology perspective, but alas, in 1993 I had more personal experience with the technology of diapers than the internet…hence, this exploration..

Download here: bum.txt

And, here’s a recent article about diapers, Breaking the Habit of Disposable Diapers, in the New York Times, Claudia H. Deutsch,  January 12, 2008.

For a collection of diaper ads see http://diaperads.net/

+———————————-+
| HOST: An Electronic Bulletin |
| for the History and Philosophy |
| of Science and Technology |
|———————————-|
| Volume 2, Number 1 |
| January, 1994. |
| ISSN # 1192-084 X. |
+———————————-+
+———————————————————–+
| Institute for the History | Produced by IHPST as the |
| and Philosophy of Science | _HOST Journal_, on EPAS and |
| and Technology, Room 316, | E-Mail, through INTERNET at |
| 73 Queen’s Park Crescent, | JSMITH@EPAS.UTORONTO.CA |
| Toronto, Ontario, Canada. | IHPST@EPAS.UTORONTO.CA |
| M5S1K7 [IHPST]. |—————————–|
| Phone: (416) 978-5047. | Editors: Julian A. Smith |
| Fax: (416) 978-3003. | Gordon H. Baker |
| FTP: epas.utoronto.ca | Marianne Fedunkiw |
| /pub/ihpst | Steven Walton |
+———————————————————–+

(2.1.4) Leslie Regan Shade, “What a Bummer! The Social Shaping
of the Diaper in North America.”

+—————————————-+
| What A Bummer! The Social Shaping |
| of the Diaper in North America |
| By Leslie Regan Shade, |
| Graduate Program in Communications, |
| McGill University. |
| Received July 6, 1993 |
| Revised January 11, 1994. |
+—————————————-+

Abstract:

This paper traces the history of the diaper, from its
beginnings to its late-twentieth century manifestations,
characterized by often rancorous disputes between the
disposable diaper manufacturers (multi-national corporations
with a vested interest in maintaining their hegemony on the
market) and the renewed interest of a multitude of cloth
diaper advocates (manufacturers, home delivery diaper
companies, and environmental groups). This study also
serves as a modest addition to the history of technologies
that women have traditionally used and invented.

“What a Bummer! The social shaping of the diaper in North
America”

A recent birth announcement appearing in Canada’s national
newspaper, _The Globe and Mail_, trumpeted the arrival of
what “redefines the term ‘cute baby'”, with the following
joking admonishment: “Landfill sites beware–buy Proctor &
Gamble stock while you can still afford it!” This seemingly
innocuous message, however, confirms recent heated debates
between a myriad of social actors about what constitutes the
appropriate or ecologically correct wrap–plastic or cloth–
with which to adorn baby’s bum. It is a debate that has
spread across North America since the mid-1980’s, with the
involvement of both federal and municipal governments,
hospitals, daycares, medical experts, multi-national
corporations, environmental groups, consumer organizations,
public policy groups, small entrepreneurs, the media, and,
of course, the consumer–the often guilt-racked parent.

The story of the late-twentieth-century social shaping of
the diaper shows how various social actors can affect,
economically and ideologically, the design, diffusion,
and diversification of a seemingly benign and trivial
technology. A social shaping examination of technological
systems places an emphasis on the social factors that shape
technological change, departing from dominant approaches
towards technology that typically study the “effects” or
“impact” of technology on society. [1] Analysis of such
a jejune technology illustrates well the viability of
employing the nomenclature of a social constructivist
methodology; in particular, the concepts of relevant
social groups, actor-networks, interpretive flexibility,
and closure. [2]

Relevant social groups are the various groups that influence
the invention, design, production and diffusion of new
technologies. By concentrating on the minute details
(social, economic, technical and political) that comprise
case histories of various technologies, we become attuned
to these relevant social groups, or actor-networks, that
are initially inspired to design, create, and implement
technologies. Actor-networks include not only human
actors, but natural phenomena “that have been linked to
one another for a certain period of time”. [3] Such
networks reveal an interpretive flexibility in how
artifacts are designed, and in how different groups
perceive of the artifacts. [4]

The social shaping approach typically investigates networks
from the outside in. However, its reverse–looking at the
network from the inside out–is how Ruth Schwartz Cowan
delineates her notion of the “consumption junction”. This
is “the place and time at which the consumer makes choices
between competing technologies” and the place where
“technologies begin to reorganize social behavior”. [5]
In the history of the diaper this is demonstrated by the
often rancorous disputes between the disposable diaper
manufacturers (multi-national corporations with a vested
interest in maintaining their hegemony on the market) and
the renewed interest of a multitude of cloth diaper
advocates (manufacturers, home delivery diaper companies,
and environmental groups). This history reveals how
seemingly neutral and benevolent technologies can often
become embroiled in fractious debates involving a wide
stratum of society, from wealthy corporate concerns to
environmental platforms to innocent bystanders–the
consumer who must make the technological choice.

Controversy is a rich site to mine for research
possibilities. A history of the diaper reveals that,
starting in the mid 1980’s, disputes over the ecological
implications of disposable diapers versus cloth diapers
became of paramount concern for a variety of social groups.
Most often these groups–operating in professional
capacities as policy-makers–subscribed to diametrically
opposed notions of the risks and benefits associated with
technological developments. These divergent environmental
concerns were then embodied in conflicting stances
about what the perceived ecological impacts of the various
technological developments were, and how they would affect
the social order of nature. Closure–the belief that
problems regarding the design and use of technology have
been resolved and agreed upon by the various social
groups–is here shown to have different meanings for
different social groups. [6]

As well, it is hoped that this history of the diaper will
serve as a modest addition to the history of technologies
that women have traditionally used and invented. In her
1979 seminal essay, “From Virginia Dare to Virginia Slims:
women and technology in American life”, Cowan laments the
absence of histories of women’s domestic technologies:

“the history of the uniquely female technologies is yet to
be written, with the single exceptions of the technologies
of contraception. This is also true…of the histories of
child rearing…we know a great deal more about the bicycle
than we do about the baby carriage, despite the fact that
the carriage has had a more lasting impact on the
transportation of infants than the bicycle has had on the
transport of adults. Although we recognize the importance
of toilet training in personality formation, we have not had
the faintest idea whether toilet-training practices have
been affected by the various technologies that impinge upon
them: inexpensive absorbent fabrics, upholstered furniture,
diaper services, wall-to-wall carpeting, paper diapers, etc.
The crib, the playpen, the teething ring, and the cradle are
as much a part of our culture and our sense of ourselves as
harvesting machines and power looms, yet we know nothing of
their history”. [7]

_Early History of the Diaper_

Not until the 18th century did babies start wearing what
we now call diapers. Before that, babies were swaddled in
linen and other absorbent materials, such as certain types
of vegetation. Notions of cleanliness differed from our
contemporary ideals, so that some childcare authorities
advocated changing the swaddling only once a day. Later,
swaddling clothes were abandoned for intricate miniature
renditions of adult clothing, held up with constricting
stays, and there is evidence that early toilet-training for
infants became a priority, as “it seems likely that nurses
would try to save themselves labour by catching what they
could…by the later 19th century this would become a fine
art”. [8] In the early 19th century diapers, or
“nappies”, were fashioned from cloth “doubled over, stitched
on three sides, turned inside out and oversewn into a neat
square. Loops and ties were sewn on the corners in
preference to pins, then far from safe. Some nursemaids
stitched the baby into its nappy, but this was felt to be a
disincentive to frequent changes. In default of plastic
pants, a heavy flannel pilcher was tied and buttoned over
the nappy”. [9]

By mid-century, the adage “a dirty child is the mother’s
disgrace” was instilled into young mothers, and child care
experts recommended placing the infant regularly on a
chair, or “if a little pan be placed under it as it lays
on the lap”, so that “the necessity for napkins is
altogether superceded by the time the children attain the
age of four months. [10]

By the time the late 19th century rolled around, prospective
toilet-trainers must have realized that training infants at
such an early age was only an exercise in futility. Child-
care experts reconciled themselves to changing diapers
whenever wet, and newly available macintosh outer wrappings
stopped clothes from getting soaked. It was also believed
that the infant would be spurred on to train themselves when
faced with the discomfort of a wet diaper.

_The Modern Diaper_

Between 1920 and the mid-1940’s the obsession with early
toilet training was resurrected with experts advising
“maternal diligence” so that bowel control could be mastered
by the end of the third month, soon to be followed by
bladder control, if the potty was systematically offered to
the infant every twenty minutes. [11] According to one
child-care expert, if the alert mother was attuned to her
infant’s various noises, from “ingratiating coos” to
“panting roars”, she would “observe that when he is about to
need his chamber for a movement a look of serious and
intense concentration will overspread his face and he may
begin to utter soft, business-like gutturals.” By the time
the infant is six or seven months old, according to this
expert, “he will be as pleased as you to find his daily
stock of diapers decreasing…he will feel more grown-up,
more comfortable, and cleanly”. [12] _Parents Magazine_,
from 1927-1934, advertised potties marketed for infants,
including the “Little Toidy”, designed to keep baby
“regular”, particularly in those “dangerous months” of
winter, with “so little sunshine, so few fresh vegetables,
such quantities of disease germs lurking about”, and the
“Doo-Tee”, a “scientifically designed…infant
trainer…with the exclusive sanitary and odorless ‘hollow
duck’ feature” which “prevents self-handling.”

Curity, a manufacturer of hospital dressings, began
marketing diapers in the mid-1930’s, and its 1934 ads in
_Parents_ extolled their new “scientific weave” diaper
“recommended by doctors as a new aid to baby hygiene”,
because of its “special porous-weave fabric that is
lighter, cooler, and less bulky…a boon to busy mothers
because it washes very easily, has no hems to retain stains,
and dries very rapidly.” Kleinart’s manufactured their
“Softex Baby Pants”, an outer cover for diapers, and ad
copy appearing in 1937 boasted that they were
“waterproofed _without_ rubber and _weighs less than an
ounce…mothers are extra_ pleased because they’re not only
extremely practical, but very, _very_ cunning.” Diapers
were now cut to fit the child, “..not big and bungly about
the hips, but have thickness only where it is needed.
Tying or pinning at the outer edge of the leg they no longer
need to be fastened to the shirt or bellyband. Some of the
new styles are made up in soft, resilient, knitted cotton
which conforms to the leg and never causes pressure lines.
There are also new-type destroyable fillers which fit inside
the diapers”. [13] One of the first references of a
disposable diaper is here made, an “excellent throw-
away type so highly approved by physicians and nurses”,
which requires “no pinning, are very absorbent and easy to
dispose of after use”. [14]

During WW II, rubberized fabrics, used for diaper covers,
were in short supply, so mothers were forced to knit diaper
covers. These heavy yarn “soakers” became the norm until
after the war, when rubberized pants were allowed back into
the market. [15]

Post-World War II child-care experts, running the gamut from
Freudian ideologists to Dr. Spock, were more lax in their
advice on toilet training, possibly because they resigned
themselves to the sheer physical impossibility of infants
mastering perfect bowel and bladder control before the onset
of toddler-hood. Now, at the start of the Baby Boom, diapers
were considered a requisite part of every infants wardrobe,
and in the 1954 _Consumer Reports_ annual survey of diapers,
three types of diapers were tested for durability, absorption,
shrinkage, wrinkling and raveling: flannelette, gauze,
and birdseye. [16] CR estimated that some 200 million
diapers were in circulation that year, and they reported the
availability of diaper services in most American cities.
As well, they tested the “Chux” brand of disposable diaper,
fashioned from inner layers of tissue with an outer layer of
water-repellant paper, but found this alternative to be of
scanty protection compared to a cloth diaper, and recommended
their use only when travelling or when laundry facilities
were out of order.

By 1961 _Consumer Reports_ featured a survey of five
disposable diapers on the market, tested for absorbency,
liner softness, tear strength, resistance to shredding,
sticking, lumping, or filler, ease of doubling, and
appearance. The “Chux” brand ranked highest, with the
Kendall Company’s “Curity” ranking second. Other brands
were manufactured by Sears, Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, and
Kleinert’s. CR did not recommend using disposables for
everyday use, as their high cost ($6-7/week), continual need
to replenish supply, difficulty of storage, and dubious
absorbency were cited as impediments, but they did
recommend using disposables for “unusual circumstances” such
as long trips away from the home. They further questioned
the disposability of the disposable diaper: “It really is
not meant to go down the toilet; and if many of them are
thus disposed of over any period of time, they’re quite
likely to cause trouble farther along the line”. [17]

However, four years later the disposable diaper was
mentioned only as an aside in the annual _Consumer Reports_
survey of diapers. Various cloth brands were tested,
including flat diapers made out of birdseye or gauze fabrics,
prefolded diapers, and fitted diapers. The only new
innovation for 1965 seems to be the substitution of snap
fasteners for pins in the fitted diapers, which “saves
wear and tear on the diapers…and it relieves a mother of
any worry that a teen-age baby-sitter might accidentally jab
the baby with a pin or let him swallow one”. [18]

_Enter Pampers _

“Constant practice under compelling conditions makes every
new mother an expert on diaper changing in short order.
But no matter how expert she becomes, there are surely times
when almost any mother would like to simplify the routine.
That’s why the idea of disposable diapers is so attractive.
Simply to toss away a used diaper and never see it again
seems the ultimate in convenience and practicability”.
[19]

The history of women’s inventions reveals that women have
frequently turned their inventing talents to transforming
and changing domestic technologies. The first disposable
diaper to be patented wasn’t Chux, or Pampers, but was a
design patented in the U.S. by Maria Allen in 1887.
According to historian Anne Macdonald, Allen “overlaid a
triangular diaper with cotton wadding to which she added a
sheet of perforated paper (‘to give free circulation’),
covered both with a third layer of fine gauze fabric, and
then stitched all three together. After applying the
prepared diaper to the infant in the usual way, she placed
an ordinary cotton diaper on the outside. Voila, said
Allen, ‘This improved diaper is for the purpose that when it
becomes soiled it may be thrown away and replaced by a clean
one’. It was too expensive for everyday use, but must have
been useful when traveling”. [20]

Another diaper design, the “Boater”, was invented in 1951
by Marion Donovan, and according to Macdonald, “the soaring
sales of the “Boater” signaled the birth of the disposable
diaper industry”. Donovan’s design was inspired by the
post-war dearth of rubberized fabrics for diaper covers.
“Cutting and folding shower curtains into plastic envelopes
into which she slipped absorbent material, Donovan
substituted snap closures for diaper pins “..and “when no
manufacturer bought the idea, made them herself and sold
them to department stores”. [21] (Later, she sold her
company for a million dollars and went on to invent a
multiple skirt hangar and a zipper pull that allowed a women
to close a dress by herself.)

As the ’60’s dawned, North Americans were becoming
introduced to Sprite, Green Giant boil-in-bag frozen
vegetables, Downey fabric softener, and the first electric
toothbrush. [22] According to corporate lore, Vic Mills,
an engineer at Proctor & Gamble, (and a grandfather and
“U.S. consumer” babysitting for his first grandchild), [23]
decided that there had to be better diapering options than
cloth and the disposables then on the market. Proctor &
Gamble, a multi-national corporation based in Cincinnati,
Ohio, had already developed absorbent paper products such
as White Cloud toilet paper, Charmin toilet paper, and Puffs
tissues, as well as other popular consumer products such as
Crest, Head & Shoulders, Tide, and Ivory. Their first pilot
test consisted of an absorbent and flushable diaper pad,
featuring a special pleat for a comfortable fit, which was
meant for insertion in plastic pants. The test flopped, and
within six months P&G engineers had re-designed the diaper
so that baby would be “drier and more comfortable”.
“Scientists studied new materials and checked them
thoroughly for human and environmental safety…[the
modified design featured]…separate plastic pants…replaced
by a thin sheet of plastic across the back with side flaps
that could keep the moisture in but allow air to circulate
to the baby’s skin, avoiding the hot effect of plastic
absorbent material”. [24]

But again, a test market of the new diaper in 1961 failed
to generate consumer excitement. P&G attributed this
indifference to the high cost of the diaper–10-cents per
diaper, versus approximately 1-1/2-cents per each home-
laundered diaper. Five years later the diapers were re-
introduced, and in 1966, Pampers were well on their way to
becoming a household word. Production engineers had designed
a high-speed block-long assembly line that brought the price
per diaper down to 5-1/2 cents, and therefore competitive
with the average 3-1/2 cents per diaper charged by home
diaper delivery services. The new Pampers design came in
three sizes (“newborn”, “daytime”, and “extra-strength”
for night-time use) and consisted of a three-part design:
an inner lining of soft rayon-like material, a middle
layer of absorbent tissue wadding, and an outer sheet of
waterproof polyethylene. [25] The paper diaper business
grew to an estimated $10-million in the U.S. alone. [26]

_The cloth diaper goes the way of the dinosaurs_

Until 1966 North Americans mainly laundered cloth diapers
at home, with an estimated 7% of diapers done by home
delivery services. In 1970 the paper diaper business in the
U.S. was worth $200-million, and Forbes estimated that it
would be worth $1-billion by 1980. [27]

As the 1968 Consumer Reports quipped: “Diapers? Don’t turn up
your nose. There are an estimated 9 million diaperable babies
in the U.S. Figure 60 changes a week for each, and you come up
with the astounding figure of 28 billion changes a year. The
mere thought is enough to send a young mother back to the
Pill”. [28]

The diaper services found themselves on the ropes, and at
the 1970 Diaper Service Industry Association (DSIA)
annual meeting, whose membership included some 400 diaper
delivery services in the U.S., one visitor was reported to
remark, “if we don’t watch out, the paper boys are going to
do to us what Buffalo Bill did to the buffalo”. [29] One
of the problems the DSIA faced was that their services were
mostly offered in large metropolitan centers, and an
estimated 93% of their potential market was unreached, a
ripe area for the new disposable diapers to grab hold of.

The_ Consumer Reports_ 1971 annual report on disposable
diapers tried to ascertain why “even in a throwaway-happy-
society” the disposable diaper was so appealing, despite its
more expensive price-tag, the fact that it was “useful for
only a brief (sometimes very brief) period”, and the
difficulties in disposing of it “gracefully”. [30] CR
engineers conducted laboratory tests to analyze absorption
capacity and speed, and resistance to tearing. As well,
mothers were recruited to conduct their own tests on the
disposables. Criticism of the disposables centered on their
tendency to tear, bunch up, and shred and stick to baby.
However, their ability to contain ample liquid without undue
leaking was lauded, and their convenience factor,
particularly for travellers, was deemed to be of prime
consideration. Convenience could also have been the
buzzword for the 1970’s, an era which saw the introduction
of such consumer amenities as freeze dried coffee, teflon
irons, washable wallpaper, the Bic disposable razor, frozen
pizza, the disposable oral thermometer, and the first home
pregnancy test.

CR addressed initial environmental concerns about the
disposables as advanced by the New York-based Environmental
Action Coalition who cautioned against the adverse
contribution the disposable diaper industry was making to
solid waste disposal. CR’s position, however, was that cloth
diapers weren’t any better, environmentally speaking,
because the detergent or soap used to wash the cloth diapers
could pollute water sources, as well as wasting valuable
water and the power to heat it. As before, however, they
reminded consumers to be cautious when disposing of the
disposables, recommending three disposable venues:
incineration, disposing in the trash for the local garbage
system, or flushing them down the toilet. “In all cases”,
they warned, “you should rinse off any feces in the toilet
first…it’s too bad that most manufacturers couldn’t have
been more informative about disposal”. [31]

_Proctor & Gamble versus Kimberly-Clark_

By the beginning of the 1980’s most diaper services had all
but disappeared in North America, and the disposable diaper
was proclaimed to be the most popular diaper in the U.S. by
_Consumer Reports_, who justified its still-high cost (now
approximately 29 cents per diaper) by its high convenience
quotient. Many of the disposable diapers on the market in
the 1970’s, including such brand-names as Johnson’s,
Curity, and Sitting Pretty, had disappeared, and three
national brand names were left in the market: Proctor &
Gamble’s Pampers and Luvs (introduced in 1976), and
Kimberly-Clark’s Huggies (whose other products in the
paper-products line included Kleenex, Delsey, and Kotex).
Despite an abundance of “private-line” labels manufactured
by department stores (Sears, J.C. Penney, K-Mart,
Montgomery Wards), food stores (A&P, and other local
stores), and drug stores, it was estimated that two out of
three babies were diapered in Pampers, Luvs, or Huggies.
[32]

Proctor & Gamble’s disposable diapers called Pampers
became, in the mid-1980’s, almost synonymous with diapers,
as evidenced in a scene in the movie _Three Men and a Baby_,
where one of the stressed fathers shouts: “Where’s the
Pampers?” Blatant product placement aside, Pampers found
itself in the enviable position of owning approximately 31%
of the market share of disposable diapers, with the rest
shared by their Luvs, (17%) and K-C’s Huggies (32%). Both
Kimberly-Clark and P&G’s profit margins on diapers hover
around 15% for diapers, compared to less than 10% for most
of their other consumer products. [33] All told, the
disposable diaper business was estimated to be worth $4.5
billion annually in the United States, and $400 million in
Canada in the 1980’s. [34]

These two manufacturers have since engaged in a decade-long
battle for market supremacy, which has involved various
marketing gimmicks, including medical endorsements and
placements in hospital nurseries, and numerous
technological changes in manufacturing, content, and style.
The reign of the disposable diaper wasn’t seriously
disputed until environmental concerns surfaced in the late
1980’s, and new technological groups such as various
cloth diaper and cloth diaper cover manufacturers, and new
home delivery diaper services were resurrected to challenge
the disposable hegemony.

Disposable diaper technology had changed since it was first
introduced, with all the diapers situating a fluffed-fiber
padding, made by pulverizing dried pulp into tiny fibres
that are formed into soft pads of varying thickness, between
two liners. The outer liner was usually made from a
plastic-sheet barrier, while the inner liner was made from a
non-woven material. Pampers and Huggies used an inner liner
made from spun-bonded polyolefin, evidently advantageous
because the liner wouldn’t absorb water, keeping baby drier.
The other diapers utilized an adhesive-bonded rayon liner,
more biodegradable than polyolefin. All of the diapers had,
including Pampers by then, adhesive-tape tabs attached to
the outer liner for fastening the diaper in place. Pampers
was a prefolded diaper. According to CR, “their liners and
padding are rectangular, just like cloth diapers. But the
two long sides are folded in an inch or so along their
entire lengths. The idea is to allow the area narrowed by
prefolding to conform to the baby’s crotch and to open the
folds at the diaper’s ends so that they can reach
comfortably along the waist”. [35] Sizing for the
prefolded diapers featured “newborn”; an intermediate-weight
range broken down into “daytime”, “nighttime” and “daytime
extra absorbent”; and “toddler”. Elastic leg models were
featured by both Huggies and Luvs, and available in three
sizes: small, medium, and large.

On the issue of disposability, CR wrote, “without question,
today’s disposables are much more convenient than cloth
diapers. In theory, all you have to do with a used
disposable is bundle it up and throw it in the garbage, or
strip off the liner and flush the absorbent padding down the
toilet”. [36] As before, they cautioned that septic
systems or sewer lines could be overloaded by flushing the
padding down the toilet, and they did not recommend
disposing of solid human waste in the garbage. Their “easy
enough” solution, one shared by parents, they contended,
was to rinse solid matter from the diapers and bag it as
separate elements of the trash.

However, the reality was that most parents–one researcher
estimated less than 5% [37] never stripped off the liners to
flush the absorbent padding and fecal matter down the
toilet. Dissection of a used diaper is a messy enterprise,
and the diaper manufacturers never broadly advertised this
fact. Guidelines for disposal were written on the diaper
packages, but many parents found it handier to just roll up
the used diaper and seal it shut with the adhesive-tape
tabs–possibly with fecal matter inside, and dispose of it
in their regular trash.

P&G and Kimberly-Clark spent the 1980’s engaged in a battle
for market dominance, fought via various technological
innovations and marketing gimmicks. In 1985 Pampers larger
U.S. market share had taken a beating, thanks to the
introduction of the contour-fitted Huggies introduced by
Kimberly-Clark. P&G then spent $500-million changing its
equipment to produce shaped diapers, and also changed its
inner core to wood-pulp and a water-absorbing polymer
which, when wet, turned to a gel, trapping urine inside the
diaper and away from baby’s skin. (This was a similar
polymer that Kimberly-Clark used in a diaper for incontinent
adults. Later K-C adopted this super-absorbent polymer, a
polyacrylate, for their Huggies. This substance is also
used for coating pills, processing beer, and purifying
water). [38] This new superabsorbent diaper was called
Ultra Pampers, and was introduced in a hospital auditorium,
with P&G boasting a scientific study on diaper rash (which
advocated Pampers as the best choice), and endorsement from
a U.S. pediatric nurses’ association. Ultra Pampers were
30% thinner than its predecessor, and retailers found that
they could fit twice as many on their shelves as before.
The summer after the introduction of Ultra Pampers, P&G
found that its market share had gone up 8 points to 54%.

By 1989 the “diaper wars” between P&G and K-C had
intensified, with a bevy of new technological styles and
designs for the consumer to choose from. As one mother
commented, “It’s like junk food. They’re all trying to outdo
each other”. [39] K-C featured a padded stretch waistband
on its Huggies and renamed them Huggies Supertrim. P&G
licensed Disney characters (Disney Babies) and Sesame
Street characters (Sesame Street Babies) to adorn their
taped waistband on Pampers. Later, Huggies featured their
“Storytime” nursery school rhyme designs on its waistbands.

The gendering of disposable diaper technology manifested
itself in both stylistic and design changes. Luvs Deluxe
came in two different colors, blue for boys and pink for
girls, and later Oxford stripes for boys and rosebuds for
girls. In 1992 Luvs Phases featured new waistband designs,
with their print ads proclaiming, “Boys come with toys
making noise (chugga-chugga, vroom, splish splash). Girls
come with playful bunnies and tulips. You can’t help but go
ga ga over them”. In an ad for Luvs Phases featuring baby
“Emma Barnard”, the copy reads, “And because you’re so cute,
your diaper has tulips all over”. The diaper padding also
was changed to reflect sex differences. All three diapers
featured increased padding in the zones where boys and girls
were commonly believed to urinate more heavily–boys in the
front, girls in the back.

In the early 90s, the diapers changed again (but still
retaining the design features of differentiated sex), to
reflect the different stages of baby’s growth. Huggies Baby
Steps came in 5 sizes, featuring “fashionable
prints…hearts for Her and stars for Him”. Perhaps
prolonging the disposable forever, K-C, in 1991,
introduced its Huggies Pull-Ups, disposable training pants
designed to “go on like underwear” yet “protect like a
diaper.” Luvs Stages expanded and came in 6 sizes. All
told, in 1992 a consumer could choose from among 36
different styles and sizes of diapers from just P&G and K-C
alone.

Interestingly enough, this diverse stratification of diaper
styles and sizes was also echoed in feminine sanitary
products. By the end of the 1980’s, sanitary pad and tampon
manufacturers featured an incredible array of divergent
absorbencies, multiply sized, variously odored, and
technically diverse products (pads with “wings”, tampons
with plastic or paper applicators, etc.), all contributing
to a dearth of shelf space in retail stores and confusion
for consumers. As well, a variety of “adult diapers”,
catering to an increasing mature market supposedly
susceptible to incontinence, began to appear.

_A Brief Excursion into Velcro_

What made the new cloth diapers so attractive to many,
besides their ecological advantage, was their innovative
technological style. Whereas previous cloth diapers had all
been one-piece affairs meant to be fastened with pins with a
rubberized pant pulled over top, the new diapers typically
eliminated the need for pins, either by closely resembling
the contoured fit of the disposable diaper and fastening
with snaps or velcro; or by inserting a much more absorbent
cloth diaper inside a diaper cover-all which fastened with
velcro.

The incorporation of velcro into the new cloth diapers and
diaper-wraps, then, was the selling point for private sales
and home diaper delivery sales. This pinless fastening
system was touted as “ultra convenient”, “safe”,
“convenient”, and “cost effective”–as the diaper wrap could
be tightened or loosened according to baby’s growth.

The simple technological catalyst for these innovative
designs—velcro, nicknamed the “touch and close fastener”–
was designed by Swiss engineer George de Mestral in 1948,
who was inspired when, after taking a walk with his dog, he
examined the cockleburs on his socks and his dog’s coat.
Also imitating the burdock or teazle found in nature, velcro
is manufactured by joining two separate strips of synthetic
material, typically nylon. One strip incorporates a pile of
loops and the other hooks, both set in tapes. The tapes are
then finished by heat treatment in the form of an electric
current passing through the hooks and loops, setting and
hardening them. By 1955 Velcro had been patented and by the
1980’s was widely used in such multifarious products as
children’s shoes, microphones in space shuttles, medical
supplies, home furnishings, and automobiles. [40]

_The Attack on Disposables_

In the late 1980’s, environmentalism resurfaced
internationally, and various surveys showed that the average
consumer was concerned about the environment. In Canada, an
Environics Research Group poll conducted in April 1988
revealed that nine out of ten Canadians believed pollution
to be harming their health, and a similar CBS/New York Times
survey found that 85% of respondents believed that
“pollution regulation could not be too strict and the cost
not be too high”. [41] “Reduce, reuse and recycle” became
the consumer mantra of the late 1980’s, a slogan that found
itself emblazoned on various items attached to a new
corporate “green” marketing mentality.

The role of the disposable diaper in an increasingly
throwaway culture was therefore questioned, challenged, and
defended by an array of social groups: the disposable diaper
manufacturers, a multitude of new cloth diaper
manufacturers, the U.S.-based National Association of Diaper
Services (NADS), new home diaper delivery services, medical
experts, federal and municipal governments, environmental
groups, daycare centers, hospitals, and, of course, the
consumer–the parent. A plethora of articles appeared in
both the popular media and newspapers in North America
reporting on the debate between disposable and cloth diapers.
The discourse often tended to be couched in militaristic
terms: the diaper “battle”, or the diaper “war”.

The disposable diaper has been attacked for its
environmental risks on many counts: health effects of
excrement and urine-filled disposables in increasingly
over-burdened landfill dumps; solid waste costs;
biodegradability of plastic; and the possible presence of
dioxin in disposables. And, for every attack on the
disposable diaper, there was a rebuttal, both of a
scientific and personal nature, from the disposable
manufacturers.

_Questioning the disposability of the disposable diaper_

An oft-quoted figure on the biodegradability of the disposable
diaper is that it takes 500 years for one to decompose.
The thought that diapers could be populating the landscape
of the Star Trek Next Generation future has left many
unnerved. One researcher, commenting on the presence of
disposable diapers in the environment, wrote:

“I have personally seen excrement-filled diapers floating in
the lagoons of Kwajalein and Majuro, two of the Marshall
Islands in the western Pacific; on smoldering garbage heaps
nears towns and villages across Alaska and the northern
Yukon Territories; in the gutters of Manila, and along the
roads of Northern California–not to mention the back
stacks of a bookstore in Honolulu, Hawaii. In 1986, when
Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos arrived in Honolulu in exile
from the Philippines, they were carrying jewelry, cash, and
other booty in recycled Pampers boxes removed from
Malacanang Palace. [42]

The disposable diaper has been criticized for contributing
immensely to solid waste disposal problems. Disposables
can only be landfilled or incinerated, and both options
present problems. Municipal landfills are running out of
space, and many neighborhoods have protested the planning
of new landfills with a “NIMBY” (Not in My Back Yard)
stance. Annually, 18 billion diapers are believed to be
disposed of in the U.S. alone, and about 3,622,500 million
tonnes was destined for the garbage in 1988, an average of
9,860 tonnes a day. In Canada this figure is estimated to
be around 250,000 tonnes of used disposables populating
landfills, which is also approximately 2.5% of Canada’s
residential waste stream. [43]

In 1989 the City of Toronto’s Public Health Department
issued a report prepared by their Environmental Protection
Office, in association with the University of Toronto’s
Environmental Studies Program, which estimated the cost of
disposing of Toronto’s disposable diapers. The report
concluded that approximately $500,000 annually is spent to
dispose of the 43 million disposable diapers used on the
city’s 17,500 babies, and that this amount also accounted
for the consumption of 30,000 trees and 450 tonnes of
plastic. Disposables therefore comprise 2.9% of all
residential waste, or about 5,000 tonnes per year.[44]

There is also the worry that disposing of diapers which
contain human feces can contribute to long-term health
problems. Although the City of Toronto’s report could
document no adverse health effects, some scientists
believe that disposing of diapers in landfills is
an excellent way to solve the problem of toxic waste. A
report on “The Garbage Project” issued in 1990 by a team of
scientists and archeologists at the University of Arizona
found that the material used to make disposable diapers is
so absorbent that, according to project leader William
Rathje, “it soaks up toxic leachate like a sponge…so we
conclude that the solution to the problem of toxic leachate
in landfills is to line them with disposable diapers”. [45]
The team exhumed more than 200 diapers from landfills
scattered across the U.S. They tested fecal samples from
each diaper for several common childhood intestinal
pathogens (rotoviruses, hepatitis A virus, the Giardia and
Cryptosporidium protozoans) and found that after two to ten
years of burial, there was no evidence of viable pathogens.
[46] Environmental groups lambasted these findings, and the
Co-ordinator of the Waste Management Program at Toronto’s
Pollution Probe, commented: “…even if the diapers do
absorb toxic leachate, what guarantees are there that the
leachate will never be released from the diaper or that
chemical reactions between the absorbent gel in the diaper
and the leachate will not create even greater environmental
problems in the future?” [47]

Across North America, the fate of the disposable diaper was
also being debated in the political arena. In 1990, U.S.
legislation was introduced in 24 states and many
jurisdictions which would limit or ban disposable diapers,
or tax users. The State of Vermont planned to ban
disposables by 1993. Lisbon, Maine passed a law that
requires recipients of welfare to buy cloth diapers for
their babies–a move made for economic reasons. [48] In
Peterborough, Ontario, Mayor Sylvia Sutherland and the City
Council were unsuccessful in banning disposables from the
city, but they did issue a resolution that deplored and
discouraged the use of disposables. [49] In the Province
of British Columbia, a 6% sales-tax exemption on
nonbiodegradable disposable diapers was abolished, [50]
and the municipality of Saanich considered halting curbside
garbage pick-up of disposable. [51] These actions echoed
the sentiments of a Decima Research survey, where 75% of the
respondents supported a ban on disposable diapers. [52]

Criticism of disposable diapers has also centered on their
creation of immense profits for the timber, chemical, and
oil industries. The outer layer is made of waterproof
polypropylene, and the inner liner can contain sodium
polyacrylate, a Japanese-licensed chemical agent that can
absorb up to 100 times its weight in urine. The Rhode Island
Solid Waste Disposal Management Corporation has estimated
that approximately 82,000 tons of plastic and 1.3 million
tons of wood pulp (averaging about a quarter of a million
trees) are consumed annually to meet the demand for
disposable diapers in the U.S. alone. [53] Environmental
groups remind consumers that plastics are petroleum
byproducts, “and, as such, contribute to our seemingly
insatiable demand for oil, a demand that is leading us into
remote areas with extremely fragile ecosystems”. [54]
Greenpeace released a report which revealed that the
bleaching of pulp with chlorine can leave a potentially
dangerous chemical residue, including dioxins, in paper
products such as disposable diapers. However, three
independent studies detected no dioxin, but found that
disposable diapers contain furan (TCDF), a close chemical
cousin which exhibits similar toxic properties. So,
although both dioxin and furan can travel from paper
products to the skin, very little is known about the actual
amounts. [55]

_The Revival of Cloth and the New Entrepreneurial Mother_

Amid this attack on the disposable diaper industry, the
cloth diaper market was resurrected with a vengeance. In
1988, the market was estimated to be worth $8-million in
Canada, with 10-15% parents using cloth. [56] Across North
America, home diaper delivery services were resurrected in
most major cities, with many offering their services to
suburban and edge-city enclaves as well. The National
Association of Diaper Services, headquartered in
Philadelphia, estimated a 70% increase in business among its
138 members (all U.S.) since the late 1980’s. [57]

Many of the new home diaper delivery services were started
by women. In Toronto, Comfy Cotton Diaper Service Inc. was
started when the only remaining diaper service in town
closed. Said owner Deborah Summerfield upon opening her
business: “I’ve been preaching about the benefits of cotton
for a long time so I couldn’t bring myself to use
disposables. Like many other mothers, I am convinced there
is a good market for a diaper service”. [58] Comfy Cotton
quickly recruited 850 families and five day-care centres
within months of opening. [59] Its soon-to-be rival,
Toronto Diaper Service, was started by a mother with two
children and an expectant third, with her husband helping
out in the business. Four years later, Toronto’s Yellow
Pages listed more than a dozen home delivery diaper
services and several retail stores specializing in cloth
diapers and diapering accessories.

Not surprisingly, cloth diapers have spawned a new cottage
industry for women. Like their 19th century counterparts,
many women, mostly mothers, have found that by producing
cloth diapers at home, for their own business or as
piecework through retail stores or via mail order, or by
starting home delivery diaper services, they can exhibit an
entrepreneurial spirit in tandem with their childcare
responsibilities. [60] One women, co-owner of a diaper
service in the Montreal area, commented that “Unfortunately,
it is still women who know about diapers most intimately”.
[61]

New entrepreneur Elli Surkes designed an alternative diaper
after becoming disgruntled with other products on
the market. Her one-piece diaper, Change-eez, is
unique because instead of being made from cotton, it is made
entirely of synthetic fabrics. The outer pant is made of
leak-proof nylon and polyethylene fabric, the inner padding
a poly-viscose blend, and the inside liner a light knit
polyester.

The entire diaper is fastened by a velcro-like
contraption. She reports no adverse reactions to the diaper
due to its synthetic make-up, and feels that the
proliferation of expensive, heavy cotton diapers which are
prone to staining and take a long time to dry has dissuaded
consumers from sticking to cloth. [62]

By 1990 over 50 brands of cloth diapers were marketed across
Canada since their introduction in 1988. Dubbed “the
darling of cottage-industry entrepreneurs”, the diapers went
under brand names such as Cottonballs, Cottontots,
Seedlings, Hapi-Napi, Dimples, Indisposables and Mee-Me.
[63] One company, Babykins Products Canada Ltd. of
Richmond, B.C., even went public on the Vancouver Stock
Exchange in 1990, with an initial issue of 1.5 million
shares. In its first week of trading, shares had gone from
46 cents to $1.40. By 1991 Babykins had become Babykins
International Inc. and could boast of striking a deal for
distribution of its product in the U.S., investment in a new
company, Babykins U.K. Ltd., new product introductions of
Babykins Baby Wipes, hospital, diaper service and adult
business lines, and acquisition of the Canadian rights to
distribute antimicrobial soap and cleanser for health care
professionals. [64] However, well into the ’90’s recession,
many cloth diaper manufacturers found their sales flagging,
due, they surmised, to the initial hefty expense required
for use of cloth diapers, compared to a minimum weekly
output for disposables. [65] Nonetheless, it didn’t stop
popular major clothing manufacturers, such as The Gap, from
featuring denim diaper covers in their new “babygap”
clothing line for the Fall ’92 season. [66]

_Cloth versus Disposables: cost and lifecycle comparisons_

Various cost comparisons between cloth and disposable
diapers have been conducted in the discourse on the relative
merits of which diapering system is most economical. Most
studies estimate that the average baby will go through 6,000
diapers by the time they are toilet-trained–usually a 2-1/2
year period of time. On average, the cost for parents who
use disposable diapers is approximately $1,352 (assuming a
weekly use of 50 diapers at 26-cents/piece); for home
delivered cloth diapers from a diaper service, $1268
(assuming $11.40 for a weekly service charge plus $82 extra
for wraps and startup fees); and $526 for cloth diapers
washed at home (assuming a one-time cost of $200 for four
dozen cloth diapers, one dozen outer-wraps, three washes per
week, use of electric water heater, top-loading washer, and
electric dryer with electricity cost of 8.2-cents per
kilowatt hour, plus 40-cents for detergent per load). [67]

Other studies concentrating on the life-cycle analyses of
cloth versus disposable diapers have also been conducted.
Most often, and not surprisingly, the conclusions of the
studies confirm and validate the mandate of the
organizations which commissioned the reports. Carl
Lehrburger’s pioneering study on disposables versus cloth
diapers concluded that approximately $300-million was spent
by Americans annually to bury disposable diapers in
landfills, over and above the cost of purchasing the diapers
themselves. [68] Two percent of the nation’s solid waste
by weight was also comprised of disposable diapers, the
third most common solid waste item after newspapers and
beverage and food containers. His work was widely cited by
cloth-diaper and environmental activists, and in 1990 P&G
commissioned their own report to refute Lehrburger’s
findings, by the Cambridge, MA consulting firm Arthur D.
Little, Inc.(ADL), a report which was later endorsed by the
American Paper Institute (API).

The ADL report claimed that laundering cloth diapers over
the course of their lifetime can consume up to six times the
water used to manufacture a single-use diaper, and that
cloth diapers also can produce nearly ten times the amount
of water pollution created in manufacturing disposables.
[69]

These conclusions were attacked, primarily for their
methodological weaknesses. For instance, the Associate
Director of the Center for Policy Alternatives in
Washington, D.C. discovered a math error that made
disposable diapers appear cheaper than they really were, and
also found that the study failed to account for the water
used to flush away fecal matter from the disposable diapers.
His recalculated figures gave the cloth-to-disposable water
consumption a ratio of 2:1 instead of ADL’s 6:1. [70]
However, as Hollis reports, perhaps the biggest criticism of
the ADL study “was that its authors did not use independent
data, but relied instead on information gathered by P&G and
other companies interested in promoting single-use diapers.
The data were then used to shift the focus away from the
principal environmental problems posed by throwaways–the
huge amount of solid waste they generate”. [71]

A later lifecycle report, also underwritten by NADS, was
released in January 1991 by Lehrburger, Mullens and Jones.
Their conclusions were that disposable diapers produce seven
times the amount of solid waste when discarded and three
times more waste in the manufacturing process than for cloth
diapers. They discounted criticisms of cloth diapers which
have focused on the dubious cotton-growing and manufacturing
processes by claiming that effluents from the plastic,
paper, and pulp industries are far more dangerous. They also
reported that disposables, while using less water than cloth
diapers laundered at home, use more water than those sent
to diaper services. [72]

_Government Standards for Diapers_

Besides various municipal governments promoting restrictions
on the use of disposable diapers, the federal government in
Canada also exhibited its preference, in ecological terms,
for cloth diapers. The aforementioned Babykins cloth diaper
was one of the first diapers to received Environment
Canada’s Environmental Choice label, the EcoLogo, a logo
that can appear on both wholesale and retail packaging, or
on the product itself. In order to qualify for the
EcoLogo, diapers must “meet or exceed all applicable
Canadian governmental and industrial safety and performance
standards”, and be manufactured and transported in “such a
manner that all steps of the process, including the disposal
of waste products arising therefrom”, meet the requirements
of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). [73]
Diapers must be home washable, able to endure a minimum of
75 washes, and not include any non-reusable components. In
addition to the above requirements, manufacturers wishing to
display the EcoLogo must apply for certificatory status by
paying a $700 laboratory fee for testing, and if qualified,
then pay an annual fee between $300-5,000, depending on the
gross annual sales of the product.

_Diapers in Daycares and Hospitals_

One of the more controversial sites for the debate on
diapering options has been conducted in the daycare setting.
The Toronto Board of Health created an uproar in 1991 by
advocating the use of cloth diapers in daycare settings
after a three-month study conducted at the Hester Howe
Daycare Centre revealed that use of cloth diapers did not
create more diaper rash or lead to a greater risk of
diarrhea in children. There were 24 deputants for and
against the use of cloth diapers, including representatives
of Proctor & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, the Ontario Medical
Association, Franklin Associates, Ltd., local hospitals,
interested individuals, owners of home delivery diaper
services and retail stores specializing in cloth diaper
products, and various environmental groups. [74] Days before
the meeting, Proctor & Gamble mounted a phone campaign to
muster support for their products, even though the calls
were purportedly instigated by a “concerned parent”. [75]

Naturally, disposable diaper manufacturers such as Proctor &
Gamble cite the studies that favor their products in
advertisements and brochures enclosed in their diaper
packages. One such study published in the Journal of the
American Medical Association is specified as evidence that
“more stool leakage occurs with cloth diapers than with
paper diapers, like Pampers! This means that with cloth
diapers [defined here as rectangular cloth diapers] there
was greater soiling of surfaces such as high chairs and
changing areas. This same research has also shown that when
changing and handling cloth diapers daycare workers could
have an increased chance of soiling their hands–and thus,
of spreading germs”. [76]

However, one of the impediments for using cloth diapers in
daycare centers has been both the unavailability of daily
delivery of clean diapers and pick-up of soiled diapers by
home diaper delivery services, and lack of adequate laundry
facilities for the daycare centers to handle their own
soiled diapers. While it is true that many daycare centers
discourage the use of cloth diapers and prefer that parents
only use disposables, some daycares let parents choose which
method they prefer, and there is an increasing trend to
investigate diapering options.

Which diaper is the preferred choice in hospitals is also a
contentious issue, with advocates for and against the
various diapering options quite vocal. Although the
majority of hospitals use disposable diapers, usually
received at little or no cost from the manufacturers, some
have changed or are considering changing to cloth diapers.
Many hospitals express concern that the use of cloth diapers
will be an additional cost which they can ill afford, unless
cloth diaper services are provided free of charge or
subsidized. Some hospitals believe that the ecological
incentives outweigh the economic costs, and are willing to
absorb any additional expense. There is some concern as well
that the laundering of cloth diapers will use more staff
time, as the preferred use of diaper covers with velcro
fasteners (which lends a tighter fit) requires greater
handling time so that the straps don’t stick together.

Once again, Pampers ads reflected the threat of cloth
diapers encroaching on their hospital market. Denise
Rohmfeld, pediatric nurse at a hospital in Texas, was quoted
in recent ad copy as saying: “I want to make sure this
baby’s healthy and happy….and I’m concerned about the
environment. Here at our hospital where we ordinarily use
Pampers Phases, we tried cloth for about six months. Cloth
didn’t work as well. The babies were irritable. With
Pampers, the babies stayed a lot drier. And dry skin is
healthier skin”. [77]

The health concerns (diaper dermatitis and fecal
contamination) of disposable versus cloth diapers provides
a fertile research arena for medical professionals, and
some of the references (some dating from the mid-1980’s, and
most clustered around 1990) that the Toronto Board of Health
investigated were from specialized health journals such as
the _American Journal of Public Health_, _Journal of
Pediatric Health Care_, _American Journal of Epidemiology_,
_Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology_,
_Pediatrics_, _Pediatrician_, _Pediatric Dermatology_,
_Patient Care_, _Japanese Journal of Midwives_, _Review of
Infectious Diseases_, and the _Journal of the American
Medical Association_.

_Is Composting Disposable Diapers a Pipe-Dream?_

Amid an often hostile debate on disposable diapers, Proctor
& Gamble unveiled in 1990 a plan to spend $23-million
globally to kick-start municipal programs to set up large-
scale high-tech composting systems that would be capable,
they claimed, of recycling 80% of the material in
disposable diapers into soil, mulch, and fertilizer, which
“could even be used to grow more trees”. [78] In the
U.S., only ten such plants were in existence, and P&G’s goal
was to have 150 more built. However, these plants could only
handle 1% of the nation’s waste.

The industrial composting that P&G advocated was Municipal
Solid Waste (MSW) composting. P&G’s vision for MSW was that
after all household trash is collected and delivered to a
composting facility, non-compostable materials (glass,
plastic, metal) are separated from compostable materials and
the rest is filtered through a series of screens which gets
rid of undesirable elements.

A pilot project was set up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and,
according to P&G, the results demonstrated that disposable
diapers can be composted. Many environmentalists feel that
municipal waste should be kept out of composting heaps
altogether, because of the fear of heavy metal contamination
which could be used as farmland, and possibly enter the food
chain [79] Such compost, as in St. Cloud,
could only be certified as Grade 1–suitable for Christmas
tree farming, but not for agricultural uses. [80] In
Canada, $3.5-million (or approximately 1.5% of what
Canadians spend on P&G’s diapers) has been earmarked for the
composting program, initially centered on three cities:
Victoria, B.C., Guelph, and Hamilton, Ontario. P&G has
donated $100,000 to Victoria after persuading local
politicians to consider large-scale municipal composting,
instead of going ahead with their threatened ban of
disposable diapers from landfill sites. [81]

P&G is no stranger to initiating innovative marketing
strategies for their various products. In 1882 their slogan
for Ivory soap was that it was “99 and 44/100 % pure”. The cost
of the ad campaign was $11,000, for that time an
unprecedented amount of money. [82] However, P&G’s
initial ad campaign for compostable diapers was targeted by
environmental groups and consumers as being misleading,
including complaints by the Recycling Council of Ontario in
June 1991 to the federal government. The ad in question
was headlined “The new life cycle of a disposable diaper”,
and accompanying illustrations featured a P&G diaper
disintegrating into compost and then quickly sprouting a
seedling. Ad copy read: “Currently our diapers are 80%
compostable. The plastic is separated from the diaper. The
diaper is broken down in the municipal compost heap.
Finally, the compost is used as a soil conditioner”. [83]

In April 1992, P&G, although not charged with misleading
advertising, was required to change the wording in its ads
to make it clear that municipal composting of diapers is not
widely available. The new ad copy spoke of a “future vision
for the life cycle of a disposable diaper”. [84] A similar
ad was cited by New York’s Consumer Affairs Commissioner as
“deceptive trade practice”, and P&G had to both promise not
to run the ad until composting facilities were widely
available, and pick up the $5,000 cost of running the
investigation. [85]

The Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) in Britain also
lodged a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority,
citing as questionable 23 Pampers ads which use “life-cycle”
studies to prove that cloth diapers are only slightly more
environmentally advantageous than disposables. The London
_Guardian_ reported how P&G tried to combat the complaint by
disseminating an “emergency environmental equivalence
mailing”. [86]

_The Consumption Junction _

As we have seen, many diverse relevant social groups have
influenced and impacted on the history and nature of the
diaper. These have included corporate giants Proctor &
Gamble and Kimberly-Clark, manufacturers of the disposable
diapers Pampers, Luvs and Huggies; small entrepreneurial
cloth diaper companies; home delivery diaper services;
environmental groups; federal and municipal governments;
and organizations such as daycares and hospitals.
Placed in the center of this controversy is the consumer–
the parent.

Cowan’s call for consumer-focused research on technological
systems using the analytical framework of the “consumption
junction”–looking at the network from the inside out–
is an ideal strategy for situating a study of the social
shaping of the diaper. This is the “interface where
technological diffusion occurs”, and “the place where
technologies begin to reorganize social structures”. [87]
Cowan is wary of generalizing the consumer, feeling that
the variability of the consumer can “add rather than
detract from the usefulness of consumer-focused analysis,
because it reminds us that we must define consumers in terms
of the artifact about which they are making choices…as
well as by other socioeconomic variables”. [88]

Both the disposable diaper manufacturers and cloth diaper
entrepreneurs target their market pitch at the
new mother, but also at institutions such as
hospitals and daycares. Understandably, both P&G and
Kimberly-Clark have more economic resources at their
disposal than either the new cloth diaper manufacturers
or the other “house-brand” manufacturers of disposables,
so their entreaties can be both aired on prime-time
television and featured in glossy magazines.

The corporate battle for market dominance between the two
major disposable diaper manufacturers is staged via heavy
marketing, including television and print advertising,
coupon promotion, and placement in hospital maternity wards
and pediatricians’ offices. In Canada alone, an estimated
$10-million is spent annually on promotion, primarily for TV
commercials and coupons. [89]

An implied endorsement by medical professionals, and the
concurrent placement of a particular brand of disposable
diaper in a hospital maternity ward is of such importance
that both P&G and Kimberly-Clark have staff whose only
responsibility is dealing with hospitals and doctors.
Disposable diapers are mostly used in maternity wards now,
although it is being challenged by cloth-diaper advocates,
and the hospitals receive heavy discounts on their bulk
orders. When the new mother goes home from the hospital,
she does so with a multitude of free samples, discount
coupons, and information packets. This service, provided by
promotional companies, is paid for by the diaper
manufacturers. Physicians are besieged by the disposable
diaper manufacturers. In a 1986 P&G _Medigram_ sent to
physicians, Arnold Austin, Professional Services Technical
Manager, claimed that 40% of newborns in U.S. hospitals use
Ultra Pampers, and within five months of introduction, over
35% of medical colleagues had recommended their use
exclusively to families of diaper-age children. [90]

The coupon storm involves both the manufacturer and the
retailer. Discount coupons are affixed to diaper packages,
mounted on retail displays, featured in magazine
advertisements, and mysteriously appear in the consumers
mail. Individual stores and chain drug and super-markets
feature their own coupons. P&G and Kimberly-Clark help
defray the retailers’ costs by paying the retailers a
certain amount for each ton of diapers sold, so there exist
“tremendous incentives for volume sellers of diapers”. [91]

Disposable diapers supposedly cater to the working mother,
in search of more convenient and time-saving domestic options.
It is estimated that of the 380,000 children born in Canada
in 1986, 75% of their mothers (aged between 20-40) are in
the workforce full or part-time. [92] However, the market
pitch surprisingly does not reflect this sentiment; instead,
disposable diapers are typically touted for their ability to
keep baby dry, and by their endorsement by health professionals
such as doctors (both male and female), nurses, and hospitals.

Advertising for cloth diaper products is minimal compared
to that exercised by the disposable giants. Since many of
the cloth diaper manufacturers are cottage industries,
advertising tends to be limited to small classified or boxed
ads placed in the back pages of specialty parenting
magazines such as _Parenting_, _Today’s Parent_, _Parent’s_,
and _Mothering_. Only _Mothering_ magazine (which, although
quite popular for its diverse and eclectic clientele, is
classified under the small-press rubric, and therefore not
typically found in doctor’s offices or grocery store check-
out aisles) features full-page colored ads for various cloth
diapers and diaper-wrap manufacturers such as Baby Bunz &
Co., Rubber Duckies, Kooshies, and The Natural Baby Co.

_Real Men Don’t Change Diapers?_

The parent is caught in the center of the diaper
controversy, and some feel that this altercation is fraught
with sexist terms. Despite the presence of “The New Man”
imagery in popular culture and advertising campaigns, and
notwithstanding the wider acceptance of an expanded role
for fathers on the home-front, women are still assumed to be
the major consumers of diapers. Whether or not to choose
disposables or cloth diapers has become a loaded, even
moral, issue: environmental correctness versus free choice.
Parenting magazines are full of debates on the relative
merits of the various diapering systems, and parents–
mostly mothers–write in to express their preference.

One mother, defending her right to use disposable diapers
after facing the “cloth diaper juggernaut…bombarded with
diaper-service freebies, pamphlets praising cloth over
disposables, and personal testimonials, all before I left
the hospital”, decided she would rather “fight than switch”:
“Cloth diapers…became thoroughly soaked in an instant, and
now with two children, I knew I’d have less time changing
diapers. When I was discharged from the hospital [which used
cloth], I thanked the nurses for the free samples of
disposables, put one on my son, and never looked back”.[93]

The author believes that women are unfairly blamed for
using disposables:”Most of the people who debunk
disposables don’t spend several hours a week wiping doo-doo
from bottoms. That’s the job of the stay-at-home mothers
and daycare providers, who are among the lowest paid and
least listened to groups of women in America. Does anybody
honestly believe this would be a debate if suddenly all of
the men in this country were responsible for changing diapers?
If something that male executives found indispensable were to
cause pollution, I’ll bet you wouldn’t hear much about banning
it. What if we found out that for some reason car phones or
golf clubs depleted the ozone layer?” [94]

Another mother, expressing an opposite viewpoint, wrote: “I
can’t use disposables when I know my son will live in a
world where garbage is a very serious problem. It would be
irresponsible for me as a parent”. [95] Another echoes:
“There are many new styles and brands of cloth diapers which
are not only better for your baby and the environment but
over the period of diaper usage are cheaper than
disposables. It’s up to all of us as responsible and caring
parents to teach our children to reduce, reuse, and recycle
and encourage new attitudes toward the health of the
planet”. [96]

While some parents object to being the “whipping-parents of
the environmentalists”, as one father commented, [97]
others have spearheaded new designs in consumer education
via various grassroots organizations to encourage use of
cloth diapers. These include citizens groups and publicly
funded agencies that support recycling efforts.

One of the deterrents for using cloth diapers is that there
is an initial hefty cost for procuring enough diapers and
wraps. This can average $200, which many parents,
particularly single mothers on welfare, can ill afford. One
innovative program set up in Westmount, Quebec, was a
project to supply needy parents with a cloth diaper starter
set. [98] However, not having access to convenient
laundry facilities can be another obstacle, related to
one’s socioeconomic situation. As well, there is a mind-
set that equates disposable diapers with technological
advancement. One mother, who started her own cottage
industry of cloth diapers, commented on her efforts to
introduce these designs into her neighborhood Chinese
community in Montreal: “People think I’m absurd to suggest
going back to the cloth design. For some reason, they they
it’s either not good for the baby or it’s terribly time-
consuming, neither of which is true. They tend to associate
these diapers with backwardness”. [99]

_Ecobabble as Exegesis: Biodegradable Diapers and All That
Jazz_

The quest for the environmentally perfect diaper will
certainly be an impetus for many creative entrepreneurs,
and, if public and government pressures mount, a corporate
mandate for the 1990’s. This pursuit is currently
manifested in the paradoxical construction of biodegradable
diapers. The new ecobabble of corporate marketing is,
according to some critics, a strategy employed by
corporations who have “degraded the ecosystem to a point
possibly beyond recovery”. [100] This repositioning of
environmental discourse has included such marketing ploys
as pushing products that are “environmentally friendly”, and
repackaging products to feature new symbols such as the
color green, trees, or the reduce-reuse-recycle logo.

Biodegradable diapers have been touted as the solution to
the current disposable diaper problem. Typically, such
diapers are composed of a plastic shell made of a mixture
of resin and starch. One of the developers of biodegradable
diapers, Dafoe & Dafoe of Brantford, Ontario, uses a special
plastic bonded to a vegetable oil and to a cornstarch
derivative for their diapers called Nappies, which
purportedly break down in two to seven years, depending on
environmental conditions. The marketer of these diapers
calls this invention “ecologics economics…which means that
the environment can no longer work at cross purposes. They
must be integrated. That is good business sense for the
1990’s if we are to survive as a planet”. [101]

Naturally, environmentalists criticize biodegradable diapers
because, not only are plastics still being consumed, but
there are also many unanswered questions about the effects
of biodegradable plastics, such as what is actually left
over when the biodegradable process is completed.

_Conclusion: A Messy Complexity_

The social history of the diaper reveals surprisingly dense
and detailed descriptions of the many variations in style
and technological innovation, from early cloth versions to
the modern variant dependent on velcro, and from the
primitive disposable diapers of the 1950’s to the current
version composed of plastics and water-absorbing polymers.
The description employed here illuminates how the
social shaping of a technology is affected by divergent
social groups, who impact and influence the developmental
trajectory of a technology by their economic, social and
political agenda.

The controversy over cloth versus disposable diapers provides
fertile ground for examining how the various social groups
influence the consumer caught in the “consumption junction”–
the place and time where the consumer must make decisions
among different technological artifacts.

The relevant social groups explored have included
multi-national corporate giants Proctor & Gamble and
Kimberly-Clark, intent on defending their market turf;
to the new cloth diaper defendants, including the new
entrepreneurial mom, spawning a cottage industry of cloth
diaper and home delivery diaper services. Policy groups
include environmental groups influencing the creation of
government standards and recommendations by municipal and
federal governments, and special-interest groups
commissioned to write report findings favorable to the
very groups they represent. Institutional groups caught
in the debate have included daycares and hospitals, whose
interests are validated and defended by various
professional interests.

Woven throughout this history are concerns regarding
toilet-training children, from early and premature coaxing
(due, in part, to lack of adequate laundry facilities) to
the more modern and lax attitude of letting the child
initiate the training (perhaps exemplified by producing
diapers for very large children).

This messy complexity has still not reached closure. Proctor
& Gamble believe that their solution to the diaper disposal
problem is to invest millions in starting local
composting, while environmentalists and cloth diaper
advocates believe that they must wean parents off
disposables and push for government control on use of
disposables. Regardless of the “ultimate solution”,
it seems clear that new inventions will be fabricated
and new solutions proposed. Most certainly, R&D is
being conducted by the large consumer giants to come up
with the most environmentally friendly and easy-to-handle
reusable diaper. Future diaper designs could utilize
new fabrics that have the same absorbent properties akin
to the water-absorbing polymers used in disposable diapers.
It is not entirely unimaginable that local municipalities
and governments will help finance the use of cloth diapers
to those that can’t afford them by either defraying initial
start-up costs or providing their own home delivery diaper
services. As well, if hospitals and daycare centers
advocate cloth diapers, more parents might be persuaded to
switch.

This study reveals that by examining in almost excruciating
detail the history of a seemingly insignificant technology–
the diaper–via a social shaping approach, we can reveal a
new chapter in the history of both domestic technologies and
women’s contribution to technological design and diffusion.

————————–

The author would like to thank the numerous people who have
helped change over 7,000 diapers for her children: dad, grand-
mothers, friends, babysitters, and daycare providers; the
children who inspired this topic; and the very helpful
editors and readers at H.O.S.T.

—————————

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[8] Hardyment, Christina, (1983), _Dream Babies: child
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[9] Ibid, 59.

[10] Ibid, 60.

[11] Ibid,195.

[12] Aiken, Janet R., (1934, May), “First steps in toilet
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[13] France, Beulah, (1934, January), “New helps with baby
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[14] Ibid, 22.

[15] Macdonald, Anne L. ,(1992), _ Feminine Ingenuity: women
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[16] _Consumer Reports_, Annual Survey of Diapers,
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[17] _Consumer Reports_, “Disposable diapers”, (1961,
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[18] _Consumer Reports_, “Diapers”, (1965, August): p. 403.

[19] _Consumer Reports_, “Disposable diapers”, (1968,
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[20] Macdonald, Anne L. ,(1992), _ Feminine Ingenuity: women
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[21] Ibid, 336.

[22] DuVall, Nell, (1988), _Domestic Technology: a
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[23] Proctor and Gamble, (1992, January), “Information
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[24] Ibid, 2.

[25] “The giant diaper battle”, (1969, January 24), _Time_:69-
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[26] “The great diaper rash”, (1970, December 15),
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[27]_Consumer Reports_, (1968), 22.

[28] Ibid, 22.

[29] Ibid, 22.

[30] _Consumer Reports_, (1971), 81.

[31] Ibid, 81.

[32] Salter, Michael, (1988, March), “The battle for baby’s
bottom”, _ [Globe and Mail] Report on Business
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[33] Ibid,66.

[34] Ibid, 66.

[35] _Consumer Reports_, (1992,June), 284.

[36] Ibid, 283.

[37] Lehrburger, Carl, (1989), _Diapers in the Waste
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[38] Kimberley Clark Canada Inc., (1992, May), Consumer
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[39] Miller, Annetta, (1989, March 6), “A pitched battle
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[40] Hellemans, Alex, Bryan Bunch, (1988), _The Timetables
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[41] Israelson, David, (1991), _Silent Earth: the
politics of our survival_. Toronto: Penguin Books, p. 43.

[42] Hollis, Robert W., (1989, Fall), “The ethics of
diapering”, _Mothering_:29-35, p. 30.

[43] Hollis, Robert W., (1991, Summer), “The diaper war:
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Vanessa, (1989, Spring), “Time for a change”, _Probe
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[44] McInnes, Craig, (1989, November 9), “Toronto report
finds diapers costly to dump”, _Globe and Mail_:A15.

[45] Noble, Kimberly, (1990, October 10), “Alleviating
guilt of disposable diapers”, _Globe and Mail_ :B6.

[46] “Reassessing costs of keeping baby dry”, (1990,
December 1), _ Science News_:347.

[47] McRobert, David, (1990, June 6, “Diapers in the
dumps”, _Globe and Mail_:A6.

[48] “The classic diaper”. (1989, December 12), _New York
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[49] Smith, Vivian, (1990, February 10), “Diaper
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[50] Malhotra, Anita, (1990, April 23), “New fashioned
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[51] Strauss, Marina, (1990, December 21), “Diaper makers
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[52] McIlroy, Anne, (1990, August 15), “Most Canadians
favor disposable diaper ban”, _Montreal Gazette_:B4.

[53] Hollis, 1989, p. 30

[54] Alexander, Vanessa, (1989, Spring), “Time for a
change”, _Probe Post_:12-15. p. 13.

[55] “The dioxin connection”, (1989, Fall), The
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[56] Godfrey, John, (1990, April 16), “New rash of B.C.
diaper companies”, _Financial Post_ :12.

[57] Hollis, 1991, 49.

[58] Picard, Andre, (1988, June 30), “Parents upset as
Stork stops delivering diapers.” _Globe and Mail_: A15.

[59] Cox, Damien, (1989, February 13), “Following in
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Star_:C3.

[60] Strasser, Susan, (1982), _Never Done: a history of
American housework_. NY: Pantheon Books.

[61] Cornacchia, Cheryl, (1990, April 30), “Shocked moms
started cloth-diaper service”, _Montreal Gazette_:C1.

[62] Brownstein, Bill, (1992, August 9), “Mother of three
invents better diaper”, _ Montreal Gazette_; personal
conversation with inventor August 28, 1992.

[63] Durnford, Nancy, (1990, October 1), “Best bet for
diapers: washables”, _ Montreal Gazette_:B5.

[64] Babykins International Inc., (1991, December 31),
“1992 Second Quarter Report.”; DeMont, Philip, (1990,
June 23), “Concern about environment boosts sales of cloth
diaper manufacturer”, _Toronto Star_: C3.

[65] Girard, Daniel, (1991, December 4), “Recession putting
a damper on indisposable diaper sales”, _Toronto Star_:D1.

[66] Kahn, Alice, (1992, August 23), “Filling every Gap”,
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[67] _Consumer Reports_, 1991.

[68] Lehrburger, Carl, (1989), _Diapers in the Waste
Stream_. Sheffield, MA: Carl Lehrburger.

[69] Arthur D. Little, Inc., (1990, March 16), _Disposable
Versus Reusable Diapers: health, environmental and economic
comparisons_.

[70] Tyrens, Jeffrey, (1990, September), “Review of Arthur
D. Little, Inc.’s ‘Disposable versus Reusable Diapers'”,
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[71] Hollis 1991, 51.

[72] Lehrburger, Carol, Jocelyn Mullen, C.V. Jones, (1991,
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[73] Environment Canada, (1990), _Canadian Environmental
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[74] City of Toronto, Board of Health, (1991), _Report
No.8, Clause 7: Use of Cloth Diapers for Children in
Daycare Centres and Hospitals_.

[75] Coutts, Jane, (1991, April 23), “Bun wrap kicks of
diaper controversy”, _ Globe and Mail_:A4.

[76] Pampers Parents No. 2, (1992). Cited study is
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overclothing on fecal contaminations in day-care centres”,
in _Journal of the American Medical Association_.

[77] Ad appearing in _People_ magazine, (July 20, 1992).

[78] “Diapers & the Environment”, ad put in newspapers
and diaper packages in 1990-91.

[79] Becker, Pauline, Irene McFetridge, Kathy Roycroft, (1989,
January), _Alternatives in diapering_. Camrose, AB:
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[80] Armstrong, Liz, Adrienne Scott, (1992), _Whitewash:
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[81] Noble, Kimberly, (1990, October 10), “Alleviating
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[82] _International Directory of Company Histories: V.
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[83] Armstrong and Scott 1992, 119.

[84] Bueckert, Dennis, (1992, April 30), “‘Compostable’
diaper ads toned down after protest”, _Montreal
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[85] Armstrong and Scott, 1992, 119.

[86] Ibid, 120.

[87] Cowan, 1989, 263.

[88] Ibid, 265.

[89] Salter, 1988, 70.

[90] Hollis, 1989, 30.

[91] Salter, 1988, 70.

[92] Ibid.

[93] Blackman, Joni H., (1992, May/June), “The bottom line”,
_Parenting_:67-8.

[94] Ibid, 67.

[95] Picard, 1988.

[96] Ibid.

[97] Smith, 1990

[98] Carroll, Ann, (1990, December 31), “A problem of the
’90’s: the diaper dilemma”, _Montreal Gazette_: E8.

[99] Ibid.

[100] Nelson, Joyce,(1990, September), “Deconstructing
Ecobabble: notes on an attempted corporate takeover”, _This
Magazine_, 24:12-18.

[101] “Diaper disposal with a conscience”, (1989, January
29), _New York Times_: Sec.I:42.

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