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Are cloth diapers really any better for the environment, your wallet, or your baby?

The Great Diaper Debate, as it’s been christened, is ultimately more about how parents want to present themselves than anything else.

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A cloth-diapered baby sitting on an empty floor and looking up smiling.
At $35 a diaper, it seems counterintuitive that reusable diapers could be cheaper than disposables,
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

The first time I heard about cloth diapers was from my mom. It was in the middle of one of her back-in-my-day speeches, sandwiched between chopping firewood while eight months pregnant and the getting stitched back up after delivering a 10-pound baby (without pain medication, mind you). According to her, diapering a baby used to be something akin to wrestling an alligator; there were frantic limbs pinning down wriggling bodies, sharp pins being stuck into skin, and explosive consequences of not getting it right the first time.

From listening to my mom, one would think that the invention of disposable diapers was more life-changing than sliced bread, automatic transmissions, and electric dishwashers all put together. As a first-time mother, I had no frame of reference for the importance of decisions such as disposable versus reusable diapers. I simply absorbed my mom’s guidance and stocked my pantry with Pampers. And, while I was grateful for her experience, my mom wasn’t the only one voicing an opinion. In fact, she wasn’t even the loudest.

By the time my first baby was born in 2010, social media had already been gaining momentum for several years and was quickly becoming a one-stop source of community support, advice, and news. Leading the information charge was a multibillion dollar industry of bloggers and influencers showing new mothers how they could — and “should” — be parenting. Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram arose and became flooded with images of picture-perfect birthday parties, children sporting intricate braids that looked more like macramé than hairstyles, and chubby toddlers with bulky cloth diapers bulging out the top of their organic cotton leggings.

According to a study published in the Journal of Family Communication, new parents have a tendency to seek support and a sense of belonging through social media. Perhaps it’s because modern families have spread to distances that reduce the availability of generational support. Perhaps it’s because taking care of an infant is a naturally isolating experience. Recent research has also suggested that the appeal of parenting blogs and vibrant social media communities might be because of a natural and adaptive drive to belong. And the internet has become the center of the proverbial “village” that offers to ease that transition into parenthood. Except the internet isn’t omniscient, and it certainly isn’t altruistic.

Scrolling through any social media newsfeed yields dozens of articles or images offering unsolicited advice, judgment, or horror stories about all the things that can go wrong if you make even a single bad decision. A recent article in Quartz explores the possible reasons why most first-time parents tend to feel insecure about their parenting, and those feelings of inadequacy are very likely exaggerated by the abundance of conflicting information and opinions available at our fingertips. If you look hard enough, all decisions are bad decisions according to the internet. It’s not surprising, then, that Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist from New York University, told LiveScience that many parents believe that even minor parenting choices have a significant impact on their child’s future.

The question of cloth versus disposable diapers sits right at the apex of controversy and fashion. Despite the fact that the environmental impact of using cloth over disposables is murky, it has proven to be perfect fodder for environmental advocates and the fashion-conscious alike. Of course, it wasn’t always that way.

In the grand scheme of mankind, diapers are a relatively new invention. One of the earliest mentions of diapers comes from Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”; they were basically just square muslin cloths used to wrap around a baby and collect waste. The modern concept of a cloth diaper didn’t appear until the 1800s, and they were probably only changed once every few days. (Not exactly up to current Insta standards, but the Victorians weren’t known for their stellar hygiene practices.) Besides, the foldable, pinnable muslin diapers were certainly more conveniently absorbent than the leaves and moss that humans had been using for centuries prior. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the first disposable diapers hit the mass market, and once the manufacturing costs were reduced enough to compete with the cheaper cloth options, disposables became the accepted standard among new parents.

Until the late 1990s and early 2000s. Along with the rise of social media and environmental advocacy, cloth diapers made an aggressive resurgence. Sometime around 2005, reusable diapers had become so popular that the internet coined a term for the upper-middle-class moms who would troll second-hand marketplaces, eBay, and discount stores for rare or collector editions of high-end cloth diapers. These deal-hungry parents with time and money to spare were called “diaper hyenas,” so named for their ruthless stalking of online boutiques and their cackling glee after snatching up one-of-a-kind diapers for a mere $300. Used.

But has the world of reusable diapers changed so drastically in the span of a single generation? Cloth diaper user and mother of two Raya Hegeman-Davis thinks maybe it has. “I’m sure my parents must have used cloth diapers when I was a baby, but when I told them I was going to use cloth they thought I was crazy.” She wonders if maybe the variety of options currently available can be intimidating to older generations. There are traditional flat squares of cloth that need to be folded, pre-folds, and fancy all-in-one diapers that function a lot like disposables but with removable liners and adjustable snaps.

A search for cloth diapers on Etsy yields over 20,000 results.

These stylish diapers are organic, eco-friendly, hand-made, and as much as $50 per diaper. A single internet search yields a variety of options: limited-edition prints, bold solids (no pun intended, I hope), and even diapers with ironic slogans printed on the back. And despite the high initial cost, proponents of the newest wave of “natural parenting” insisted that these reusable diapers were saving them money and protecting the environment at the same time.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Environmental Protection Agency don’t take an official stance on the cloth versus disposable diaper debate, but many natural parenting sites and blogs still claim that reusable diapers are healthier, more environmentally friendly, and more financially responsible. Not only is there concern about the plastic used in disposable diapers biodegrading in landfills, there is also concern about the safety of throwing away human waste. The American Public Health Association points out that disposing of human feces in a landfill could introduce into the groundwater any of 100 different viruses including polio and hepatitis.

One survey on cloth diaper usage conducted in 2016 shows that the majority of parents who choose to forgo disposable diapers were between the ages of 25 and 35, married, and many were stay-at-home moms with an annual household income between $50,000 and $70,000. When asked why they started using cloth rather than disposable diapers, more than half said it was because they heard about it from a friend or family member and on social media. Many said they’d be willing to spend up to $35 per diaper.

At $35 a diaper, it seems counterintuitive that reusable diapers could be cheaper than disposables, yet this remains the No. 1 reason parents claim they started using cloth. Stay-at-home mom and second-baby cloth diaper convert Heather Campbell says she saved money by buying cloth diapers in bulk, laundering them responsibly using only natural soap-free detergents, and even managed to resell them for close to 50 percent of their value when she was done. Yet even when diapering as cost-effectively as possible, she estimates her overall savings by using cloth to be somewhere in the range of $20 to $40 a month — not exactly the economical slam dunk the internet has claimed.

Even the most conservative comparisons of cloth diapers to disposable yield mixed results. The Simple Dollar ran a two-year analysis of both and found that reusable diapers resulted in only marginal savings of a couple hundred dollars over that two-year period. However, it’s not always just about the bottom line. Cloth diapers afforded parents like Campbell more control over the money they spent each month, rather than paying whatever the grocery store decided disposables were worth each week or cutting coupons. If money was tight, they could line-dry diapers for a while to save on electricity or sell some old ones to recoup the initial investment.

Financially, the great cloth diaper debate seems to come out a wash. But what about the environmental impact of laundering cotton diapers versus throwing away disposables? A UK-based study found that the amount of carbon dioxide produced by using disposable diapers for 2.5 years would be less than the carbon output of laundering reusables in most cases. Even considering the additional disposables that end up in crowded landfills, experts on low-carbon living argue that the environmental impact might still be less than using fancy biodegradable diapers or even cloth. Obviously, running full loads of diapers on cold water and then line drying could help to decrease the carbon footprint, but it also means stocking more diapers and investing more time, which again increases the overall cost.

Some parents are concerned about the chemicals present in plastic disposables and what effect that might have on their baby’s skin. A few of these chemicals are present in pesticides like Roundup and have been found to cause cancer in large quantities, but so far no major studies have explored the long-term effects of absorbing these chemicals through the skin as a result of wearing disposable diapers. Some children can have a sensitivity to some of the dyes and fragrances used in highly manufactured diapers. In these cases, the benefits of cloth over disposable diapers may be greater for an individual baby or family than for the population as a whole.

And speaking of the impact on the world population, it’s not clear that the production of cloth over plastic diapers is any better for the environment. There are chemicals and pesticides involved in the production of cloth diapers as well, which can seep into the groundwater and severely impact the ecosystem of countries where cotton is a primary export. When combined with an extensive amount of water, land, and labor utilized to grow the crops, the chemically intensive process of producing usable cotton, and increased electricity and water required to wash cloth diapers, it’s essentially trading one poison for another: weighing the impact on the individual versus the world.

So, if parents aren’t recouping the promised savings and the environmental benefits of cloth diapers, there must be another reason that so many young parents have championed cloth diapers despite the convenience of disposables. Campbell says, “Of course I was glad they were better for the environment, and I liked the idea of saving some money. For me, it was really about knowing what chemicals I was putting on my kid’s skin. Plus, they were just cute.” Nearly every list of reasons why cloth diapers are superior to disposables ends in the same way: they’re fun and fashionable on kids, and they make parents look and feel good, too.

Cloth diapers have created a new niche in the diaper market — not just fledgling parents looking to cut costs and keep their kids alive and quiet for another day, but people interested in making a statement. These weren’t just diapers. They were wearable social and political statements.

Social media is the perfect breeding ground for competition, and advertisers have used the medium to launch the popularity of many baby-related products, including cloth diapers. Currently, there is a wide variety of companies producing reusable diapers to meet any would-be hyena’s needs at a variety of prices. For $24, BumGenius all-in-ones focus on utility and longevity, while Charlie Banana’s 100 percent organic diapers are considered most comfortable. And if you’re willing to spend closer to $40 per diaper, RagaBabe diapers come in wild prints and offer a “tailored trim fit.”

While families who chose reusable diapers over disposables probably didn’t save the planet or even enough money to put their kids through college, they meant well. The truth behind the great cloth diaper debate is also the truth behind most parenting decisions: there is no such thing as perfect parenting. Each and every individual family has to decide what choice makes the most sense for their lifestyle, and in the end, it’s all about raising happy, healthy children. (With or without “cloth bottoms.”)

There are no winners in the Mommy Wars, only profits. And the lesson I wish I’d learned from my mom back when I was pregnant with my first child is that there are more important decisions in life than what material collects your child’s excrement.

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