COLLEGE STATION — With some 18 billion disposable diapers wrapped around babies’ buns every year, it’s time for a change.
Actually two changes: cheaper and more environmentally friendly diapers, parents say.
Yet while parents might agree that putting 3.6 million tons of non- degradable disposable diapers into the landfills every year stinks, most are not willing to convert to cloth.
“Price and convenience still are foremost for consumers, but ‘greenness’ is becoming an important purchasing criteria,” said Dr. Judd Michael, Texas Agricultural Extension Service wood products marketing specialist.
Michael and Dr. Paul Smith, wood products marketing specialist at Pennsylvania State University, surveyed 3,000 U.S. households with children aged 3 or younger to determine parents’ attitudes about environmentally related purchasing attitudes.
Diapers were chosen as a representative wood product because many people have had direct experience with them. The absorbent lining of disposable diapers is made with fluff pulp derived from trees. Disposable diapers soak up about 75 percent of the fluff pulp market.
When disposable diapers were introduced in 1961, only 1 percent of the diapering public used them. That grew to 90 percent in 1990. Survey responses indicated that about 80 percent of the parents buy disposables exclusively, some 15 percent use a combination of disposables and cloth, and a little more than 4 percent use only cloth.
The survey showed that while most parents used disposable diapers, they also would prefer that the diapers be improved to be more environmentally friendly.
The “green gap” — difference between a consumer’s satisfaction with a product’s performance and its environmental attributes — gives the timber industry an opportunity to educate its customers, Michael believes.
“Wood and wood products are renewable resources unlike products of steel, plastic and concrete,” Michael said. “People may be concerned because of the appearance of land where a stand of trees recently has been cut, but the industry is constantly replanting trees. Timber companies have conservationists and wildlife specialists on staff to assure that they are good stewards of the natural resources.”
In the case of diapers, studies have shown that disposable diapers are no more environmentally harmful than their cloth counterparts, Michael said. Cloth diapers, for example, have been criticized for the water use and pollution through laundering and detergents, energy use required for home delivery and laundering services.
A customer’s “greenness” decision might include raw materials used, environmental impacts of manufacturing, quantity and recyclability of package and the product’s disposable characteristics, for example.
Diapers are just one product that may be misunderstood by consumers, Michael said. Industries that use wood products, such as diaper companies, should gather the facts — and expand upon them — to increase customer satisfaction.
Many businesses currently end their marketing efforts by focusing on the needs and wants of target markets, without understanding that maintaining satisfaction may include delivering a product that meets societal needs as well.
The disposable diaper industry has made some attempts to be perceived as more environmentally friendly by reducing the amount of packaging. But the survey showed that consumers believe that the diaper itself needs environmental improvement.
When asked what changes are needed to improve disposable diapers, three out of the top four answers pertained to making diapers more environmentally sound, such as making them biodegradable or recyclable. The second most common answer was to lower the cost.
“A large number of parents are not happy about the environmental performance,” Michael said. “And a significant number of potential users of a wood- based product — those who use only cloth or a combination — limit their usage because of concerns for the environmental impact.”
When user groups are not completely satisfied with current product offerings — such as with cloth and paper diapers, he said, manufacturers could simply provide consumers with factual, believable information to convince consumers that wood products can best satisfy their green wants.
“The environmental trade-offs with convenience, performance and price are important for many who may be willing to switch to an alternative that provides a better perceived compromise,” he added.