Best Buy Q & A: TotsBots reusable nappies

We caught up with Fiona, co-founder of our Best Buy company TotsBots. The company came top in our ethical shopping guide for nappies.

Magnus and Fiona Smyth started the TotsBots business literally from the kitchen table up. They developed their original reusable nappy prototype 19 years ago, shortly after the birth of their second child Maia. Armed only with an old towel and a sewing machine, Fiona took to the kitchen table and began to design the first TotsBots reusable nappy.

Once her design was finalised, she took the bold step of ordering a 50m roll of towelling and set to work developing prototypes to be tested by friends and family. Overwhelmed by the response, TotsBots was born and the first retail orders were taken. The business picked up the pace, and it wasn’t long before Magnus gave up his job to help out and the kitchen was quite literally full of fluff.

19 years on and TotsBots has grown substantially from those days in the kitchen. Acquired by Frugi in January 2020, the UK’s leading organic children’s wear brand, their head office remains in the East End of Glasgow and all nappies continue to be made in the UK by a committed staff who bring the most cutting edge cloth nappies in terms of fabric, design and performance.

It's quite uncommon even for ethical businesses to manufacture their products in the UK. Does TotsBots do this with intent, or is it just common sense for your business?

When we first started, we didn’t have a great deal of capital, so initially we made the product ourselves, buying the fabrics is as we needed in small batches to produce at the rate our customers required them. It was just simpler that way and meant we didn’t have to commit to huge minimums.

It also meant we got used to having total control from the outset, so it was something we wanted to stick with as we wanted our product to be the better than the competition, plus employing people feels good. Some of our staff have been with us since the beginning, and we're really proud to provide jobs in the area and keep manufacturing skills in the UK.

Your nappies are made of recycled fabric rather than plastic. What are the benefits of this for the environment?

As a society, we need to understand that the real issue we are facing is not simply plastic or waste disposal, it is the massive and unsustainable over consumption of finite resources.

TotsBots reusable nappies are made from recycled polyester, meaning parents can reduce, reuse and recycle one nappy change at a time. In addition to reducing consumption of raw materials, the manufacture of recycled polyester yarn has a lower carbon footprint than the manufacture of virgin yarn, so its win-win as far as we are concerned.

The energy and raw material used to make disposable nappies is astronomical in comparison to reusables. By choosing to use reusable nappies, parents will use over 98% less raw materials and over 40% less carbon than if they use disposables, and that’s per baby!

More parents making the switch to reusables is not only pivotal in reducing the overconsumption of single-use plastic products, but it drastically reduces the amount of materials required for the end-to-end manufacturing process. Even using just one reusable nappy a day can make a big difference to the world that our children will grow up in.

You suggest that people wash a TotsBots nappy every two days. What have your customers said about this process? Has it been difficult for them, or is it really quite easy?

It is one of the barriers that we work really hard to overcome. People assume that you put poo in your washing machine, but in reality, it goes down the loo and then the washing machine does all the work. Once they get their head around that and actually give them a whirl they don't look back.

Our most common feedback is that it is much easier than people expect, especially the washing. We did a bit of an experiment with our team of testers, and the conclusion was that it takes no more than 5 minutes to put on a wash, 5 minutes to hang up to dry and 5 minutes to put them away. Do this 3 times per week – it’s that simple. It's less than an hour a week to do your bit for the environment and your baby’s skin too. We really want to spread the message that our babies (and our planet) are worth that little bit of extra work.

What are some challenges that you've faced as an ethical business?

To be honest there haven’t really been any. Our challenges have been pretty normal challenges that most business experience as they grow. Finding skilled sewing staff in a declining manufacturing market has probably been the biggest, and as such we are always on the hunt for experienced sewing staff.

You could argue that our cost of sales is high because we manufacture in the UK, so affects our ability to compete on price, but as we don't exist in the “stack high, sell low” world, it hasn't really been an issue. In fact, some of our competitors are made in China and are still more expensive than TotsBots.

Is there much greenwashing in the nappy industry, and what sets you apart from your competitors and mainstream companies?

There is a huge amount of greenwashing in the nappy industry. The very term ‘eco disposable’ is a bit of an oxymoron. How can something you use once and throw away be eco-friendly? It really doesn’t matter what these products are made of as they still use the same amount of raw materials and energy per child as regular disposables, resulting in the same levels of overconsumption and waste.

Bio-degradability claims are spurious at best, as very little breaks down in landfill (which is running out) and what does break down then releases methane into the atmosphere. What doesn't go to landfill is incinerated, which is where the majority of waste will end up.

Compostable plastics are also a red herring as they require industrial composting sites to break down, using heat as part of the process so even more carbon is released into the atmosphere. Recent studies have also shown that the single biggest contaminant in domestic recycling is ‘eco disposable’ nappies, as parents simply don’t understand they can’t be recycled. The answer is to reduce what we consume and reuse wherever possible.

We've been manufacturing nappies for 19 years and genuinely do care about the planet and what people put next to their little one’s skin. It's nothing new for us and isn’t part of a strategic marketing message, it’s simply what we believe in.

How do you feel about being an Ethical Consumer Best Buy?

We’re really proud to be able to display such a sought after and prestige ethical badge on our website. It is a real affirmation of what we are trying to do here at TotsBots. All the fluff, sweat and tears has been worth it to make a difference to the world that we live in! We hope that other brands will be inspired, and more parents will consider reusable nappies in a time where sustainability is such a focal point for our planet.

As an organisation, we are fully into continuous improvement, and feedback from ethical standards is part of that ongoing journey.

We would like to thank Fiona for taking the time to talk to Ethical Consumer. For more information about TotsBots, please read our guide to ethical nappies.

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