Nappies

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 24 nappy brands.

We also look at disposable, biodegradable and reusable nappies, cotton sourcing, toxic chemicals and timber sourcing, shine a spotlight on Procter and Gamble (who own Pampers) and give our recommended buys. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying nappies:

  • Are they reusable? From a waste perspective, reusable beats single-use every time. If you’re not able to go totally reusable, then a mixture is a reasonable compromise.

  • Are they made from renewable materials? Single-use nappies made from renewable and sustainably sourced materials will reduce your impact on the environment.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying nappies:

  • Do they contain plastics? Standard single-use nappies contain quite a lot of plastic, from the inner sheet and super absorbent gel, to the waterproof outer shell and sticky fasteners. Avoid those that are mainly made from plastic or aren’t transparent about the materials they use.

  • Are they fragranced? Synthetic fragrances often contain phthalates, which are endocrine disruptors. Avoid perfumed nappies and embrace the earthy pleasures of parenthood.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

Disposable Nappies

Our hyper-convenient baby changing culture creates mountains of waste.

The sustainability charity WRAP estimates that a child will soil 4,000-6,000 nappies between birth and potty training and that, in the UK, three billion single-use nappies are disposed of every year, representing 2-3% of all household waste.

Supermarket own-brand nappies make up 30% of the single-use nappy market. Also, the vast majority (82%) of general baby and child purchasing happens in supermarkets, so their ethical performance has a huge impact.

Nearly all of the single-use nappy companies in this guide focused their promotional efforts on the materials used to manufacture their products, rather than the nappy’s afterlife. And it’s no wonder when you consider the fact that so-called ‘disposable’ nappies are anything but.

Standard nappies are made of various combinations of polypropylene, polyethylene and polyester, fluffed wood pulp, superabsorbent polymers and elastic.

Once used, if taken to landfill then their fate is centuries of slow decomposition, during which time the plastics and chemicals used to manufacture them, not to mention their contents, leach into the air, soil and water system.

The UK’s ‘disposable’ nappy market was worth £277 million in 2018, nearly 6% down on the previous year. 

According to Mintel, the reasons behind this drop are a declining birth rate and intensification of environmental concerns. While retailers are able to bolster sales through discounting, brands must find other ways to survive in these challenging times and the magic formula they’ve hit on is ‘values’.

‘Eco’ nappy brands are therefore on the rise. Naty is the big player, with 1% of the single-use nappy market, while Kit & Kin is a growing force. The emphasis here is on reduced or zero chemicals and using renewable materials (such as cotton and cornstarch) in manufacturing.

‘Biodegradable’ and ‘Eco’ nappies

There is no nappy currently on the market that is 100% biodegradable.

Beaming Baby claims that its nappies are “over 75% Bio-Degradable” because the inner sheet and outer shell are made from cotton and cornstarch fibres, and the absorbent core is comprised of paper fluff and semi-biodegradable gel.

‘Eco’ nappies, such as Naty, have some components made from biodegradable materials but these would need to be separated out and sent into an industrial composting system in order to actually biodegrade.

According to Wendy Richards (AKA The Nappy Lady), nappies sent to landfill will not degrade, regardless of the materials used. Landfills are designed to minimise decomposition and the gases and liquids that leach out as a result.

So, although buying ‘eco’ single-use nappies might be better in terms of the materials used to make them, they will still languish in the same mountain of rubbish as standard single-use nappies, albeit leaching fewer horrible things into the soil and air.

Reusable nappies

The widening movement against single-use things positions reusable nappies for a boom. The early signs are already there, with the plethora of brands and designs.

There are also several different systems available to suit your needs/preferences. 

Options

To start with, there is the good old-fashioned terry-cloth square, which is still going strong. It’s an economical choice and, according to fill-your-pants.com, still one of the most reliable.

Other choices are between pocket nappies and two-part nappies. 

Pocket nappies, as the name suggests, have an internal pocket for absorbent pads or ‘boosters’. They’re easy to use and are handy if your child goes to nursery or a childminder. Two-part nappies simply have the absorbent part laid on top of the nappy, with the whole lot covered by a waterproof wrap.

Both of the above systems come in different sizes, but you can also get one-size nappies. These have a series of poppers to increase the size of the nappy as your child grows, so you can theoretically use them from birth to potty-training.

Of course, every child has their own ‘weight journey'. For this reason, doing a nappy trial or joining a rental scheme for a while to get started is probably a good idea.

Materials

Reusable nappies, AKA real nappies or cloth nappies, are so called because they used to be made from terry cloth. This is a fabric made from uncut loops and you’ll find it in bathrobes, bath towels and Uncle Roger’s favourite t-shirt.

Nappy fabrics have broadened somewhat in recent years, embracing microfibre (soft top layer), polyurethane laminate (waterproof outer) and cotton or bamboo for the absorbent pads.

The overall goal is to maximise comfort and absorbency while minimising drying time.

Impact

From a waste perspective, reusable nappies beat single-use hands down. 30-50 nappies can (theoretically) last from birth to potty training for multiple children, avoiding many, many tonnes of landfill waste and pollution.

After manufacturing, the main impact of reusable nappies comes in how they’re cleaned. The ideal scenario would be a full load of reusable nappies being washed at 30 degrees in an A++++ rated washing machine powered by a green electricity supply and using environmentally friendly detergent, with the nappies being line dried. Your water and energy bills would still go up, but this would keep it to a minimum.

The real-life scenario is likely to be more mixed. Not everyone has (or can easily switch to) an efficient appliance or green energy supply. Also, living on an island in the northern Atlantic does not lend itself to good ‘drying days’ year-round, so reusable nappies will sometimes need to be tumble-dried or dried indoors.

Using a biodegradable nappy liner helps with washing as it takes away some or all of the content, making it easier to get clean.

Price of Reusable Nappies

Until the price of single-use nappies includes a ‘landfill tax’, comparing them with reusable nappies is spurious. 

Yes, reusable nappies cost more up front, but they can be used for years on multiple children. Even factoring in the increased water and electricity bills associated with washing reusable nappies, you’re still looking at saving up to £500, or more if you have multiple children.

Some councils run incentive schemes to get people into using reusable nappies. You can find a list of council incentive schemes on Fill Your Pants.

You can also pick up second-hand nappies online at usednappies.co.uk or try them out through a cloth nappy library.

There are only a few nappy laundering services operating in the UK and they tend to be quite localised, so search online first or ask your local NCT branch.

The service offered varies by scheme, but it will usually involve the rental of a set of nappies and associated kit (bucket, liners) and the regular schedule of pick-ups for the dirty ones and drop-offs of freshly laundered ones. 

Costs also vary but The Nappy Lady puts it at £30-35 per month, roughly in line with the price of single-use nappies. A coincidence? Who can say.

To soak or not to soak

Cloth nappy wisdom used to dictate that nappies be soaked prior to washing to make them easier to clean and to prolong the life of the nappy.

However, modern cloth nappies do not need to be soaked before washing. Indeed, given that reusable nappies are often comprised of several different fabrics, soaking could actually damage the nappy, especially if you use some kind of additive such as vinegar, bicarbonate of soda, Napisan, etc.

Soaking also makes the nappy bucket smell in a way that ‘dry-pailing’ (putting nappies straight in the bucket) does not.

In our research we found more than 20 brands of reusable nappy, many more than we can fit into this guide. More brands can be found on reusable nappy retailer sites:

Image: landfill waste being pushed around by a machine

Cotton sourcing for nappies

Both single-use and reusable nappies can contain cotton, therefore all companies found to be using it were rated for their policies on cotton sourcing.

Specifically, companies were expected to demonstrate that they avoided cotton sourced from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where forced labour is used in the annual cotton harvest, and that they were helping to tackle pesticide use and genetic modification by sourcing organic cotton.

Naty and Kit & Kin scored a best rating because their cotton was GOTS certified.

Mum & You and Rascal and Friends did not use cotton. All the others received a worst rating and therefore lost half a mark under Workers’ Rights, Pollution and Toxics, and Controversial Technologies.

Abena (Bambo Nature brand) did have a line of organic cotton tampons but because organic cotton sourcing did not extend to other major product lines (nappies, menstrual pads, incontinence pads), the company received a worst rating.

Toxic chemicals

All companies were rated for Pollution and Toxics. All single-use nappy companies were therefore rated on their policies covering triclosan, parabens and phthalates. Single-use nappies are often fragranced and therefore could contain phthalates, an endocrine disruptor.

Nappy brands often also make other products such as shampoo, body wash and moisturiser, which could contain parabens and triclosan. Some forms or uses of these three chemicals are banned or restricted in the EU or the USA.

Reusable nappy companies were rated for toxic chemicals using our clothing-specific criteria. All but one received an exemption because they were small companies providing an environmental alternative. 

TotsBots nappies were made of bamboo fabric, which can involve lots of chemicals in the extraction of the fibres. However, TotsBots said that their bamboo was made using a physical and chemical process in a closed-loop system, meaning that no chemicals were released into waterways.

Timber sourcing

The use of fluffed wood pulp in single-use nappies means that all companies making these were rated for their timber-sourcing policies. Abena (Bambo Nature) was the only company to receive a best rating, due to the fact that its products carried the Nordic Swan eco-label, which has robust timber-sourcing criteria.

Naty was one of the companies that received a worst rating even though the company sourced 100% FSC-certified pulp for its nappies. This was because FSC certification only meets two of the ten criteria in Ethical Consumer’s timber sourcing ranking. 

Unmet criteria included: a clear policy covering all timber and timber-derived products that excluded illegal timber or timber from unknown sources, a discussion of how compliance with that policy is ensured, and involvement with a multi-stakeholder initiative such as WWF Global Forest Trade Network.

Product sustainability

All companies making reusable nappies received a full product sustainability mark for having significant sustainability features. Further half or whole product sustainability marks were awarded for organic products (bumGenius) and eco-labelling (Bambo Nature). 

Ethical Consumer did not award any product sustainability marks for nappies claiming to be biodegradable due to the fact that they aren’t!

Another load

The gendered elephant in the room with reusable nappies is labour. On average, women carry out 25.5 hours of unpaid (often domestic) work per week, 60% more than men. For women on maternity leave, that figure jumps to 60 hours.

Shared parental leave was introduced in 2015 but uptake has been low, possibly due to the low rates of paternity pay.

There are 2.8 million single-parent households in the UK and 86% of these are headed by women. The upshot is that women (particularly mothers) continue to be left holding the baby, the cooking, the cleaning and the laundry.

Knowing this, it is hard to unequivocally recommend reusable nappies. 

If you’re considering reusable nappies and you have a partner, make sure that you are both equally committed to reusable nappies and that you have fair and reliable systems for sharing household labour. 

If you’re on your own, think about whether you have the time for the additional laundry and how you’ll dry it all once it's washed.

The other EC: Elimination Communication

If you want to really minimise your nappy use, you may want to look into Elimination Communication.

Also known as Baby-led Potty Training or Nappy Free, the principle is that you help your baby stay clean and dry by offering them the opportunity to wee and poo somewhere other than in their nappy.

Advantages include better communication between adult and baby (you tune in to their toilet ‘signals’), a cleaner baby not sitting in its own waste, a more comfortable baby and fewer nappies. Disadvantages include cleaning.

Image: lydia ramsden experience of elimination communication

One of our readers, Lydia Ramsden, uses it and shares her experience:

“It was a comment my mum made last summer, that first made me consider early potty training, which then led to discovering the popular method of EC. “You’ll be able to have him out of nappies if it’s this warm next summer”. I was shocked, next summer Rupert would only be 16 months, it seemed young compared to other children we knew. 

Having read a little on a like-minded parenting group. I decided to dig out a potty from mum’s loft and we began sitting him on it to read stories. It wasn’t long before he was regularly giving us cues he needed the potty and we’ve had great successes. Including a weeks family holiday at 11 months using the potty for every poo.

At 14 months he is now sitting on the potty waiting because he knows he needs to wee and then encouraging us all to join in with a round of applause.

I don’t carry a potty around with us, but where possible I’d pop him on the loo. If it’s hopeless and he does soil himself, I’m careful to keep him standing as he (understandably) doesn’t like to sit down in his own mess.

Ultimately the only tricky part of this is having the time. It’s really been about building up the communication with baby and trusting that you understand them. We have also done classes in baby signing, which alongside methods like this, seems to help convey the message that he’s doing a really brilliant thing!

Tips wise, I think trusting your instinct and your unique relationship with your baby is essential. Not viewing it as ‘potty training’, as that has an element of failure about it. And being prepared for the odd poo to land on the carpet when you’re a little late picking up the hint!”

Company behind the brand

Pampers, owned by Procter & Gamble, has cornered 57% of the multi-million-pound single-use nappy market, so its company policies have a huge impact. 

Unfortunately, very few were up to scratch. The company had worst ratings for palm oil, animal testing, cotton and managing workers’ rights in its supply chain. 

The company also lost a whole mark under Human Rights for having operations in 15 different oppressive regimes and a whole mark under Anti-Social Finance for having multiple high-risk subsidiaries in countries on Ethical Consumers’ current tax haven list and no public country-by-country reporting.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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