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Environmentally friendly parenting: Are cloth nappies a step too far?

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Purpose – The present research aims to investigate parental attitudes towards using either cloth or disposable nappies, to better understand whether and how pro-cloth initiatives might impact parental decisions. Design/methodology/approach – Focus groups were conducted with both cloth and disposable nappy users to gain a better understanding of the factors that underlie their choice. Interviews were analyzed using thematic analysis. Findings – The paper finds that parents using disposable nappies believed they were marketed as offering a popular, efficient, healthy, good value system. They acknowledged the environmental impact but rationalised this by referring to the equivocal nature of these consequences, and the ability to off-set this by engaging in other pro-environment behaviours. Parents choosing cloth nappies did so initially because they were more environment-friendly and cost-effective and disposables were disliked. Once using cloth, parents noted additional benefits: performance, fashion, formation of bonds with other users, and getting a buzz out of using them. This reinforced their reasons for continued use. Practical implications – Cloth nappies are unlikely to gain mass appeal, but findings suggest a bigger take up if parents are better informed, and subsidies are provided to reduce set-up and laundering costs to tackle the “ease of use” barrier. The positive aspects of cloth nappies should be better promoted. Social implications – Marketing initiatives need to buy into the current “designer parents” trend and play to the aspirational, fashionable aspects of cloth nappies. Originality/value – This paper, the first to report on parental attitudes and decisions regarding both nappy types, could inform public policy and marketing decisions.
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Article Title Page
[Article title] Environmentally friendly parenting: Are cloth nappies a step too far?
Author Details (please list these in the order they should appear in the published article)
Author 1 Name: Louise F. Pendry
Department: College of Life and Environmental Sciences
University/Institution: University of Exter
Town/City: Exeter
Country: UK
Author 2 Name: Avril J. Mewse
Department: College of Life and Environmental Sciences
University/Institution: University of Exter
Town/City: Exeter
Country: UK
Author 3 Name: Carole B. Burgoyne
Department: College of Life and Environmental Sciences
University/Institution: University of Exeter
Town/City: Exeter
Country: UK
NOTE: affiliations should appear as the following: Department (if applicable); Institution; City; State (US only); Country.
No further information or detail should be included
Corresponding author: Louise F. Pendry
Corresponding Author’s Email: l.f.pendry@ex.ac.uk
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Biographical Details (if applicable):
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[Author 2 bio]
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Structured Abstract:
Purpose: The present research investigated parental attitudes towards using either cloth or disposable
nappies, to better understand whether and how pro-cloth initiatives might impact parental decisions.
Design/Methodology/Approach: Focus groups were conducted with both cloth and disposable nappy users
to gain a better understanding of the factors that underlie their choice. Interviews were analyzed using
Thematic Analysis.
Findings: Parents using disposable nappies believed they were marketed as offering a popular, efficient,
healthy, good value system. They acknowledged the environmental impact but rationalised this by referring
to (a) the equivocal nature of these consequences, and (b) the ability to off-set this by engaging in other pro-
environment behaviours. Parents choosing cloth nappies did so initially because they were more
environment-friendly and cost-effective and disposables were disliked. Once using cloth, parents noted
additional benefits: performance, fashion, formation of bonds with other users, and getting a buzz out of
using them. This reinforced their reasons for continued use.
Practical implications: Cloth nappies are unlikely to gain mass appeal, but findings suggest a bigger take up
if parents are better informed, and subsidies are provided to reduce set-up and laundering costs to tackle the
‘ease of use’ barrier. The positive aspects of cloth nappies should be better promoted.
Social implications: Marketing initiatives need to buy into the current ‘designer parents’ trend and play to
the aspirational, fashionable aspects of cloth nappies.
Originality/value: This paper, the first to report on parental attitudes and decisions regarding both nappy
types, could inform public policy and marketing decisions.
Keywords: Parental attitudes, public policy, marketing, young consumers, environmentally friendly
For internal production use only
Running Heads:
Running head: ASSESSING PARENTS’ DECISIONS TO USE CLOTH OR
DISPOSABLE NAPPIES
1
Abstract
Purpose: The present research investigated parental attitudes towards using either
cloth or disposable nappies, to better understand whether and how pro-cloth initiatives
might impact parental decisions.
Design/Methodology/Approach: Focus groups were conducted with both cloth and
disposable nappy users to gain a better understanding of the factors that underlie their
choice. Interviews were analyzed using Thematic Analysis.
Findings: Parents using disposable nappies believed they were marketed as offering a
popular, efficient, healthy, good value system. They acknowledged the environmental
impact but rationalised this by referring to (a) the equivocal nature of these
consequences, and (b) the ability to off-set this by engaging in other pro-environment
behaviours. Parents choosing cloth nappies did so initially because they were more
environment-friendly and cost-effective and disposables were disliked. Once using
cloth, parents noted additional benefits: performance, fashion, formation of bonds
with other users, and getting a buzz out of using them. This reinforced their reasons
for continued use.
Practical implications: Cloth nappies are unlikely to gain mass appeal, but findings
suggest a bigger take up if parents are better informed, and subsidies are provided to
reduce set-up and laundering costs to tackle the ‘ease of use’ barrier. The positive
aspects of cloth nappies should be better promoted.
Social implications: Marketing initiatives need to buy into the current ‘designer
parents’ trend and play to the aspirational, fashionable aspects of cloth nappies.
Originality/value: This paper, the first to report on parental attitudes and decisions
regarding both nappy types, could inform public policy and marketing decisions.
Running head: ASSESSING PARENTS’ DECISIONS TO USE CLOTH OR
DISPOSABLE NAPPIES
2
1. Introduction
First-time parents can feel overwhelmed whilst preparing for their new baby.
New parents are bombarded with marketing messages that foster the acquisition of a
great deal of baby-related ‘stuff’, all marketed as products to make them better,
happier parents (and by association, raising better, happier children; Paul, 2008).
Parents are certainly spending on such items. In 2008, UK parents spent £23 million a
week on baby equipment, baby toiletries and prams/pushchairs (“Family Spending,”
2009).
Amongst this confusing array of choices, the baby market boasts an array of
products for environmentally concerned parents such as organic bedding, food and
formula (Paul, 2008). With so much to consider, it is unclear whether environmental
concerns greatly impact on parents’ purchasing decisions. Although entire books are
devoted to the topic of Green Parenting, their appeal is less widespread in comparison
to more general parenting books (based on Amazon sales and popularity). If they do
dwell on such issues, parents may find themselves in an environmental impasse,
seeking to leave a positive environmental legacy to their children, yet aware that the
very act of having children carries an environmental cost.
One environmental factor to consider is whether to use cloth or disposable
nappies. This is also an issue for local councils considering whether and how it may
be feasible to reduce landfill by promoting greater use of cloth nappies. In the present
research, we investigate parents’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviour regarding both
types to better understand the reasons that underlie their decisions.
1.1 Disposable nappies
Disposable nappies are discarded after use with the household waste, whilst cloth
nappies are laundered and re-used. They are convenient, do not need laundering, are
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DISPOSABLE NAPPIES
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readily available and can be purchased as required, avoiding financial outlay (as is
usually the case with cloth nappies; Uzzell and Leach, 2003). Modern manufacturing
techniques also ensure that disposable nappies are slim, dry and comfortable (Nappy
Information Service). Parents may also choose disposables because of their visible
media presence, especially from larger manufacturers. In addition to high profile TV
campaigns, other marketing methods are employed (e.g., free samples, articles by
child experts). This, coupled with the fact that so many parents use them (e.g., recent
estimates suggest 96.4% market penetration for disposable nappies; Aumonier et al.,
2008) makes disposables the obvious choice.
The major disadvantage of using disposable nappies is their environmental
impact. Around three billion disposable nappies are thrown away every year in the
UK (Lee, 2005). Analysis of UK landfill suggests that disposable nappies still occupy
four per cent of the contents of household landfill waste (Uzzell and Leach, 2003).
Where there is a baby in a family, up to half of the household rubbish may be nappies.
It is not yet known how long disposable nappies take to decompose in landfill: A
minimum estimate suggests up to 200 years (Poyzer, 2005). The disposal of nappies
can account for up to a million pounds of an average-sized local authority UK budget.
New alternatives are being seriously considered (“Pollution issues: Landfill and
nappies,” 2010). Other methods of nappy disposal, such as nappy recycling plants, are
not yet widely available in the UK (Aumonier et al., 2008).
1.2 Cloth nappies
Are cloth nappies a serious contender in this fight to reduce landfill? For most
people, cloth nappies conjure up images of bulky towelling squares soaking in
buckets of smelly chemicals, rubber pants, and endless laundering. In fact, cloth
nappies have evolved significantly in recent years, in terms of design, function and
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DISPOSABLE NAPPIES
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variety. They are now slimmer, easier to care for and more absorbent. Cloth
aficionados argue that the benefits of such nappies include reliability, long term
financial savings, health benefits, enhanced comfort, environmental gains, and
potential for earlier toilet training (Hall, 2008).
Cloth nappies do not contribute to landfill, can be reused for multiple children
and thereafter become cleaning cloths, ultimately saving money. If washing at home,
the average cost of using cloth nappies is generally cheaper than using disposables
(Hall, 2008; Poyzer, 2005). Commercial nappy laundering services may be
considered, too, offering delivery of clean nappies and laundering of used nappies at a
similar price to that of using disposables (Hall, 2008).
The disadvantages of using cloth nappies focus on inconvenience, resources
consumed in laundering them, and initial cost. Most cloth nappies take longer to
change and may be less practical when out and about. Also, it is generally necessary
to change cloth nappies slightly more often than disposables (Uzzell and Leach,
2003). Parents may be put off by the financial outlay, and as there is limited High
Street availability, most of the nappy shopping is done on-line which may seem risky.
1.3 The environmental evidence
Some have argued that cloth nappies are a more environmentally friendly
option. However, this is a debatable issue. An initial Environment Agency (EA)
lifecycle analysis (LCA) concluded that there was no difference between the green
credentials of cloth and disposables once one considered production and laundering
(Aumonier and Collins, 2005). The criticism this report provoked led to an updated
LCA being commissioned which better accounted for modern laundering methods
(Aumonier et al., 2008). This latter report concluded that the environmental impact of
cloth nappies was dependent upon how they are laundered. In contrast to disposable
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nappies, impact could be substantially reduced. Judicious laundering practices (line
drying where possible, avoiding tumble drying, choosing ‘A’ rated appliances, not
washing above 60 degrees, using fuller loads and reusing nappies on subsequent
children) significantly reduced environmental impact. Combining just three of these
practices reduced global impact by 40% from the baseline scenario [1]
So, the most recent evidence suggests parents can reduce global impact by
using cloth nappies, but to do so effectively, they must engage in certain practices that
may not be convenient, feasible or affordable. For example, line drying outside may
be impossible without access to a garden, and those in confined living quarters may
feel further compromised by drying nappies indoors. Purchasing an energy efficient
washing machine may be too expensive for those with limited budgets. Realistically,
then, this more recent evidence suggests in many cases there is no environmental gain
for using cloth, at least not without a concomitant degree of pain (be this time, effort,
cost or sacrifice in space). It may not be suit everyone, even if they consider
themselves pro-environment.
It is perhaps understandable, then, that most parents are motivated to change
some behaviours to help the environment, but not the type of nappy they use. For
example, the proportion of recycled household waste per person in the UK increased
from 6% in 1995/6 to 34% in 2007/8 (Defra, 2008). It is difficult to get precise figures
for use of cloth nappies, but although a modestly growing trend, it is not showing the
same proportional increase (steady rates of around 5% nationwide; Nappy
Information Service). Is it realistic to expect this to change in future?
Inspection of the extant literature within environmental psychology would
suggest such realism may be justified. A number of researchers have suggested, for
example, that the Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB; Ajzen, 1991) can be usefully
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applied to environmental attitudes and behaviour to help explain why they do not
always correspond. Specifically, one factor that may be very important in determining
whether an environmentally-linked behaviour is carried out is Perceived Behavioural
Control (PBC; Balderjahn, 1988; Barr and Gilg, 2007; Sparks and Shepherd, 1992;
Schwepker and Cornwell, 1991). If, logistically, a behaviour is perceived to be
problematic (e.g., too much time or effort of cost required) then it is significantly less
likely to be enacted. This might be relevant in the present context where the
prevailing viewpoint is that cloth nappies are rather more labour intensive to use.
Other theoretical approaches may also be applicable. Factors such as
differences in one’s intrinsic motives for doing environmental good (De Young,
1986), the perception that one believe’s one’s behaviour will actually impact tangibly
on the environment (response efficacy; see Roberts, 1996), the perceived threat if one
does not act responsibly towards the environment (Baldassare and Katz, 1992), the
role of social influence in determining environmental behaviours (Lam, 1999) and the
degree to which a person feels obligated to take personal responsibility for addressing
environmental concerns (Nancarrow et al., 1996-7) all seem potentially applicable
theoretical approaches which may inform the present topic. Such factors may prove
helpful in understanding the pattern of data that emerges. However, given the
qualitative nature of this research in a new environmental domain, it would be
imprudent to allow such research to influence the exploratory manner in which data
are collected.
The present research
There has been little prior academic research in this precise area, and to our
knowledge, none that has involved established cloth nappy users. Uzzell and Leach
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(2003) investigated cloth nappy uptake at a hospital maternity unit and their continued
use by participants at home. They concluded that several factors might promote
greater use of cloth nappies: (i) cloth demonstrations at antenatal classes; (ii)
promoting the convenience of modern cloth nappies; (iii) providing alternatives to
disposables in hospital; (iv) valuing small changes, such as using cloth occasionally;
(v) developing incentive schemes, to help with initial outlay; (vi) designing
campaigns to show the impact of just one baby in disposables upon landfill; (vii)
improving information sources. However, this work highlighted the need for further
research on perceived barriers and how these might be overcome.
This is the focus for the present research. Gaining an insight into the factors
promoting or inhibiting the uptake of cloth nappies will provide valuable information,
not least to policy-makers, regarding the viability of reducing landfill in this way. By
including parents using cloth nappies as well as disposables, the present research
seeks to better understand what such barriers are, and to realistically assess the
viability of overcoming them. Thematic Analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006) will be
used to gain a holistic insight into the factors influencing the decision to use
disposable or cloth nappies.
2. Method
2.1 Participants
Participants were all female, aged between 26 and 40 years, and were sourced
via toddler groups, friends, local National Childbirth Trust (NCT) groups, midwives,
word of mouth at various locations within the South West of England and via online
baby discussion forums. Educational status ranged from GCSE standard (school
examinations taken at age sixteen) to degree level. Disposable nappy users (n = 19)
had at least one child under the age of three. Cloth nappy users (n = 16) either had at
Running head: ASSESSING PARENTS’ DECISIONS TO USE CLOTH OR
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least one child already under the age of three (n = 13) or were pregnant with their first
child (n = 3).
2.2 Procedure
Focus groups were chosen rather than individual interviews because in groups
participants can provide checks on each other to weed out extreme information
(Patton, 2002). Group interviews also stimulate the respondents to broaden the topic
and correspond well to how opinions are expressed and exchanged in everyday life
(Flick, 2006). It was not felt that the present research topic (nappy type) would cause
participants discomfort in a group setting.
Following an initial willingness to participate (as expressed via email),
participants were contacted via email to arrange times for the focus group discussions.
After obtaining informed consent, six focus groups took place in a local Church hall
(ns between three and four participants; all were disposable users), two took place in
the participants’ homes (ns = one and two; all were disposable users), two (cloth
nappy users/advocates) took place online (using Meebo interactive software; ns =
eight and five; three were pregnant), and one (cloth nappy users; n = three) took place
at a local field studies centre. With the exception of one participant who was
interviewed alone (since other members of the group failed to turn up), groups ranged
in size from two to eight participants.
The face-to-face focus groups each lasted for about an hour and a half, with a
fifteen minute break midway. The discussions were recorded using a tape recorder
and microphone. General introductory questions were asked initially, to make
participants comfortable prior to the group discussion. A semi-structured topic guide
was employed, which covered the following themes: (i) experience of using
disposable/cloth nappies; (ii) economic factors; (iii) health factors; (iv) knowledge of
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9
alternatives; (v) situational factors; (vi) being green; (vii) identity. Such an approach
is flexible enough to allow the researcher to explore participants’ answers and thus
provide a solid foundation for this type of interpretive inquiry (Charmaz, 2006).
The on-line focus group sessions lasted for about an hour and a half. The data
were collected by one of the researchers who acted as the focus group moderator and
an assistant whose duty it was to copy and save the data. The same semi-structured
questioning format was adopted.
2.3 Using thematic analysis
Thematic analysis (TA) was the chosen research tool. TA is a qualitative
method that enables the researcher to identify, analyse and report patterns (themes)
within a data set and organize/describe the data in some detail (Braun and Clarke,
2006). TA can be “…an essentialist or realist method, which reports experiences,
meanings and the reality of participants, or … a constructionist method, which
examines the ways in which events, realities, meanings, experiences and so on are the
effects of a range of discourses operating within society” (Braun and Clarke, 2006, p.
81). The essentialist/realist method is well-suited to the present broad research topic
because we are not interested in the structure of arguments and discourse but rather
how participants made choices and how their expectancies and experiences informed
their decisions.
2.4 Analysis
Data from the face-to-face sessions were transcribed prior to analysis and were
comparable in transcription terms with data from the online focus groups. The latter
did not require transcription as the full text was available immediately after the
sessions. All material was analysed using TA. This involved the following phases:
familiarising oneself with the data; generating initial codes (Boyatzis, 1998);
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searching for themes (collating codes into potential themes); reviewing themes;
defining and naming themes (Braun and Clarke, 2006).
The coding process was ‘data driven’ rather than ‘theory driven’ since (as is
typical in this type of exploratory qualitative research) we had no a priori theoretical
questions to drive the coding process (cf. Kidd, 2002). Coding was over-inclusive
initially, to ensure potentially interesting data were not lost early on. To arrive at
suitable themes, consideration was given to the way codes/themes could relate to each
other, and the extent to which there were broader, overarching themes that captured
larger amounts of the data (Braun and Clarke, 2006). At this stage marginal themes
were rejected and others were collapsed into one unifying theme to better account for
their overall contribution.
Closer analysis of the types of themes emerging within each group type (e.g.,
cloth or disposable nappy advocates) and within groups containing either users or
users and pregnant mothers suggested that the core differences that emerged were a
function of cloth nappy preference as opposed to whether participants were currently
or about to use a particular type of nappy. Whilst we acknowledge it is very different
having idealised ideas versus actual experience of using nappies after the birth, we
feel confident that this was not an issue in the present data set. This is evidenced by
the fact that participants using or about to use a particular nappy type generated
broadly similar themes.
With regards possible differences between data collected online and offline, it
was important also to establish if one could merge the data from both sources
successfully. We note that online methods have certain issues surrounding loss of
face-to-face-dynamics, lack of non-verbal inputs, technical issues and so on that fully
interacting focus groups may not (for a full discussion see Hughes and Lang, 2004).
Running head: ASSESSING PARENTS’ DECISIONS TO USE CLOTH OR
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Certainly the online groups contributed shorter comments (see Schneider et al., 2002)
but as noted by other researchers, the data were nonetheless very rich and the overlap
in terms of themes generated was very high (see also Hughes and Lang, 2004). Given
these observations, and the emergence of several core themes common to both users,
then, the decision was made to combine the data into one thematic map which
accurately represented the meanings that arose and appropriately highlighted the
tensions within themes.
3. Results
The thematic map displayed in Figure 1 represents the dominant themes that
emerged . These comprised: Cloth ‘push factors’ (reasons that led people to decide
against using cloth); cloth ‘pull factors’ (reasons that led people to consider using
cloth); cloth ‘stay factors’ (a category that applied only to the cloth users and
encompassed their reasons for staying with cloth nappies after trying them initially;
and cloth push/pull/stay factors. This last theme reflects the existence of arguments or
factors that could be deployed to support either side (that is, factors that could work as
push or pull factors, and sometimes also stay factors). Participants are identified as
cloth or disposable advocates by either C or D appearing after their names, and in
addition, by P if pregnant.
3.1 Cloth push factors
These included such issues as convenience, perceived health benefits,
marketing, and the difficulties of sourcing cloth nappies. Disposable users wanted a
nappy that was efficient and easy to use. Disposables fit the bill, whereas cloth
nappies were thought to require more time and planning, for example for laundry runs
and trips out. Disposables were more convenient, for example, Terri (D) noted:
Running head: ASSESSING PARENTS’ DECISIONS TO USE CLOTH OR
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Today I just grabbed a couple of nappies and that was basically it, just up and go. But
with the cloth you have to remember absolutely everything.
These pragmatic considerations seemed to trump even the concerns of
participants like Claire (D) who ‘ideally’ wanted to use cloth, but said that the time
involved had put her off. Other factors included various types of ‘hassle’ such as
having to tell others how to use them when mothers were already ‘physically and
psychologically worn out’ (Terri; D), and the unwillingness of day care staff to
change them (e.g., Jessica said that her local nursery regarded cloth nappies as ‘a
pain’; D).
Cloth nappy users (e.g., Mary; C) also noted that it was a challenge when
away from home, especially on holidays or if staying with people without children,
and doing laundry could just be another hassle:
I think there are days when you have no sleep and you know you are completely
knackered and for whatever one reason or another you haven’t had the chance to get
the washing done or there are days when you can’t get them dry, there are days when
your last resort is to use disposables. (Mary; C)
In addition, those using disposables expressed concern that their newborn
babies needed a soft nappy. One participant (Hannah; D) felt that line drying would
make the fabric ‘so rough’ but that one could not use conditioner as this would reduce
the nappy’s absorbency. Disposable users also thought that cloth nappies would cause
nappy rash, due to the wet fabric touching the skin, though they seemed unconcerned
about the chemical content of disposable nappies, placing their trust in manufacturers’
safety checks:
I just think well they wouldn’t be allowed to do them…if there was anything harmful
in them. (Jessica; D)
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This trusting attitude was especially noteworthy with reference to the leading
brands. The market leader was seen as the optimal choice. This made such brands
very influential, as first time parents wanted to do their very best:
I’ve gone for brands like (two market leaders) as well knowing that they’re good for
her. (Hannah; D)
The heavy media presence and marketing methods of well-known brands were
frequently mentioned as ‘hooking’ participants from the outset via free samples given
to new mothers in hospital. Thereafter, the campaign was maintained via money-off
vouchers through the post and email newsletters. In stark contrast to this prominent
marketing, such deals were not apparent for cloth nappies. There was no standardised
provision of information regarding cloth nappies and no obvious attempts at
marketing. Facts such as whether the local council provided financial incentives for
using cloth nappies, or the availability of nappy laundering services were not widely
known. Most participants had received some information either from antenatal
classes, the NCT, breastfeeding groups or a cloth nappy agent, but, as Rachel (D)
said:
… with terry nappies you have to actually make the effort to phone a terry nappy rep
to come and give you a demonstration of them.
Additionally, there was a perceived lack of information about how cloth
nappies have improved. Cloth nappy participants observed that there is not enough
information to guide new starters, making the process daunting. As Jane (CP) noted:
‘You’re making a bit of a blind decision in some ways which makes it such a big
decision’. This also highlights the perceived risk of engaging in a potentially large
outlay for cloth nappies when the advantages of using them are uncertain. Participants
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14
claimed they accessed information from three sources: family, internet and local
councils.
Given the lack of information and marketing efforts for cloth nappies it is
perhaps unsurprising that cloth nappy participants had encountered misconceptions,
such as the amount of work involved:
…my friends…keep on telling me ‘Why on earth are you doing this?’, I’m making
work for myself and of course you’re going to think like that if your experience of
cloth nappies is having to boil them up and washing them at these high temperatures
all of which you don’t have to do. (Heather; C)
Some cloth users also noted a widespread belief that using a more
environmentally friendly product inevitably involved spending more money with less
efficient results, yet Danni (C) had found cloth nappies ‘cheaper, efficient and
environmentally friendly’.
Some of the misconceptions about cloth nappies were partially fuelled by their
relative invisibility on the high street, which meant that most were purchased online.
This excludes those who do not use the internet, do not make on-line purchases, or do
not know about cloth nappy websites. Also there was concern from cloth nappy
participants that the limited varieties stocked by high street stores were not always the
best, creating the impression that cloth nappies are inferior. One cloth user, Danni (C),
felt that many mothers were unaware of the ‘array of choice’ of cloth nappies on the
internet. She knew people who had bought from the high street stores but ‘they didn’t
work so they stopped using them and turned to disposables’. In addition, after-sales
care and support from high street retailers was less evident compared to that received
from cloth nappy agents.
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Overall, then, factors that ‘push’ parents away from cloth nappies included
inconvenience, time and effort, availability, others’ reactions, and misconceptions
about the perceived disadvantages. These, combined with the promotion of
disposables and a lack of clear alternatives made disposable nappies the obvious
option. So why did some parents choose differently? We turn next to the cloth ‘pull’
factors.
3.2 Cloth pull factors
There were several additional cloth ‘pull’ factors raised by the cloth nappy
users (e.g., environmental concerns and value for money) that are not included under
this heading as these arguments were also deployed to support the use of disposable
nappies. We discuss these issues in the ‘cloth push/pull/stay’ factors section. Indeed,
while there were several distinct factors that seem to push parents away from using
cloth nappies, the only overall distinct pull factor to emerge was a dislike of
disposables.
This dislike related to several perceived disadvantages of disposables. First,
disposable nappies were regarded by cloth nappy users as unattractive, and full of
chemicals: e.g., Holly (C): ‘The chemicals in disposables - exposure to them and the
smell!’ Although most cloth users had used disposables, either before moving on to
cloth ones, or whilst on holiday, their experiences were negative. Complaints ranged
from excrement ‘explosions’ to more frequent nappy rash. Such experiences had been
instrumental in getting them to consider cloth.
Cloth push/pull/stay factors
In this section we find arguments about cost and environmental impact of
nappy choices being used to support both types of nappy. We also discuss the impact
of perceived social norms, social support, and the burden of choice.
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First is the issue of cost. Many disposable users were deterred from using cloth
due to the initial costs. As noted, participants thought that the large outlay was too
risky if they might decide later they did not like them, e.g., Fiona (D): ‘You’re not
going to spend all that money on something that you don’t know’. The perceived cost
of washing was also off-putting, as Terri (D) pointed out: ‘it’s not just the terry
towels, it’s the cleaning fluid and buckets and all those things which you don’t even
think of.’ On the other hand, the cloth nappy users felt that they could work out
cheaper long term. This view was also noted (if not acted upon) by some of the
disposable users who acknowledged that disposables were expensive. Most cloth
nappy participants mentioned the poor value of disposables as being an important
factor. For example, Cherie (C) argued that cloth nappies were ‘excellent value for
money.’ In a similar vein, Joanne (C) said ‘I guess my current collection has saved me
about £300 versus disposables.’
Consideration of the environment took a number of forms. Common among
disposable users was a sense of environmental ambivalence. However, the norm was
so overwhelmingly in the direction of using disposable nappies that – as Terri (D) said
– ‘What difference am I really going to make if I don’t use them?’ Some, such as
Jenny (D), also argued that there was ‘not actually that much difference between the
two anyway after washing and tumble drying.’
Among those who did feel guilty, some felt there were easier ways to offset
their carbon footprint (e.g., recycling) and that local council initiatives to improve
kerbside recycling facilities reduced the imperative to use cloth nappies. Rachel (D)
felt it was ‘not so big an issue now as it used to be’ before kerbside recycling. Helen
(D) had an alternative way of off-setting her environmental footprint.:
Running head: ASSESSING PARENTS’ DECISIONS TO USE CLOTH OR
DISPOSABLE NAPPIES
17
I’ve started buying free-range chicken to help the environment and organic farmers
so I don’t feel quite so bad using disposables now.
Some disposable users acknowledged the landfill issues associated with using
disposables, especially when putting out the rubbish: ‘I knew that probably a good
bag full was just of nappies’ and ‘it does play on your mind’ (Frances; D). But even
those who thought that cloth nappies might be more environmentally friendly felt that
this was not sufficient to stop them using disposables which were undeniably
convenient. As Helen (D) pointed out: ‘at the end of the day I’m too busy having
three children to look after to worry about that.’
Among cloth users, though, the environment was a significant motivation for
their decision. Shocked by the ‘huge bin bags full of nappies’ that Jane (C) saw at
friends’ houses she thought ‘there was no way I was going to use disposables when I
had my baby.’ For her, the initial decision to use cloth was tied to her general attitude
towards recycling: ‘I try to recycle whenever I can, you know I like all my actions to
impact positively on the environment in all areas.’
One of the key factors influencing the choice of nappy was the perceived
norms of groups with whom participants identified. Thus, some participants were
motivated to use disposable nappies because they felt reassured by using what most
other modern day mothers appeared to have chosen:
Most people nowadays do use disposables so it must show something about how good
they are (Maria; D)
Equally, disposable nappy users felt they had little in common with cloth
nappy users, who were seen as something of an outgroup. They tended to be
stereotyped as ‘hippy’, National Childbirth Trust members who were highly ethical
and advocated prolonged breastfeeding. For example, Claire (D) mentioned a friend
Running head: ASSESSING PARENTS’ DECISIONS TO USE CLOTH OR
DISPOSABLE NAPPIES
18
who used cloth: ‘she was that type of person, into the environment, had an
Aga…grew their own vegetables and organic type of people.’
Disposable users were influenced by friends and family. Most knew of at least
one other friend/family member who used cloth nappies, and they considered their
opinions, even if they themselves eventually chose disposables. Cloth nappy users
were also supported by friends or other cloth users. In Jane’s (C) case it was her
sister-in-law ‘that got me into using cloth nappies.’ In fact, few cloth users made their
decision unilaterally. A significant other was consulted and their support (or lack of)
was important to their decision. For example, Danni (C) said she had seen three
people give up using cloth nappies:
and in all cases it’s been because their partners have not been supportive and it’s
not just been that they’ve not been supportive, but they’ve been actively discouraging
the use of these cloth nappies.’
Among cloth nappy users, support was found online in discussion fora, and via
advice from nappy related websites. This was important for Joanne (C), who said she
would not have been able to get support ‘in the real world’ as she knew so few other
users ‘face-to-face’. In areas of the country where cloth uptake is higher (as was the
case for some of the focus groups in this sample) support in the local community was
noted as helpful. As Mary (C) commented:
‘We happen to live in an area where cloth nappies are not unusual to use, you’re not
particularly alone.’
Another factor was deciding what nappy to use. Cloth nappies come in many
varieties, and this could serve as a potential barrier. For Alison (D), the huge choice
available on the internet left her ‘bewildered’ so she ended up using disposables.
However, although the huge variety could be daunting at first, many cloth users
Running head: ASSESSING PARENTS’ DECISIONS TO USE CLOTH OR
DISPOSABLE NAPPIES
19
agreed that the wide range could be a benefit, allowing them to customise style,
colour and fit in a way that was not possible with disposables. Mary (C) was
especially enthusiastic:
I think they are fantastic, absolutely brilliant…I just find cloth nappies ideal, you
know some less absorbent ones during the day and some heavy absorbent ones during
the night..
3.3 Cloth stay factors
There were several factors that tended to make cloth users stay with their
choice. For many, the performance of cloth nappies had exceeded their initial
expectations. Cloth users had not necessarily expected superior reliability and
efficiency, but found them just as efficient, if not more so, than disposables.
Another factor was fashion. Some cloth users were ‘hooked’ by this and
felt it was a major reason why people stay with cloth. The fashion aspect of cloth
nappies was a decided selling point, and participants noted that it could even overtake
the other ‘plus’ factors given the trend towards fashionable clothing for babies. Jane
(C) commented that ‘most people don’t know about’ the fact that some cloth nappy
designs ‘are quite trendy’. Several noted that cloth nappies were no longer just a
utilitarian product but more of a fashion item, for example, Mary (C) :
Now you can get matching dresses to match the nappy and you can get sets of
accessories and they are all matching, it’s become a consumer, you know, commodity.
We have already noted the social support that both cloth and disposable nappy
users received from the groups with whom they interacted or identified. For the cloth
users, especially those involved in the on-line fora, the social bonds could become
quite strong. Perhaps as a result of misconceptions about cloth and the negative
stereotype of cloth nappy users, participants suggested that they often turn to each
Running head: ASSESSING PARENTS’ DECISIONS TO USE CLOTH OR
DISPOSABLE NAPPIES
20
other for support and information. This desire to ‘meet’ other cloth nappy users, either
online or (rarely) in the local community (at cloth nappy events known as
‘Nappucinos’) appeared to make the bonds even stronger. For example, Harriet (C)
said she felt ‘passionate about it in a way only another clothie can understand.’
Indeed, some participants even described themselves as ‘addicted’ to cloth
nappies. The kind of addiction referred to here concerns a process by which cloth
nappy use, in certain individuals, seemed to have evolved into an almost compulsive
pattern of cloth nappy-seeking and purchase consumption. Some participants
expressed a burning need to buy a particular nappy or to talk to others about their
nappy collection. Some referred to the ‘buzz’ they experienced when undertaking
these behaviours. The buzz was akin to that derived from more conventional ‘retail
therapy’. Danni (C) summed it up as follows:
I love them because they are beautiful and the icing on the cake is that I’m saving
hundreds and hundreds of pounds and so yeah, rightly I do feel quite smug and I think
that’s why I love them, that’s why I get a buzz out of them. (Danni)
4. Discussion
4.1 Cloth push factors: Can they realistically be overcome?
Although one must be careful generalising from our sample (in terms of size
and age range), the findings highlight several issues. Some tie in well with prior
research in the environmental domain, and where this is the case, the links will be
clearly drawn. Among our disposable users, many of the reasons advanced for their
decision are understandable. A change in behaviour seems unlikely. Although cloth
nappies have moved on, disposables were considered to be more efficient, convenient
and healthy (see Uzzell and Leach, 2003). The war on landfill waste, it seems, may
Running head: ASSESSING PARENTS’ DECISIONS TO USE CLOTH OR
DISPOSABLE NAPPIES
21
not be easily won via a mass conversion to cloth nappies. If councils are still keen to
pursue this route, there are several lessons that may be learned from the present data.
First, many parents-to-be are confused about cloth nappies and misconceptions
abound. Attempts to routinely provide unbiased information as part of the antenatal
education process are recommended. Even cloth nappy users admitted that they
struggled to get impartial information. Such information might include accurate data
on: environmental issues; ease of use; health aspects; ways of spreading/reducing the
cost and home/nappy laundering service options. In this way, parents can make
informed decisions.
Councils need also to recognise that enthusiastic claims about cloth nappies
now being easier cut little ice with today’s parent. Cloth nappies may be easier, but
they are still less convenient than disposables. So, what can be done? The Theory of
Planned Behaviour (TBP; Ajzen, 1991) suggests that behaviour is determined by the
intention to engage in the behaviour, which includes one’s Perceived Behavioural
Control (PBC). PBC refers to the extent to which an individual considers that
performing a particular behaviour is under volitional control. This factor appears
especially relevant with regards using cloth nappies. The hassle of laundering cloth
nappies was a turn-off for many. Although home laundering is easier, the burden of
extra nappy washing is a major issue for busy parents. This may be complicated
further by childcare providers preferring disposables (Uzzell and Leach, 2003).
High PBC is a significant predictor of other parenting decisions (e.g.,
intentions to breastfeed; McMillan et al., 2009). Similarly, environmental decisions
are closely related to the ease/convenience/availability of relevant facilities
(Balderjahn, 1988; Barr, 2004; Barr and Gilg, 2007; Sparks and Shepherd, 1992;
Schwepker and Connell, 1991). A perception that one is simply not able to use cloth
Running head: ASSESSING PARENTS’ DECISIONS TO USE CLOTH OR
DISPOSABLE NAPPIES
22
nappies (because of time constraints, lifestyle, or childcare options for example) may
equate to low PBC and act as a barrier to engaging in such behaviour. Eliminating this
barrier is difficult, since lifestyle commitments do not often diminish post-natally. A
more fruitful approach may be better promotion of, and local council subsidies for,
nappy laundering services. However, such services may be limited to urban
postcodes, and may be expensive to implement (though this may be offset somewhat
by reduced landfill bills). It has yet to be demonstrated, too, that nappy laundering
services are an environmentally sound alternative.
PBC may also be relevant in the context of getting support for using cloth.
Cloth nappy users noted that it was difficult to find good cloth nappies (and support)
offline, which can create a barrier. To counteract this, efforts to widen the range of
cloth nappies available on the high street, and ensure staff are fully trained, are
recommended. This might increase PBC by affording prospective and current users of
cloth nappies opportunities for ‘real life’ support and information. Better promotion of
local cloth nappy agents (who can aid in nappy selection and provide after sales
support) and Nappucinos (meetings for cloth users) are also recommended.
The disposable brand leaders engage in heavy marketing of their products, and
this was a cloth push factor (see also Short and Harvey, 2008). Incentives that
provided free samples and money off disposables helped sway participants. Similar
information and incentives for cloth nappies were not available. Learning from this,
one might increase the availability of free samples/reduced prices for cloth nappy kits.
Where cloth nappy retailers have trialled a free sample option, the resultant increase
in sales and exposure have more than offset the costs. The initiative is cheaper than
equivalent advertising in parenting magazines (V.Scordellis, personal communication,
May 28, 2009; see also Bawa and Shoemaker, 2004). It also provides hands-on
Running head: ASSESSING PARENTS’ DECISIONS TO USE CLOTH OR
DISPOSABLE NAPPIES
23
experience with cloth nappies as well as a cheaper mode of reaching large numbers of
people.
4.2 Push/pull/stay factors: Understandable ambivalence
Several factors seemed to work variously as cloth push, pull or stay factors.
Importantly, this was most evident for factors cloth nappy users considered to be
unambiguously ‘pull’ factors (e.g., environment and cost). For cloth users, the
environment was a key reason for using cloth, and was a subject about which they
were well-informed. This ties in with Uzzell and Leach’s (2003) findings that when
waste is deemed an important issue, and there is good understanding of landfill issues,
such factors are strongly predictive of cloth nappy use.
Additionally, there was evidence of a strong affective connectivity with
environmental issues, a strong environmental identity and concomitant positive
environmental attitudes. Recent research has demonstrated that these factors, both
independently and in concert, have important explanatory power within
environmental psychology (Hinds and Sparks, 2008; Kals and Maes, 2002; Stets and
Biga, 2003). The decision to use cloth seemed entirely bound up with cloth nappy
users’ feelings towards and identity with the environment. However, such pro-
environmental feelings/identities encompass only a minority of parents. What of the
majority of parents who acknowledge that the environment matters but do not live
their lives by these principles?
For disposable users, tensions were observed about the environmental value-
action gap. This tension is pervasive within research on environmental attitudes and
behaviour (Barr, 2004, 2006; Kristiansen and Hotte, 1996; Peattie, 2001; Peattie,
2010). The present data sit well with research that has suggested that people may be
disinclined to act out environmentally-friendly behaviours because they feel their
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DISPOSABLE NAPPIES
24
small contribution will make little difference on a bigger scale (Roberts, 1996), or
because they are not sufficiently clear or convinced about the perceived threat of
climate change to make changes within their own lifestyle (Baldassare and Katz,
1992).
However, although many disposable users felt the environmental issue was
unclear, others experienced guilt about landfill. Uzzell and Leach (2003) found that
parents in their sample dabbled in certain waste reduction behaviours but not others.
In the present research, there was evidence that parents used these other types of
behaviours (e.g., recycling) to assuage feelings of guilt and offset their decision to use
disposables.
This action fits with Steele’s (1988) self-affirmation theory, which proposes
that engaging in undesirable behaviour (e.g., actions that increase landfill such as
using disposables) results in threats to the self, and that people are motivated to
restore self-worth via affirming alternative sources of their self-integrity. By
demonstrating their commitment to other environmental aspects, people realise that
their self-worth does not hinge upon the evaluative implications of using disposables
alone. As a result, the self-threat is diminished, and the impetus to continue the
behaviour persists. Rather than self-affirmation perpetuating disposable nappy use,
one might consider ways of harnessing people’s desires to self-affirm to increase cloth
nappy use. For example, one message worth promoting is that using a blend of
disposable and cloth nappies can work well and would help reduce landfill waste
(Uzzell and Leach, 2003).
Perceived subjective norms were an important reason for using disposables.
Although several disposable users said they knew of others who used cloth, such
examples conformed to prevailing stereotypes about cloth nappy users as hippy types.
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DISPOSABLE NAPPIES
25
These were not role models they felt they could identify with. The cloth nappy
community is likely more diverse. Many use cloth for environmental reasons, others
may be more concerned about cost, perceived health benefits or the fashion aspect.
Council marketing initiatives that provide more diverse role models with whom
parents can identify (i.e., credible ingroup members; Turner, 1991) and who are
similar to them (Roskos-Ewoldsen and Fazio, 1992) may be more influential.
Allied to subjective norms, disposable users mostly took the view that there
was safety in numbers: the high proportion of disposable users provided reassurance
that disposables are probably a safe and sensible option. Hence the role of social
influence in determining environmental behaviours was also a factor emerging in our
data (see also Lam, 1999)
The value for money factor revealed differing viewpoints. Cloth nappies were
deemed risky because of upfront outlay with no guarantees about suitability. To
alleviate this uncertainty, there could be more opportunities for parents to sample
cloth nappy trial kits (as offered by some local councils), on maternity wards (Uzzell
and Leach, 2003) or to attend demonstrations (as offered by some antenatal classes).
Such initiatives would enable parents to make more informed choices (Uzzell and
Leach, 2003).
4.3 Stay factors: Selling the benefits
Perhaps the most surprising findings relate to cloth nappy users’ experiences
of using cloth. Most used cloth because they disliked disposables, in terms of
performance and environmental impact. However, the cloth stay factors provide some
insights into positive aspects of cloth nappy use which could be disseminated more
widely. To the surprise of many, the performance of cloth nappies generally exceeded
their expectations, often working better than disposables. The variety, which could be
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DISPOSABLE NAPPIES
26
a barrier initially, was a selling point as users became familiar with different options
and realised that they could customise fit, absorbency, colour and style.
With the increase in marketing initiatives geared at the new parents market
(Betts, 2006; Paul, 2008) it may be timely to better publicise these aspects. Cloth
nappy literature tends to emphasise environmental benefits (e.g., use of bamboo as a
sustainable fabric). As noted, though, the stereotype of cloth nappy users as eco-
friendly hippies proved alienating to the disposable users, who were often ambivalent
about environmental impact. Similarly, messages that reiterate environmental benefits
may be ineffectual. There is a potentially new market which values looks, style and
designer labels. Recognising that people may be attracted to using cloth nappies
because of such factors, local councils might investigate ways of promoting the
fashion aspect of cloth nappies, to broaden their appeal. Celebrity endorsement may
bear fruit, as such initiatives lead to an associated sales spike (Children’s Business,
2005; see also Atkin and Block, 1983; Petty and Cacioppo, 1983).
4.4 Conclusions
In conclusion, the present research has highlighted that the issues surrounding
cloth/disposable nappy use are complex. However unpalatable it may be to green
consumers, cloth nappies offer genuine environmental benefits only if used in
accordance with recommended usage practices that may be beyond the reach of some
parents, whether for reasons of cost, time, space or convenience. Unless steps are
taken to challenge some or all of these barriers, this situation is unlikely to change. At
the same time, though, councils still need to reduce landfill if they are to avoid rising
costs in the future. On this count, cloth nappies could certainly contribute. For cloth
nappy uptake to increase, parents need to be better informed, subsidies need to be
provided to ensure nappies are cheaper up front and to assist with costs of using
Running head: ASSESSING PARENTS’ DECISIONS TO USE CLOTH OR
DISPOSABLE NAPPIES
27
laundering services to tackle the ‘ease of use’ barrier, and the positive aspects of
cloth nappies should be promoted. Whilst these steps might encourage some parents
to choose cloth nappies, on their own they are unlikely to achieve significant landfill
reductions. One ought also to consider other ways to tackle the disposables/landfill
issue.
One option may be increased local authority use of nappy recycling plants.
Plans to have five such plants operational across the UK by 2012 would result in a
13% reduction in disposable nappies in landfill (“Green light for UK's first nappy
recycling plant,” 2009). The 2008 LCA found that the main environmental impact for
disposable nappies were raw material production and conversion into disposable
nappy components (Aumonier et al., 2008). Such initiatives would clearly not halt the
destruction of trees and use of crude oil involved in disposable nappy manufacture.
Even if recycled after use, there would still be environmental consequences.
However, the present data suggest that whilst it may be possible to reduce
(somewhat) the number of disposables in landfill by targeting the individuals
responsible for using them (parents) and encouraging use of alternatives, it is
unrealistic to expect a mass conversion to cloth nappies. There is no easy answer.
More global level initiatives would be a useful approach that may suit public demand.
A recent survey conducted by a popular UK parenting magazine revealed that 95% of
parents would like nappy recycling as part of their standard household waste
collection. Whilst the environmental impact of recycling plants has yet to be
established in tandem with increased cloth nappy use, such methods could achieve a
significant reduction in landfill in the future.
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28
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Footnotes
1For the purposes of this study, the baseline scenario for cloth nappies was
based on the following assumptions: nappies were used on only one child, they were
dry pailed, washed in an average rating energy efficient washing machine, or average
energy efficient washer-drier; the baseline scenario further assumed that three quarters
of cloth nappies would be line dried, one quarter tumble dried (in an average rating
energy efficient tumble drier), and wash temperature would be 60 degrees C.
Figure 1: Thematic map for cloth and disposable nappy users
Cloth pull factors Cloth push factors
Dislike of disposables Disposables more
efficient/convenient
Benefits to health/development
Marketing
Lack of information/confusion
Misconceptions
Difficulty finding on high street
Decision to use cloth nappies
Cloth push/pull/stay factors Cloth stay factors
Value for money Performance
Environment Fashion
Subjective norms and social identity Formation of bonds
(Lack of) support Addiction
Variety Buzz
... Because online communication provides disparate gratification opportunities compared with traditional media, individuals may find it superior to face-to-face communication, if that richer medium is not considered fit for purpose (Dimmick, Kline, & Stafford, 2000). This approach inspires us to draw a distinction between instrumental reasons for joining forums (e.g., to seek information) and social reasons -the two main reasons that have emerged in our preliminary research into this question (Pendry, Mewse, & Burgoyne, 2012). ...
... It is important to explain the rationale behind our categorization of forums into stigma-related versus non-stigma-related. This was based upon past research that has demonstrated first, that mental health illnesses are generally (and uncontentiously) recognized as stigmatised (Schwenk, Davis, & Wimsatt, 2010;Wang, Fick, Adair, & Lai, 2007), and second, that certain environmental activities engaged in by small minorities (such as using non-disposable diapers) are considered to be rather marginalised and 'cranky' with individuals choosing to engage in them receiving a rather negative reaction from the majority (at least in the UK; see Pendry et al., 2012). ...
... Our previous research confirmed that using non-disposable diapers is very much a minority activity that has not to this point gained the acceptance of other forms of recycling engaged in by the majority (e.g., recycling of household waste). It is clear that negative stereotypes exist about non-disposable diaper users, who are already clearly a minority group in numerical terms (Pendry et al., 2012). More recently, it is still common to find similar comments being made on parenting forums (e.g., Mumsnet) about nondisposable users by disposable users, and for non-disposable users to voice that they sense this negativity toward them. ...
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There has been much debate surrounding the potential benefits and costs of online interaction. The present research argues that engagement with online discussion forums can have underappreciated benefits for users' well-being and engagement in offline civic action, and that identification with other online forum users plays a key role in this regard. Users of a variety of online discussion forums participated in this study. We hypothesized and found that participants who felt their expectations had been exceeded by the forum reported higher levels of forum identification. Identification, in turn, predicted their satisfaction with life and involvement in offline civic activities. Formal analyses confirmed that identification served as a mediator for both of these outcomes. Importantly, whether the forum concerned a stigmatized topic moderated certain of these relationships. Findings are discussed in the context of theoretical and applied implications.
... According to Assadourian et al. [8], since their entrance into the market, disposable diapers have become a symbol of affluence and sophistication. Disposable diapers have become highly commoditized and a necessity rather than a luxury in fast paced lives [9]. ...
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