Live chat with Louise Pendry

Hello and welcome to the write-up of our 14th live chat with Louise Pendry, who published a paper in 2012 called ‘Environmentally friendly parenting: are cloth nappies a step too far?’. Her research for this paper led her to set up focus groups with cloth and disposable nappy users to find out what influenced their choices. The paper isn’t free to download unfortunately, but for those with journal access, it’s available here:…/a…/10.1108/17473611211203902)

In brief, the paper finds that parents using disposable nappies believed they were marketed as offering a popular, efficient, healthy, good value system. Parents choosing cloth nappies, however, 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.

Louise has also done some work with online nappy cloth communities and forums (a bit like the Nappy Science Gang!), so if you’re curious to find out more about her research, read below!

Q: What got you into using them?
A: I was initially curious. It was around the time of the original Environment agency report*, which everyone got cross about, and I wanted to find out more. I wasn’t at first sure I’d go for it, but the more I read and found out, the more I was keen to give it a go. I also had a friend who was a cloth nappy rep, but no one else really nearby. So I got involved in the online discussion forums and after lurking, and learning, I felt able to start contributing myself online, and eventually, this led to me doing stuff offline.

* This is the 2005 Environment Agency Assessment on Disposable and Reusable nappies that so many people criticised. The 2008 updated version, still equally open to criticism, is available here. We have already discussed these reports at length in a previous chat with science writer Zion Lights, which you can read about here.

Q: Regarding the social backgrounds of the people involved in the study group, how did you recruit them, were they from similar backgrounds and were any of the people involved from lower income families? Also, what were the demographics of parents who participated? Did any men/fathers participate in the research? Mums mainly seem to be the driving force behind the decision to use cloth so I wonder if any gender differences in attitudes were noted in the study?
A: We used a number of routes to access participants. All were female, aged between 26 and 40 years, although there was support (or opposition) from partners and this did play a big part in the decision to use cloth or not. Participants were sourced via toddler groups, friends, local National Childbirth Trust (NCT) groups, midwives and 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 and cloth nappy users used cloth full time (apart from emergencies).

Q: It seems to me like it’s mainly people from a higher socioeconomic status who choose to use cloth. Why is this, given the potential money saving benefit of cloth (not counting the obvious obstacles of initial outlay)? It sounds like the conclusions from the study were to go with this rather than tackling current non-user groups. Why?
A: I think a lot of the time the choice to use nappies links to an environmental sentiment and the complexities of the arguments for and against it often mean it can be easy to be dismissive if not that well-educated or motivated. Regarding socio-economic status, there is a tendency to go with what the majority and whichever social norms are in your group, which is something that came out in our data. It’s an easy argument to make, when your friends are all doing the same!

Q: People are often surprised that you can even get cloth nappies nowadays and the folks I know who use cloth (who are all middle class and educated) tend to have learned about it through either NCT class or their middle class peers. Do you think that people from lower socio-economic status groups are just generally less aware of cloth as an option?
A: Perhaps they are, but it does depend on whether and how they are promoted antenatally and there is huge variation in this. But this is so often coupled with the norms and a tendency to latch onto aspects of the environmental arguments that make it seem like it’s not clear-cut, so for many people it comes down to the question “why should I bother?”

Q: I’m interested in the nature of the disposable nappy group – were there members who considered and rejected cloth nappies and did they have different thoughts to those who hadn’t considered them?
A: There were indeed some who considered cloth, but got shouted down by peer group and partners. It is genuinely hard, I think, to want to persist in a behaviour that is so out of line with those around you. You have to really want to and the barriers need to be eliminated.

Q: Did you ask about other parenting practices such as feeding/weaning, baby wearing, sleeping etc? If so, were there any correlations between these behaviours and choice of nappy type?
A: Sadly no, we didn’t get data on other parenting practices. That would have been interesting. We only got broad demographic data. The data was qualitative, so we couldn’t have run correlations even if we had asked them, as the number of participants was so slow. A larger scale quantitative study ought to do this though!

Q: Did you find any evidence that the Environment Agency report that we mentioned earlier, with its strange assumptions, had any impact on people’s decisions not to use cloth?
A: Oh yes. At the time the data was collected it was the original report, and a few mentioned it – those planning to use disposables to support their choice and those using cloth to dismantle it.

Q: I’m interested in the part of your study where you refer to “the bonds formed with other users”. The cloth nappy community is very much a tribe, one that is very defensive and proud of its choices. My perception is that we are all highly educated and settled, therefore share a concern over other universal issues, such as the environment. Is this an obstacle to other potential cloth nappy users, if they are on a lower income, or are not as highly educated? Could they feel like they don’t belong?
A: We got data that supports that both cloth and disposable nappy users received support from the groups with whom they interacted or identified. For the cloth users, especially those involved in the on-line forums, 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 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, one cloth user said she felt “passionate about it in a way only another clothie can understand”.

Q: Since most of our parents used cloth nappies on us when we were babies, what factors have contributed to such a radical change in behaviour in just one generation? Are current attitudes towards cloth nappies (dirty, inconvenient, etc) similar to what occurred with breastfeeding, which for many years was perceived as disgusting and inappropriate, and only now becoming the norm again?
A: Here’s a summary of what we call the cloth ‘push’ factors – what put people off: 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.

This started off a discussion about the cloth “push factors” and how they are likely to be more influential in some groups than others. For example someone noticed how it’s a more middle class thing to want to “do things differently” and how their peers are always looking for innovative solutions where perhaps many parents don’t even see a problem to solve. However, someone else added, being middle class doesn’t always mean alternative and hippie. Some people can be very mainstream, never consider cloth, be very squeamish about poo, and still be middle class.

Louise: I think there are different markets out there and we are missing a trick here. We are not all hippies and that perception is quite alienating. Identifying and targeting these different subgroups is vital to broaden the appeal. My own sense is that there is a kind of “us and them” mentality (disposable vs. cloth users) that is really unhelpful if things are going to change. 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 hippie types. 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. The ick factor is a huge turn off for people who are obsessed with germs. Overcoming this is hard, and it’s not only a class thing.

Q: Did you ever approach any manufacturers when you were doing the research, and if not why?
A: I did speak with Vicky Scordellis from Little Lambs about the importance of free trials and potential savings of doing this over advertising (and cite her in the paper). After the paper came out I sent it to my local council but personnel changes meant I got nowhere. When my research is published now, it is generally open access and we have a much more pro-active approach to media involvement. I hope, though, that it is not too late because it seems there is still quite a lot to be done! One of my regrets is that for various reasons (e.g., access issues, university’s less aggressive media promotion of staff research, personnel changes at local council level, and my not being that well connected more widely), this paper didn’t get out to enough people when it was published. But I’m hoping you can help me now and I would be really happy to be involved with your group and any associated awareness raising/research from now on, if you would like me to be.

Q: If the mums of the cloth users were cloth users themselves, does that make it easier for the younger generation to follow patterns? Was anything like that being looked into?
A: We don’t have lots of data on that, but anecdotally, the family history aspect does seem important in creating norms that are easier to follow. Saying that, my own mum used cloth and I didn’t with my first…

Q: But if you have decided to use cloth, do you think your mum would have been a source of support, other than your friends or peers?
A: My mum embraced modern developments with a passion. I’m not sure she’d have been that supportive first time. Second time she loved looking at how things had developed, and how cute the nappies were!

Q: For me, one of the biggest discoveries relates to the number of years that passed between the “invention” of the disposables nappies, and the time they became really popular. I have read that many mums even in the 60’s who received a nappy in their bounty bag did not know how to use them and what to do with them. This paper does not take into consideration the transition between washable nappies and disposables, so perhaps understanding what are some of the “best” strategies to pursue mums to use a piece of paper on their babies’ bums could be useful to revert this behaviour. For all of us, advocating for cloth, it would be interesting to understand “how to change habits” strategies. Is there anybody looking at this specific point?
A: There is a lot of work on attitude and behaviour change, and the habits issue that could better inform current practice. I am happy to share more of this offline later!

Q: For this study, did you just assume that cloth is better and/or give recommendations on how it could be promoted should someone want to? Or did you find convincing info somewhere to say that cloth is better?
A: My own views have to be kept out of my research if I’m to succeed. My co-authors and reviewers toned me down! I think we acknowledge both sides really. The paper tries to be even handed about pros and cons. My recollection is that the updated 2008 LCA does point to reduced environmental impact over disposables of around 40%, provided a minimum of three of the following caveats are in place: 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, all of which significantly reduce environmental impact. So if these steps are followed, using cloth nappies can reduce environmental impact. But there are parents for whom this will still not be sufficient (no access to drying space, cramped flat, only having one kid etc), so it’s is still not clear-cut enough for some.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your work with online communities? What are you toplevel findings?
A: We looked at a range of online communities, and split these into topics that were somewhat stigmatised (mental health, PND and yes, cloth nappies – I will explain why in more detail later) and those that were not (golf, body building, hobbies etc). We asked questions about why they joined, expectations, identification with users, well being and offline actions. The main findings were that often we browse forums just hoping to find answers to our questions. In fact, as well as finding answers, our study showed users often discover that forums are a source of great support, especially those seeking information about more stigmatising conditions. Moreover, we found that users of both forum types who engaged more with other forum users showed a greater willingness to get involved in offline activities related to the forum. What we are seeing here is that forum users who get more involved develop stronger links with other users. These people see the greatest benefits from using online forums, in terms of positive links with mental health and getting involved offline. In a nutshell, the more users put into the forum, the more they get back, and the pay-off for both users themselves and society at large can be significant. Furthermore, online discussion forum use is linked to offline civic engagement in related areas so online discussion forums are of greater applied importance than has been realised before. Here is a link to the paper.

Q: So would you say that for less mainstream choices (like for example cloth nappies or extended breastfeeding) finding those online communities helped mitigate the fact of feeling like your choices were not ‘socially normal’?
A: Absolutely. They are a lifeline for normalising what is often viewed as a marginalised choice/behaviour. They empower people because you can practice argumeunts in a safe place and then feel more confident to express them offline as well.

Q: And did you find out anything about gender? As you’ve mentioned it tends to be women who join cloth nappy forums. What’s the effect for users of finding female dominated spaces? Do they differ from male dominated spaces?
A: Our sample was mainly female, but not exclusively, and we did not have enough data to look at gender. We do want to do this is in our next research though and we are currently looking at closed groups on Facebook. They are not quite so anonymous which we think really helps. We think the old style forums allow a degree of anonymity that can be really helpful for people with stigmatised issues and closed groups on Facebook are a sort of halfway version – not advertised on your homepage to your friends but still a bit more identifiable.

Q: Why are nappy and other parenting groups nearly all women? Is it because it’s understood to be women’s work? Is it to do with people’s sense of identity? How does community membership affect that?
A: There are gendered ideas around social roles and these still play out in parenting practice. Membership of the forums may actually perpetuate that, since they are often predominantly female, in my experience of cloth forums at least, although males are mentioned and are often supportive. But another reason – and this is what we want to look at – is that women seem to latch onto online communities for support to a greater extent, and I suspect men, for many reasons, are less inclined, unless it’s for hobbies or tech stuff for example. So we are trying to identify forums with a more equal gender split (not easy for topics that are stigmatising, but not impossible). It could be men are missing out here on the wonderful world of discussion forums!

Q: I wonder if that’s to do with the fact that the whole world is arranged around men, so women find it a bigger deal to find a female space.
A: Yes, being squeezed out offline may make the online world more appealing for women. But I also think men find it quite weird how women appear to befriend and get close to what they see as random strangers on online discussion forums.

Q: What implications do you think online communities have for normalising and promoting cloth use? How could we use them more?
A: I think parents to be could be made aware of them sooner – maybe via midwives etc. I also think one needs to be careful not to be too extreme on these forums – newbies can easily be alienated and never get beyond lurking if they feel the vibe of the group is a bit extreme. Not so much passionate proselytising, but educating, if that makes sense. I got to realise online the group is more heterogeneous than I first thought, but was a bit put off at first.

We couldn’t thank Louise enough for all the time she dedicated to us and how engaged and supportive of our project she has been, it’s been a real pleasure to speak to he. We’re looking forward to reading more about the results of her work once she sends us extra material!

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