The unfortunate truth about “eco” nappies (and what you can do about it)

The biodegradable nappy myth

With my wife and I expecting our first baby in the coming weeks, two things made me think it was important to look into reusable nappies.

1. By the time they are potty trained, a baby will have used 4,000 to 6,000 disposable nappies.

2. A “biodegradable” nappy – one that’s not made from plastic – that ends up in landfill is worse for climate change than a disposable nappy.

The first point is unsurprising and even more startling at a national level. An estimated 3 billion nappies are thrown away each year in the UK, accounting for 2-3% of all household waste.

The second point is counter-intuitive and probably requires more explanation. A biodegradable nappy will only biodegrade as intended if it ends up in either a large, well-managed personal compost heap or a council food / garden waste commercial composter. Less than 50% of UK households have such a collection and many simply do not have the space for their own compost heap. So for the majority of babies in the UK their biodegradable nappies will end up in landfill or being burnt. 

And here’s the crux: in a covered and compressed landfill site, biodegradable nappies (and their contents) will decompose anaerobically, releasing methane – which is around 34 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. A normal disposable nappy made out of plastic will actually produce fewer harmful emissions.

As for reusable nappies – made to wash and use again – it’s true that it does take more energy to put them through the washing machine than to throw disposables in the bin. However, there are a number of ways to minimise this. The days of boil-washing are gone, as modern reusables can be washed at 60 or even 40 degrees. If drying space is an issue for you, then there are many brands which dry fast without a tumble-dryer. And to top it all off, you can sign-up for 100% renewable electricity for your home, meaning that the energy you are using will be coming from green sources in any case.

The reusable nappy revolution

So, that set me off on a journey to discover if there was a realistic alternative to disposables. What I found was actually pretty encouraging. 

This blog is not meant to be preachy or naive and I’m acutely aware that it is written before the realities of having a newborn baby have hit. It is simply intended to help those who, like I did, feel uncomfortable about throwing away 1000s of nappies and want to explore what alternatives are out there…

Oh, and one other word of warning. If you are the eco-warrior in the household then please be sensitive to your partner in any nappy discussions, particularly if they are going to be the one at home with the baby and thus doing the majority of the changing. Whatever solution you come up with, it needs to work for you both.

Now, be honest, when you think of a reusable nappy does your mind conjure up something that looks a bit like this…?

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It certainly did for me. But the good news is that a modern reusable nappy actually looks like this…

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Indeed, they are now so snazzy that there is now a “cloth bumming” trend (yes, that is really what it’s called…) taking Instagram by storm!

So, now that you can see how reusable nappies will make your baby the envy of the creche, how do you go about finding the right ones?

There’s no right answer, but here’s what worked well for us…

Firstly, we used this excellent questionnaire on The Nappy Lady website. It asks you a wide range of questions and then gives you two recommendations. For us, ensuring that they would be simple to use and dry quickly in our small flat (with very limited outdoor space) were the two biggest priorities. 

Secondly, some of your friends and family with babies will already be using reusable nappies. Ask them which have worked best for them.  This gave us a shortlist of half a dozen reusable nappies and – using the The Nappy Lady’s reviews – we picked those that might be best for us. 

“Might” is an important word here. There are wise warnings about reusables not working for all newborns, so you will want to make sure that the brand you have chosen is a good fit. What you don’t want to do is buy loads in advance and then not be able to use them (though I hear there is a thriving second-hand market in reusable nappies too…). This is easy to get around: many brands have trial packs, or you can buy a few and use them alongside disposable nappies in the first few weeks until you are confident they are a good match for your baby.

Why not throw in some cheeky wipes?

A quick note on baby wipes. While not such a big issue from a climate change perspective, the UK has woken up to the damage that wet wipes are doing to our sewers and our seas. There’s even a suggestion that the UK Government could ban them.

Lucky enough, this is an easy one to do something about.

One option is flushable wipes, with businesses scrambling to make their offerings better for the world. 

A more sustainable option still are Cheeky Wipes, the worst kept secret in baby class circles where I have been spending a lot of time recently. Parents across the UK swear by them, as being better for your baby and cheaper in the long run.

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I hope this has given you a good head start in your quest to throw away fewer nappies. I’ll report back on how we are getting on in a few months…

Valentine’s Day Flowers Don’t Need To Cost The Earth

When did importing 8m roses in the middle of winter become so unremarkable?

All over the country (and indeed the world) millions of us plan to declare our love for each other on 14th February by giving flowers. And not just any flower, a flower that cannot be grown naturally anywhere near us. All the roses given in the UK this Valentine’s Day will either have been grown somewhere near the equator (Kenya, Colombia, India, Tanzania, Ecuador) and transported thousands of miles in air-conditioned planes and trucks, or they will have been grown in artificially-heated greenhouses, mostly likely in The Netherlands. Believe it or not, hothouses are even worse in carbon terms than flying them in.

To find out if there’s a more earth-conscious way to keep the love alive this Valentine’s Day, I asked Camila Klich, co-founder of the Wolves Lane Flower Company, for her top tips.

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Above: red roses, 8m of which were imported into the UK for Valentine’s Day in 2017

Q. Where do most of the flowers we buy in the UK come from?

There’s a lot of talk among florists about them only using seasonal / fresh / hand-picked blooms. However if your supplier or florist cannot guarantee that the flowers are British-grown then they’ll most likely have been brought in from The Netherlands. Ninety per cent of the flowers bought in the UK are imported from the Dutch who run the international auction for flowers being traded across Europe. 

This isn’t to say that the Dutch grow all those flowers. They are expert growers and distributors but huge amounts of flowers are flown to Holland before being sold at the auction and then sent on to the UK. There are major flower growing operations in Israel, Italy, Colombia, Ecuador, South Africa and Kenya, to name a few. So, before reaching the UK, it’s a carbon footprint double whammy with flowers being flown in from their country of origin to The Netherlands and then being sent on. That’s why we use the hachtag #grownnotflown to show where our flowers come from!

Q. Where can we buy more sustainable flowers?

If customers really want to source sustainable flowers then the key is to try to buy from a florist that works with seasonal British flowers only and, even better, with local growers. Flowers From the Farm is a UK network of flower growers all committed to producing locally-grown blooms across the UK. There are over 600 members, so most people will be able to find a grower on their website near them. 

Moreover most of these growers are small-scale farmers committed to sustainable, organic practices. We know this because we are members of this network – we go to their meet ups, conferences and use their forums all the time and the vast majority are chemical free. Some members like Organic Blooms in the West Country are also Soil Association certified organic.

Q. Aren’t lots of supermarkets now selling British flowers?

Yes, the supermarkets tend to sell British blooms, which is great. However they will have sourced these flowers from industrial UK farmers who won’t be pesticide-free and they will probably also be growing in heated glasshouses. 

In addition, flowers in the supermarket are loss leaders. This means that the supermarket sells the flowers at below market value prices to attract customers into the shop, which then facilitates them doing the rest of their shopping in store (they do a similar thing with petrol). So while it’s great that the flowers are British and haven’t been flown in, it’s quite damaging to small-scale artisan growers like ourselves because it confuses the consumer as to the real market value of British stems.

Q. Are locally grown, organic flowers much more expensive?

Growing organically is more expensive. We’re talking about a unique, scented, truly seasonal product versus mass-produced homogenous stems. It’s a bit like going to your local organic veg box scheme or farmers’ market instead of your supermarket to get your fresh produce. 

It’s also about economies of scale. Except for a few big growers in Lincolnshire and Cornwall, most of the UK flower farmers are small-scale growers operating on a few acres of land or less. However we didn’t get into this business to offer a cheap product but rather a premium one, so we charge fairly and accordingly. 

That said, there are lots of wonderful flowers that are relatively inexpensive and not widely known by customers. We grow them by the bucket load because they’re absolutely beautiful even though they’re not a David Austin garden rose. So if you know your flowers and what a British garden can offer (or have a good florist who can advise you), buying sustainable stems doesn’t need to be much more expensive.

Q. What flowers are sustainable alternatives to roses for Valentine’s Day?

Hellebores! Our favourite winter flower is rife at the moment and they’re absolutely gorgeous, coming in all shades of white, pink, purple, red and green (see picture below). If you’re a flower lover you’ll see them all over Instagram. 

Alternatively, there are absolutely wonderful things that people can do with dried flowers, rose hips, seed pods and foliage. 

If that’s not enough, the early spring bulbs all start popping up over Valentine’s Day – snowdrops and paper whites. 

At WLFC we’re always talking about the seasonal offer. Yes, this time of year is pretty low on British blooms, but really there’s a lot to admire and enjoy if you look for it.

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Above: Hellebores, Camila’s favourite Valentine’s Day alternative.

Q. What motivates you to run the Wolves Lane Flower Company?

Our absolute love and obsession with flowers and a real commitment to the environment.

We love the diversity that growing flowers offers us and our customers. We can trial a new variety and just stick 10 plants in the ground and see how they do and that’s exciting to us.

We are total dorks. Neither of us studied horticulture formally so everyday we learn something new which suits our personalities. We make mistakes all the time which can be very demoralising, but when there are lessons to be learnt the ambition for getting it right next time round can be quite infectious.

We’re very lucky to be part of the Flowers From The Farm network, which is a constant source of information on all things flower farming – it’s a very inspiring community that constantly motivates us to try harder.

Do you think people are becoming more aware of sustainable flowers?

We hope so! There’s a lot interest from florists and brides in using seasonal British flowers partly because a more naturalistic style has developed across the industry and local growers produce stems that are perfect for this kind of floristry. We get queries from some people who find us on social media and just love our flowers and the WLFC story of growing a flower farm from scratch; and from others who are really committed to more a more sustainable lifestyle. 

That said, the industry has a way to go. While people are invested in knowing where their fruit and veg come from, provenance isn’t always at the forefront of their minds when buying flowers. We’re probably about 10 years behind the food industry in this respect but as the conversation around climate change grows, we hope consumers will be encouraged to source their flowers from ethical suppliers.

Why not start by buying your loved one some locally-grown Hellebores this Valentine’s Day?

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Above: Camila (R) and Marianne (L), founders of WLFC

 

About the Wolves Lane Flower Company

WLFC is a micro urban flower farm with an organic and sustainable approach. Founded by two flower obsessives (Camilla and Marianne), they are committed to the belief that the beauty and diversity of their product doesn’t have to be compromised at the expense of the environment. Their flowers are London-grown, seasonal and never treated with chemicals or pesticides in both their unheated glasshouse or cutting garden. While they can’t compete with their Dutch counterparts on volume or price, their flowers are scented, unusual and unique. As consumer awareness of provenance and sustainability grows, they are excited to be part of a new wave of growers committed to offering an ethical alternative.

“Messy and disappointing”: a journey into positive investment

Friends of the Earth have been running an innovation challenge focused on how to make it simpler for people to align their savings with their values and put their money to work tackling climate change. As part of the challenge, I was interviewed by Mary Stevens, the Programme Manager, about my experience of positive investment. I wanted to invest to be part of the solution, not the problem. But despite a relatively high level of awareness of the issues and opportunities the journey was far from simple…

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Tell me a bit about your personal situation. What were your aims?

I was looking to put away £5000 as a medium-term investment. I was happy to take a bit more of a financial risk, and was also looking for a bigger return than if I just put it in an ISA. But above all I was looking to put it in a fund that would build the world we want. I know a lot of ethical funds just do negative screening — no arms or tobacco for example — and I wanted something different. I wanted my money to be actively doing good.

Where did you start your research?

I started where a lot of people do, on moneysavingexpert.com. This was great for general investment advice but I only found two paragraphs on sustainable or ethical investment and nothing that could help me. I also talked to family and friends about my options — but again, no one was able to offer specific advice on positive investment.

So where did you go to try to find out about ethical funds?

One of the first things I found was the Ethical Consumer index. But the detail of the index is only available to subscribers. And I couldn’t tell exactly what they’d based the ratings on, and whether their priorities were aligned with mine.

I also looked at the opportunities for investment and savings accounts with the providers I was already familiar with: Triodos, Charity Bank, Nationwide, Ecology Building Society. The options were OK — but there was very little in the higher risk, positive investment space. Nothing felt exciting or pioneering. The fees also felt high and I was concerned about the way Triodos uses RBS as its clearing bank. It felt like their hands were tied. [ed. Triodos is explicit about this issue on its website, explaining how limited the options are for them].

I did ask Nationwide whether they could provide any financial advice, as I have a current account with them, but the next available appointment was in six weeks, and even then the advisor did not have ‘specialist’ expertise.

What did you do once you’d ruled out investments with mainstream savings providers?

I started to investigate individual funds. For example, I knew about Generation Investment Management, because of the Al Gore connection [ed. GIM LLP was founded by Al Gore in 2004, who is still the chair of the advisory board]. But I couldn’t figure out how to actually put any of my money into it. I also looked at WHEB Asset Management as I’d come across them in a professional context previously. I had the same issue here — and wherever I looked. I also came across Impax Asset Management, via a tip-off from a relative (they hadn’t appeared in web searches). I liked their Environmental Leaders Fund, but again, I couldn’t figure out how to get into it.

At this stage I started to try to figure out whether I could work backwards. Could I find the platforms that could help me place an investment? I went back to Moneysavingexpert.com. There were about five different platforms they recommended — Cavendish online, Aviva, AK Bell, a couple of others. They were all charging different amounts and the website really came into its own here. In the end I did work out how to place the investment with Impax via one of these.

I also looked at the newer app-based platforms (Nutmeg, Wealthify, Evestor) but all of these are just passive funds (i.e. index funds, that track the overall performance of e.g. the FTSE 250) and they don’t have any model to do the due diligence on the underlying funds.

What surprised you the most on this journey?

Just how difficult it was. And how complicated it was to put money in a fund, even if you found one you wanted. I can’t believe there isn’t a good specialist website that has a good ranking system and simple guidance for how to do it. Ethical Consumer didn’t feel expert enough, it didn’t seem appropriate to apply the same methodology to investments as to a toaster or a pair of jeans.

There are some rankings, and some specialist platforms out there such as Ethex, or the Good Egg mark. Did you come across any of these?

No. I did come across 3dinvesting, but I found the website tricky to use.

What would have helped you?

I didn’t want a financial advisor conversation. That would just have been another load of fees. But it would have been great if there was an organisation with some credibility putting something out there — some signposting. A detailed moneysavingexpert.com section on sustainable investment, for example. Doing for positive investment what it does for insurance, or savings or pensions.

What advice would you give someone wanting to do the same?

It’s hard to know. Obviously I can’t give financial advice. Starting at the end point didn’t really help; even if it did provide a solution in the end I don’t know if it was the best one. Some peer networking might have helped; blogs or friends who’d done the same thing. But overall the whole process felt messy and disappointing.

Was there anything else you learned from this experience?

It’s important to know the difference between the sustainable funds the big providers offer, and real positive investment. In most cases “sustainable” just means a few exclusions of guns, alcohol, tobacco — often not even fossil fuels! I’m also concerned about the growing dominance of passive funds, especially in the newer app-based services; it removes any leverage that individual investors may have. [ed. a point this FT article also makes].

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Michael Hilton, author of this blog!