Photo by Andrea Wood Photography

Cloth diapers cost less than disposables, but is that enough?

One of the most oft quoted arguments in favor of cloth diapering is based purely in dollars saved per child wearing cloth diapers. Most experts agree cloth diapers are less expensive than disposable diapers. The amount saved varies by source but usually ranges from $1200 – $2000 per child, assuming two years of use. For some consumers making the decision to cloth diaper, a monetary argument is sufficient to close the deal. However, for others, more value must be realized than the delayed impact of dollars not spent on disposables. So, let’s spend a few minutes talking about a few ways that cloth diapers add value to a consumer’s life; looking beyond the obvious value of retained revenue.

Unprompted, a young, single mom shared about the enormous intangible benefits of cloth diapering her baby on my Facebook wall yesterday:

“It has only been a little over 24 hours but I feel liberated, independent and self sufficient. This past year has, like any, had it’s ups and downs. But I am ending it on a high note. I only have 10 diapers now. But that can get me through a day. Today I exhale a huge sigh of relief, I had no idea how much this was a stress on me.” ~Jody Murphy

Like Jody, so many families trip over the cost of getting started with cloth diapers. Others are stopped by perceived (and it really is just a perception) inconvenience. They sense the environmental impact of using disposable diapers. Some use child-care that may not allow cloth diaper use in the facility. For those families, the cost savings isn’t enough to overcome the many factors influencing their decision making process. They give up and walk away. These families aren’t going to respond to the same marketing claim again. Re-engaging their decision making process will require a look at the monetary value that consumer might assign to the intangible benefits realized by cloth diapering their baby. Jody was struggling with monetary resources. She overcame some of her roadblocks by finding sources to underwrite her startup cost. You can sense the immediate relief of receiving those diapers in her words above.

So, what is “added value” and how does it apply to cloth diapers?

At a consumer level, it could look like this:
Value Added = Dollars Saved + Whatever You Do With That Money + How You Feel Because You Use Cloth Diapers + How You Feel Because You Did Something Other Than Buy Disposable Diapers + Environmental Impact + Convenience + The Value Of Your Time Saved

Here are a few personal examples:

  • BUSINESS: In our family, cloth diapers have kept us from spending thousands of dollars on disposables, but they have also provided employment for our family (and now many other families too).

    Value added? We’ve probably saved $5000 using cloth diapers with three children, but because we were able to start a business early in the cloth diaper boom, we’ve actually been able to add millions to the bottom line of the USA economy through domestic manufacturing, real estate leases, and employment in several communities. Similar stories have played out all over the world as small cloth diaper businesses popped up in play groups, on kitchen tables, and in garages; several growing to recognition on the Inc. 500 list. (Disclosure: Cotton Babies is a privately held company and choses not to publicly disclose revenue.).

  • CLOTHING: During times when our babies wore disposable diapers, we permanently lost many outfits, both mine and my baby’s. An outfit too stained to wear is not an outfit destined to share. Cloth diapers are intentionally designed to contain the biggest of messes. Many products have effectively resolved the issue of “up the back” leaks that disposable diapers frequently allow. Before Flip was created, I would actually travel internationally with an empty bumGenius One-Size Cloth Diaper OVER a disposable diaper just to be sure I saved the outfit.

    Value added? I’ve easily saved hundreds of dollars in clothing expenditures. Beneficiaries to the clothing we pass along are also enjoying those savings.

  • WELL-BEING: It’s hard to put a value on a general sense of well being or quality of life, but knowing that every cloth diaper used is saving a disposable diaper from landfills has a definite sense of satisfaction associated with it.

    Value added? It just feels right.

  • FOOD & UTILITIES: In 2002, our decision to cloth diaper our first child was driven by the need to eat and pay utilities. We couldn’t afford both diapers and food.

    Value added? We weren’t hungry. We had a warm home and food on our table.

  • TIME SAVINGS: Over and over again, cloth diapers have prevented midnight trips to the grocery store. I’m also avoiding the hassle of having to walk to the farthest corner of the grocery store to even find the disposable diapers.

    Value added? Sleep (try putting a monetary value on that!), plus probably fifteen minutes per trip to the grocery store and all the avoided impulse-purchase-decisions I might have made on the way to the back corner of that store. You could say that I might have burned more calories because I made that hike, but that caloric cost doesn’t quite stand up to the previously mentioned benefits.

  • INFLUENCE: A few weeks ago, I asked a group of moms about how many families they had personally influenced to use cloth diapers. During our discussion, we found that this group of nine moms had influenced nearly 70 families to switch to cloth diapers. Why is this significant? Think of it this way: Each of those families represented thousands of dollars saved for a single family. That retained revenue that is then available to be spent in a local economy or to be saved for that child’s future education.

    Value realized that day? That group of “moms turned cloth diaper evangelists” realized the potential social, environmental, and economical impact of their decision to cloth diaper. Their world became larger than the one they walked in with… and together, they left with a stronger vision for sharing their knowledge with more families.

In comparison to the huge financial benefits obtained by cloth diapering over the long term, an in-depth discussion of the potential actualized value associated with various intangible benefits brought about by cloth diapering may seem insignificant. It can take a family up to two years to realize the full monetary benefit of cloth diapering just one child. This can be a difficult decision to justify, particularly for a family in a tight financial situation. While monetary benefits may take time to accumulate, most of the intangible benefits of cloth diapering are realized nearly immediately, making them an essential part of the decision to cloth diaper. This is an important thing to remember, both when considering cloth diapers for your own family and when discussing the topic with families currently in the decision making process.

Since this post is destined to be read by thousands of parents who are researching diapering options for their own child, tell me how cloth diapers have added value to your family. More specifically, what are you enjoying that you might not be enjoying if you used disposable diapers? Can you assign a monetary value to that benefit? If you are currently using disposable diapers, tell me what it is that makes disposables worth the related tangible and intangible costs.

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