Chelsea Green Publishing

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The Green Diaper Boom

Business may not be so great these days, but the growing awareness of environmental and social issues is creating opportunities for ecopreneurs and their new products and services. In many cases, new green brands are entering and competing in markets that have been dominated by large multi-nationals for decades. This is made possible by the green community, a consumer group that has grown dramatically in recent years and that chooses to distinguish itself by its purchases.

I’ve documented many of these brand development experiences in my new book, The Gort Cloud, but there are a few stories that did not make it into my book that are particularly noteworthy. One involves a new entrant in the disposable diaper category.

The diaper industry has been dominated by just a few major players: Pampers and Luvs from Procter & Gamble and Huggies from Kimberly-Clarke. The first mass-produced disposable diaper was introduced in 1948 by Johnson & Johnson, followed by the introduction of Pampers in 1961. While parents flocked to the convenience and safety of these products, they also contributed to the growth of the Throw-away Society. By 1970, Americans were going through 350,000 tons of diapers, while today disposable diapers comprise 2.1 percent of municipal waste, per Mother Jones. Adding to the problem is the popularity of adult incontinence briefs, training pants for toddlers and swim diapers. When you add up all the use-once-and-throw-it-away items we toss into landfills, it’s a big issue. There’s even a movement afoot to ban disposable diapers altogether in some municipalities.

In an effort to lessen health and environmental impacts, a number of new earth and child-friendly brands have entered the market, including Seventh Generation, the eco-category leader; Nature Babycare from Sweden; and TenderCare Plus, Earth’s Best and Tushies all from The Hain Celestial Group. These products differentiate from the majors by being variously chlorine-free, latex-free, fragrance-free, TBT-free, etc. Nevertheless, they all wind up in landfills, and the jury is still out on whether disposable is better than reusable cloth, according to an article in Wired.

While the cost and availability of these new brands is a barrier to increased marketshare, it is amazing that they have competed as well as they have against goliaths like P&G and Kimberly-Clarke. This ability to penetrate a sewn-up market is largely due to the green community and its increasing clout. This is particularly well-illustrated by a new flushable diaper product from gDiapers.

gDiapers has an amazing brand development history. Just a few years old, this Portland, Oregon-based company is the maker of a flushable diaper that will not clog pipes if instructions are followed. The product uses many of the well-known diaper materials, fluffed pulp and super absorbent poly-acrylate, but the difference is that the plastic shell is reusable while the soiled pad can be flushed. The product was carefully vetted with sanitation departments and received certification from William McDonough’s Cradle-to-Cradle program. However, the real story is in how they developed awareness within the green community with few marketing dollars and a tremendous amount of goodwill. It’s a story of the gort cloud in action.

Like many nascent companies, the founders of gDiapers began building awareness in their local community, in this case, the People’s Republic of Portland. The Oregonian and Oregon Quarterly were among the first to pick up the story in 2005. This was quickly followed by product-spotting hits in the green blogosphere, notably by Blogging Baby and The Greenerside, and in the green press, Metaefficient, Greener Magazine, Sustainable Industries, Triple Pundit, Grist, Lime, IdealBite, with a big hit in Treehugger in December of ’05. These media channels form aspects of what I call the gort cloud, the interconnected and largely invisible community on which green businesses are dependent (in lieu of substantial marketing budgets).

It was from these trusted sources for eco-friendly information that word sprang out to traditional media. Soon gDiapers was picked up by Fast Company, USA Today, Good Morning America, PRI’s Marketplace, Fortune, Time Magazine, The Washington Post and The New York Times to name a few. The word was out, but the gort cloud continued to echo the product through green channels like Ecorazzi, E Magazine, EcoStilleto, Plenty, and a rather nice cover by Jill Fehrenbacher in Inhabitots, the family oriented version of Inhabitat, a weblog devoted to the future of design and sustainability.

Of course, exposure also comes from celebrity endorsement, something that came to gDiapers in the form of a cover story in Vanity Fair in November 2007 featuring Julia Roberts. She had discovered the product through echo-effect in the green community,

“I use Seventh Generation [chlorine-free, nontoxic] diapers for Finn and Hazel, and then I was turned on to the [plastic-free, flushable] gDiapers. Henry’s got a gDiaper on…. I would recommend them overall. It is flushable, but you’ve got to stir that thing! If you don’t really break it all the way up, it doesn’t go all the way down.”
The Sundance Channel also featured gDiapers on the EcoBiz section of The Green show hosted by Simran Sethi in July ’08.

Today, gDiapers has carved out a modest niche in the previously impenetrable disposable diaper market. Along with other alternative diaper makers, gDiapers has forced P&G and Kimberly-Clarke to yield incremental market share. It is possible that they may counter-attack with green products of their own, like Clorox did with their Green Works line, which reached a $40-million dollar market share in the first year, according to Treehugger. However, they will need to do more than Huggies did by releasing a “naturally refreshing cucumber and green tea” scented baby wipe containing potassium laureth phosphate, glycerin, polysorbate 20, tetrasodium EDTA, DMDM hydantoin, methylparaben, malic acid, aloe barbadensis leaf extract, calendula officinalis flower extract, camellia oleifera leaf extract, cucumis sativus (cucumber) fruit extract, retinyl palmitate, zea mays (corn) oil, phenoxyethanol, butylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, fragrance and Vitamin E in the form of tocopheryl acetate. This is typically not the vocabulary of the gort cloud.

The gort cloud is the invisible, yet driving force behind gDiapers and other new green brands leveling the playing field and helping to change the pay-to-play marketing paradigm. It is the ever-growing and ever-louder green community demanding new innovations and changing the rules.


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