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The European diaper scene; new recipes to delight or confuse mothers.

The EUROPEAN DIAPER SCENE What distinguishes major diaper brands from every other consumer product you can think of? One answer is that they keep changing the recipes! The latest recipes are mainly for "environment friendly" products, equivalent if you like to additive-free foods.

There is a history of putting the word "new" on diaper packs, together with details of special features that have been added, but I wonder how many purchasers noticed when "environment friendly" appeared on packs and adverts. And it undoubtedly raised thoughts of "weren't they before?"

A History of Continuous Change

The history of the disposable diaper business in Europe shows continuous change. First, there was the two piece diaper, which was superceded by the all-in-one diaper in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It did not do a marvelous job, but it still played an important role in the lives of mothers, particularly working mothers.

Then came the superabsorbent revolution around 1987 and all the serious diaper makers added the absorbent powder in their top of the range products; more often than not, they also added the prefix "ultra" to the brand name. Supers have meant you can get "soak up power" without high bulk so the child can look neat and keep the outside world dry simultaneously. The exception to the superabsorbent trend is in Italy where Fater, the leading manufacturer, still seems happy to carry on with fluff pulp-only products.

My own research shows that mothers who had their second to third baby after the superabsorbent revolution found them far superior to the fluff pulp-only products they had used with earlier babies. It is this factor that has made many European mothers confirmed disposables users.

Gender Specific and

Compact Packaging

Some manufacturers have learned superior methods of applying supers to achieve maximum effectiveness, double layers in the crotch zones and the like. Experience with superabsorbents led to the idea of placing them "where it counted" for boys and girls. Now, in 1989, we have the first gender specific products with Procter & Gamble taking the lead with pink girl and blue boy packs. Swaddlers, makers of the new popular U.K. brand "Togs," are also introducing him and her packs.

The addition of what were at first proprietary features to a wide range of diaper -- branded and private label -- can be seen as highly advantageous to the mother. It has given her more choice. If she finds her baby boy's vest remains dry with the waist shield "Pampers," she is no longer restricted to that brand; she can now buy a slightly cheaper private label version with the same features.

The result of the better products and increased production choice is that market penetration has grown rapidly in the countries where textiles had previously held onto their market share. This time last year I believe European mothers were generally very happy with the absorbent performance of the diapers available, particularly the premium "ultra" ones. The majority of mothers, even in cautious England, had totally switched to disposables, or at least used them in combination with textile "nappies" on either a day/night or home/away basis.

The next great innovation is going to be compact packaging. P&G is currently test marketing a compressed pack in Berlin. The package weighs just 40 grams (their traditional board pack weighs 400 grams) and the volume is 40% lower. In addition to taking less shelf space and reducing transportation costs, this innovation is bound to please environmentalists because it reduces packaging and waste.

A private label company in Switzerland called Royce is also developing some novel compressed packs. Their pack includes a system for detaching a few units of product and breaking the vacuum, allowing air into just those to be used in a certain time period. The rest remain under pressure, taking up less household space.

European private label diapers have been catching up with the premium brands in terms of the range of features they offer to their customers -- the powerful supermarket groups. Despite numerous patents protecting elastic placement and every other aspect of construction, there are usually ways to achieve a "me too," which to the customer (retail companies of final) are virtually indistinguishable from the original. This has been the pattern.

For example, we have seen the blue waist shield, first introduced by Procter & Gamble, copied by others. Also, the self-adhesive landing zone of Peaudouce is now seen on many products, including Pampers in some countries.

Enter The Green Diaper

Just as the diaper market reached a plateau of almost total market acceptance, the environment friendly, or "green nappy," hit the collective consciousness and rather upset the statusquo. It is too soon to be sure what the net result will be on market size, but it is certain that as a result of environmental/special interest group pressure, manufacturers must take great care in selecting their product features and raw material.

The creation of certain dioxins by reactions between lignin and chlorine during the pulp bleaching process is having far-reaching implications on the diaper business. Dioxin is synonymous with "poison" to the consumer and is often taken to mean carcinogenic. The dioxin issue was covered in the March issue of Nonwovens Industry.

There has been enormous attention by environmental lobbies, the media and European governments to dioxin in diapers, as well as in feminine hygiene products and other bleached papers. Green issues fill women's magazines and questions are being raised about waste disposal and dioxins in the British Parliament. The two leading European diaper manufacturers -- Peaudouce and P&G -- saw what was coming and decided to clean up their product and thereby defend their "white" image by going over to non-chlorine bleached pulp. Both companies sell diapers to the majority of European countries.

In Sweden, they had no choice but to "go green" because awareness of the environmental damage being caused by chlorine bleaching had already led to legislation demanding non-chlorine bleached pulp. Being multi-national, both companies decided to follow the policy in Continental Europe country by country, moving to the new pulp in the markets where the environmental issue was most forceful.

Peadouce and P&G both mounted advertising campaigns to support this shift in priorities from "whiteness" to "care for the environment." After all, when you make the esthetically retrograde move of changing your white product into a cream one, you need a pretty good argument for doing so.

But from an industry point of view this was not the "best news" anyone had heard. Competitors could not get hold of enough non-chlorine bleached pulp to satisfy the demand from angry, private label customers. Even if there was enough reeled CTMP fluff pulp available (which there was not), how could they achieve good functional performance by a straight switch from chemical pulp to high yield? The result has been industrial turmoil.

What is feared is that the combination of adverse publicity from environmental lobbyists and the "environmental friendly" promotion from those with non-chlorine bleached pulp diapers will lead to a switch back to textiles by confused mothers, particularly those who feel they cannot afford the highest priced diapers, which happen to the ones with CTMP/EC pulp. Others may switch on the basis of guilt feelings - an effective piece of ammunition in the environmentalists' kit.

One or two U.K. companies had been producing CTMP diapers for corporate reasons for some time - and they had every right to be smug. One of these is Neptune Industries in the U.K., which is supplied with bales of CTMP from its sister company Folla in Norway. Neptune is now 50% owned by Unichem, one of the largest chemical distributors, and Unichem was quick to point out in the press that its diaper was chlorine-bleach free. The following quote comes from the March issue of Chemist and Druggist.

"Unichem is introducing on-pack and on-shelf merchandise designed to highlight the fact that the nappies are environmentally friendly. All Unichem own-label nappies will carry a sticker explaining that they are made from natural fluff and are free of chlorine bleach. Shelf talkers and wobblers, featuring Unichem's cartoon baby, are also part of the pack. Shelf wobblers feature a baby exclaiming, 'Look - no nasty dioxins in my Unichem.'"

The typical journalist (and member of the public) in Europe thinks that dioxin, in the form of bleach, is added by the manufacturer at the time of producing the diaper. There is a failure to separate the environmental issues in the pulp producing countries from the new image of the evil profiteering companies that are forcing poisonous products on innocent babies. Similarly, there is confusion between unbleached and recycled pulp and between paper pulp and fluff pulp.

Causing The Cake To Shrink

We have seen how improvements in absorption have had a considerable effect on market growth, but environmental issues may well cause the cake to shrink before it even reaches the table. So who opened the oven while the cake was still rising?

The answer is that it was really out of the control of the diaper manufacturer, because the problems rest with the sulfate fluff pulp, which is the most popular fluff used in the production of diapers. If there was complacency it was with some pulp mills for not addressing the issue of emissions from mills seriously enough or early enough; those that did act should have announced what they were doing more loudly.

The finger should be pointed mostly at the public relations side of the pulp industry, since a great deal has been done to move away from potentially hazardous bleaching methods. Alternatives have been available for several years, but the environmentalist lobbies were not well informed about CTMP or the generation EC, non-chlorine bleached pulps that have been developed by companies such as Stora Cell in Sweden and Rauma in Finland.

All this leads to the conclusion that the message reaching the consumer is inaccurate, scary and confusing.

One fact is very clear. There is a lot of misinformation giving the public an incomplete picture of the producers of diaper raw materials and diaper manufacturers.

What Remains To Be Done

Serious attention for many years has been given to toxicology and other safety related issues by companies in the absorbent disposables field. Trade associations, notably the Technical Committee of EDANA in Europe and INDA in North America, have by no means avoided the issue.

What should we do to counteract the bad publicity recieved at the hands of Green Peace, the Womens Environmental Network and similar groups (as spelled out in the accompanying side-bar)? I would suggest that the concern of diaper manufacturers to "do the right thing" for the mother, child and environment should be drummed into the media at every opportunity.

The tri-annual INDEX Conference and Exhibition in Geneva next year are opportunities to do this. What about a press lunch for journalists from television, newspapers and women's magazines to tell them how seriously these issues are being addressed?

There is also a lot more to do technically to make diapers more socially acceptable in a Europe where environmental issues are, quite correctly, being taken more seriously than they were in the past. Work on biodegradeable films and other components is critical, but may I also suggest a campaign to educate users not to flush used diapers! This may be obvious to us, but it still happens and causes a lot of unnecessarily blocked drains.

Within environmental constraints, product performance is still a critical goal. If more environmentally acceptable core materials have a negative effect an absorption, then new ways must be found to get around these problems.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Rodman Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles on anti-disposable diaper movement; disposable diapers industry
Author:Haddad, Clare
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Jul 1, 1989
Previous Article:The nonwovens industry in Japan.
Next Article:Nonwovens take a stand at Techtextil exhibition; the biennial European trade fair for technical textiles has come into its own as suppliers of...

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