Dirty Diapers

It is time to add new claims concocted to capitalize on the environmental ethic to the junk heap of corporate America’s marketing claims.

Like many Madison Avenue claims, most of them are half-truths, or half-solutions. Unfortunately, environmental problems demand more than corporate America’s wasteful, business-as-usual offerings painted a friendly shade of green. The battle being waged by the disposable diaper industry illustrates the darkest side of “green washing.” Unfortunately, the truth about diapers is often twisted by the well-heeled disposable diaper makers.

The disposable diaper industry’s first salvo was the so-called biodegradable diaper, which enjoyed a brief life in the marketplace — though not a brief life in the landfill. In fact, little biodegrades in air-tight landfills, where 80 percent of our trash goes. “Biodegradable” diapers are no exception.

Next came a new campaign from the nation’s largest disposable diaper manufacturer, Procter & Gamble, the maker of Luvs and Pampers. A Procter & Gamble advertisement began appearing around the country displaying a hand holding a pile of soil with the words “Ninety days ago this was a disposable diaper.” The problem is, most communities don’t have facilities for composting diapers. Composting is the process by which organic material such as yard waste or food is broken down into a mulch-like substance. New York state Attorney General Robert Abrams said “the company’s advertisements create the overall impression that the diapers are completely biodegradable. The misleading advertisement made it appear to consumers that they need not worry about the solid waste problems posed by disposable diapers because they will somehow turn into environmentally benign dirt in a matter of months.” The Attorney General added “only upon reading 155 words of copy did consumers learn the facts — that the diapers can be only partially converted to `soil enhancer’ through a process called ‘accelerated composting’; that the diapers are not 100 percent compostable; that facilities for solid waste composting exist in only ten communities nationwide; and that composting is an infant industry, which makes the company’s composting claims virtually untrue for most of the nation’s consumers.”

On November 12, 1991, Procter & Gamble and the Attorneys General of ten states signed an agreement which forced Procter & Gamble to limit advertisements touting diaper composting. But the damage was done: millions of Americans saw the original advertisement. Procter & Gamble was not required to advertise that, in fact, very little diaper composting is occurring.

Yet, according to Californians Against Waste, a lack of markets for low-grade compost made with diapers, as well as hygiene and sanitary concerns about diaper collection, weigh against the likelihood of diaper composting programs ever being broadly instituted nationwide.

In the diaper debate, there are many issues to be examined and much money at stake. Unfortunately, the disposable diaper industry clouded the debate with its campaign chest full of money and dubious claims.

As Attorney General Abrams says, “To make an environmentally informed choice, consumers need truthful and accurate information, not slogans aimed at making them feel good. By promoting their disposable diapers as compostable, when facilities that accept diapers for composting are virtually unavailable, Procter & Gamble is deceiving consumers who are concerned about the trade-offs between using disposable diapers and limiting solid waste.”

Too many corporations are attempting to cynically manipulate the growing public concern for the environment by falsely claiming to market “green” products. Consumers should beware of companies that are trying to gain innocence by association.

For more information on the diaper debate, write to: Lisa Collaton, Environmental Action, 6930 Carroll Avenue, 6th floor, Takoma Park, Maryland 20912.

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