Alison Jane Reid, Editor-in-Chief of Ethical Hedonist Magazine meets Marlene Sandberg, a corporate lawyer turned mum-preneur, and founder of multi-award winning company – Naty eco friendly disposable nappies. The company also makes personal care products for women and babies.
Marlene Sandberg’s life changed the day she opened her morning newspaper in Stockholm and read a news feature on the unpalatable reality of our never ending love affair with convenience. Every year, each newborn baby creates half a tonne of soiled nappies from birth to potty training that go straight to landfill in the UK and Sweden. Scientific studies acknowledge that conventional nappies made from petrochemicals do not break down in the environment; and even more worryingly, landfill is currently contributing 38 % of methane levels in the UK, with a similar picture in Sweden. Put simply, this leads to the warming of the planet and it doesn’t stop there.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes (Sept 2015) that it is 95% certain that mankind had been the dominant cause of climate change since the 1950s. Climate scientists say we need to avoid a 2C rise in temperatures and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Experts predict that a rise in temperature of over 3C will lead to some parts of the world becoming uninhabitable and will change where crops can grow. Some also point to growing conflict over land and resources [war] and a rise in sea levels that would leave cities like London and San Francisco under water and many island communities would disappear.
Sandberg took the newspaper article as a wake up call to change the way she lived. That was fifteen years ago. At the time, she held a demanding job as a corporate lawyer and she was a mother to Edvard, aged one, with another baby on the way. Looking back on that time, she describes it as a period of environmental awakening. “There were a lot of stories about the effects of industrial farming, and the damage we were doing to the environment, and that was when I first started to think about the way I shopped, and I began to look for local and organic food. When the story about the nappies came out, I can remember searching the local directories to try and find an environmentally alternative to conventional, disposable nappies, that was healthy for my baby, and for the environment; but there wasn’t one, that’s why I started Naty.”
When I ask Marlene why she didn’t do what our mothers and grandmothers did, and use washable nappies, she explained that it is not that simple anymore. “I looked into the pros and cons of washable nappies versus disposables, and discovered that the pressure on resources and side effects of increased energy consumption no longer make the re-usable nappy the best option.
“ We live in very different times to our parents. As the cost of living continues to go up, families need two incomes just to survive, and life is so much more stressful for women.
“According to the Swedish Environmental Foundation, if I washed the nappies at a low temperature, used the right washing powder, didn’t wash them every day, kept the nappies in a special solution and didn’t tumble dry them; then it would be a good solution. This was far too complicated for today’s mother who is juggling every part of her life. I knew I didn’t have the time to do this; but I did start to think that I could be part of the solution. My goal was to come up with an environmentally friendly alternative to nappies made from petrochemicals, that could out perform washable nappies by using less energy and fewer resources – that’s how Naty was born.”
Marlene knew that in order to make a disposable nappy work for the environment and for busy new mums, she needed to reinvent the disposable nappy from the inside out, by opting for materials that would effectively biodegrade and leave out the worrying list of plastics and chemicals used in conventional nappies. When Marlene came up against a brick wall, because there were no environmentally friendly materials for nappies, she didn’t give up. She carried out her own research and development into alternatives, and then found a small factory in Sweden prepared to work with her, and Naty launched onto the market in 1998.
Dressed in an elegant, yet understated combat jacket, Sandberg is neither a green evangelist nor a yummy mummy. She is a super smart go-getter and a realist with a natural warmth and joie de vivre. She is also a woman who doesn’t give up when the challenges of trying to compete with powerful multinationals seems like a Herculean task. Naty is tiny in comparison to her nearest, conventional competitor, which has a turnover over billions. But what Marlene Sandberg has achieved with intelligence, drive and the heart of an entrepreneur is remarkable. Not satisfied with the early prototypes for the Naty nappy, Sandberg is constantly striving to improve the environmental performance of the nappies and their reliability for time poor mums. ” I am very proud of the fact that our nappies compete with conventional nappies both on performance and price; for the simple truth is that if we didn’t, no one would buy them.”
“The twenty first century mum isn’t prepared to get up in the middle of the night to change a nappy, so we always save we have to weigh up the environmental credentials against performance. We could make a nappy that doesn’t have a super- leak proof core, which means the nappy will leak; and then, we just appeal to the tree huggers, and that is pointless,” she adds, allowing a hint of a smile to cross her animated face.
Sandberg’s strategy is based on a mixture of pragmatism and exciting, cutting-edge, sustainable innovation. “We’ve gone from a nappy which was fifty cent bio-degradable to seventy per cent biodegradable – and we will keep on improving that the figure with more research and more innovation into exciting new materials that are ever more biodegradable.”
The company works closely with The Swedish Environmental Foundation, which is similar to Friends of the Earth in the UK. “If we are looking at a new material for our nappies, we ask for their advice? What do you think of its environmental credentials? Is this a good material to go into our nappies? Will it improve what we do?”
She is critical of the increasing amount of green wash, particularly in the UK, and the lack of legislation to deal with false claims surrounding everything from food to skincare and personal care products.
“We take all the other nappy brands on the market and we analyse what goes into them in the lab. What I can tell you is that while we try and come up with a more environmentally friendly product, our conventional competitors are heading in exactly the opposite direction. They are reducing the amount of pulp in their product and increasing the amount of plastics in their nappies. There is only one reason to do this, and that is financial. It makes it cheaper to produce the nappies. A conventional nappy might as well be a plastic bag. It isn’t breathable; it will never degrade and you are sitting a tiny baby in cocktail of plastic and chemicals. Nappies represent 3% of all household waste in the UK, which is high, compared to the amount of people using the products.”
So what is the answer? Marlene says it is time to get tough. “We have to make the polluter pay. Why should ordinary people pay to clean up the environmental mess, and the effect it has on our children’s futures? If our governments put a tax on these plastic products, it wouldn’t take the companies long before they change the manufacturing process. This has already started to happen in Sweden. If you are a company using green technologies, you have a tax incentive to go green – it is the only way to protect people and the environment – because big business doesn’t care.”
How has Naty changed the way you live? “ I said to my husband, that it is like going back forty years. I spend a lot of time shopping for organic products. I go directly to the farmer to buy produce – which is so wonderful. The food tastes so good. I look for eco cleaning products with the logo of the Swedish Environmental Foundation and we only have organic fruit at work. My life has certainly been enriched by going green and organic twenty years ago.”
Nor does she agree that the Scandinavian countries are more environmentally conscious that the UK. “ I don’t think that’s true at all. A lot of Swedes will be eating processed ham this Christmas – I feel very sorry for the poor pigs. They suffer appalling conditions. I am surprised that it takes so long for people to change the way they live. When I changed my life twenty years ago, I felt like a person from cyberspace. Now, there is so much more awareness. When you understand the challenges we face with the way we live and with the environmental impact – it changes every decision you make. You see life differently.”
Alison Jane Reid Copyright January 2016
Where to Buy Naty eco friendly disposable nappies. Naty nappies are available in the UK from: Ocado , Waitrose, Wholefoods, Boots, Sainsbury’s , Ethical Superstore.
Some Hard Facts about Nappies and their Environmental Impact
· Each UK baby gets through on average 4,500 nappies from birth to potty training.
· Approx 3 billion nappies are used every year by UK parents; 8 million a day; 90% of these end up in landfill
· At least £700 will be spent by parents for each baby from birth to potty
· It takes standard nappies around 500 years to decompose
· It takes biodegradable nappies around 50 years to decompose (significantly less)
· Nappy disposal costs the UK taxpayer approx. £40 million each year
· Nappies account for approx. 2.4% of household waste in the UK
· Disposable nappies can constitute up to 50% of the waste from a family with a child wearing nappies.
· Nappies account for 0.1% of all waste that goes to landfill
· 400,000 tonnes of disposable nappies go to landfill in the UK every year
· The Environment Agency Report on nappies in 2008 (the most recent report) concluded that disposable nappies have a similar environmental impact to reusable nappies; Reusable nappies use far more energy in washing and drying.
· 38% of all UK methane emissions are accounted for by landfill. (Therefore reducing the amount of disposable nappies going to landfill could have a significant impact on the UK’s greenhouse emissions – good stat for IPCC report angle)
· Another issue to consider is that the wood pulp used in nappies comes from forests. Naty’s pulp is FSC, PEFC and SSNC certified
· For biodegradable nappies to be able to biodegrade, they need to be disposed of in biodegradable nappy sacks
· It takes 1 cup of crude oil to make 1 disposable nappy
·· Greenhouse gas concentrations have increased to their highest level in at least 800,000 years, including a 40% rise in carbon dioxide since pre-industrial times. Among other things, this is caused by deforestation and methane emissions. Deforestation has a huge impact on climate change, which is why FSC certified forests are vital. Landfill emits methane and C02.