Disposable diapers cause family tensions in China

October 25, 2012

Blythe Meyer

(Flickr/taisau)
(Flickr/Harald Groven)

Canadian singer-songwriter Ember Swift moved to Beijing, China in 2007. She describes falling in love with the Chinese culture, learning and embracing everything she could about it. But after marrying a Chinese man and becoming pregnant with her first child, some surprising tensions grew between Swift and her mother-in-law about what cultural practices would be used in her daughter’s upbringing.

The use of disposable diapers is historically foreign to the Chinese culture and economy. Traditional Chinese elimination training methods consist of training babies to eliminate waste on cue, whenever and wherever the parent deems necessary. This is often coupled with a pair of pants with a slit cut in the bottom worn by the youngest children for the ease of being able to “go” as needed, sometimes even on the side of streets or other pathways.

“As an environmentalist I try to avoid unnecessary waste,” says Swift.  “And as someone who is in love with the Chinese culture--I married a Chinese guy, I live here in Beijing--I wanted to make use of this wisdom about elimination training.”

But as China’s economic wealth has grown, for the first time in decades, some Chinese families are working their way into a different income bracket: the middle class.

Middle class families in China are now able to afford items previously seen as luxuries. Pricie Hanna, managing partner of Price-Hanna Consultants which works with hygiene-product companies worldwide, says that diapers are a symbol of a Western-lifestyle of comfort and even luxury.

“[The disposable diaper] is a global standard of ‘the good life’--the western lifestyle. First they earn enough money to be able to be housed and eat, then afford television and then disposable baby diapers. It shows that they are treating their baby very, very well,” Hanna says.

So when Swift assumed that her mother-in-law would support her desire to use the training method with her infant daughter, she was wrong.

“I had to fight for that traditional practice,” Swift says. “Everyone of my mother- in- law’s generation were products of a cultural revolution…[the government] regulated everyone’s income. They took from the rich and gave to the poor, and it was very chaotic from the 50s through the 70s, really. So she grew up in a time where no one was allowed luxuries. So luxuries are addictive and exciting for her generation.”

This shift in the Chinese culture has had ripple effects across the global diaper industry. Pricie Hanna says they’ve seen growth in the Chinese markets between 23 to 25 percent in the last several years. But this growth has been only in very specific areas. For rural families, Hanna says, purchasing a luxury like disposable diapers is still out of the question.

“You really need to be over $5000 a year per capita on average before you see diaper usage begin to grow in a given country,” Hanna says. “There’s been a consistent migration from rural into urban areas for employment opportunities, and they are the ones who are driving diaper market growth in China.”

And that growth has even U.S. business booming. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal tells the story of a Virginia paper mill that was forced to close in 2009. The mill re-opened this year in response to the growing demand for “fluff pulp,” one of the main materials used in the making of disposable diapers being used in China.

While the practice of using these “luxury” items may becoming pervasive among families like Swift’s, she for one, has managed to hold on to some of the traditional practices both for cultural and her own environmental reasons.

“It’s hilarious…it’s like I’m the Chinese person!” Swift says. “At the moment things are going well, but I had to fight for it. We use a combined system. I bought reusable, cloth diapers.”