In this series of interviews our volunteer interviewer and writer Louise Turner has been speaking with leading voices in climate activism, discussing why climate justice is a feminist issue.
Joy founded Nappy Ever After in 2003 after discovering washable nappies via publicity about Wen’s Real Nappy Week Campaign. Based in Hackney, the nappy laundry service gives parents the opportunity to try reusables with a no pressure approach. The bicycle and electric transport run local laundry service makes a reusable option easy and sustainable. Joy managed Real Nappies for London between 2007-2016. Before her real nappy career she worked in investigative journalism and taught media studies at further- education level. She is also a Wen Trustee.
You’ve written that “Nappy Ever After is more an activist organisation than a business”, can you share what this means?
We’re going against the tide. It’s so weighted in favor of the norm that Nappy Ever After can’t be a viable business. That’s why I say we are more activists. We’re preparing the ground, as are our customers who don’t want to use so-called disposable nappies for when the business environment offers a level playing field.
When I started out in 2003 the Labour government was in power, they had just published a waste strategy ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ and in that strategy was nappy washing businesses. It was different times, Ken Livingstone had just become mayor of London and in his draft Waste strategy was nappy washing businesses too!. I thought this is a business, probably they’re going to put a tax on disposables and even up the playing field… but then we went backwards.
[photo courtesy of Joy Vick]
You’ve mentioned the uneven playing field and going against norms as disadvantages. How would you describe some of the challenges you face and the way you respond to them?
Nappy Ever After can’t grow and ‘scale up’ as any normal 18 year old business because the conditions are so unfavourable. When the average spend on disposable nappies per week, which includes free disposal and convenient purchasing with your supermarket shop, is only £9 per week and we need to charge £15 per week for the laundry service, there’s no way you can call it a viable business. Any normal person would close the business down as unviable.
What’s more there is a plan to replace the existing North London incinerator with a much bigger one meaning that reducing nappy waste (any waste actually) just means that the incinerator will need to import waste to the area to ensure there is enough for it to operate efficiently! See the effective campaign on Twitter @stoptherebuild
So why carry on? Because there is demand. From people who live in tiny flats, or basement flats with no access to outdoor drying space with wind and sunshine and on barges. More and more people are starting families while living on barges and they tend to have a deep psychological need to live a low-waste life. We love to help them do it. They should have the option.
We find out what is going on in the world of waste and can then publicise it to decision-makers. Just one example; a few years ago I was invited to speak with a London waste authority; they had to be able to say they had explored supporting their residents in using washable nappies. What I was told in that meeting was that actually they need disposable nappy waste and food waste for the ‘incineration mix.’ Tyres are a problem, they generate too much heat so when they burn tyres they need the dampness of nappy and food waste to stop the incinerator overheating. That kind of insider information is priceless. I was able to inform councillors supportive of ‘energy from waste plants’ of this barrier to getting waste authorities to feel motivated about zero waste.
What keeps you going in the face of such pressures?
My main motivation for starting Nappy Ever After was observing that children were staying longer and longer in nappies during the day and night. Changing a baby’s nappy is fun, enjoyable contact time with a baby. Changing a three year old tends to be a battle. It does not improve the lives of children or parents, can lead to serious nappy rash and even child abuse. It’s difficult to understand that a child can be so capable of doing puzzles, feeding themselves, dressing and undressing but not take themselves at will to the toilet.
This change wasn’t an accident, as the parent of a young child in nappies, I witnessed a health visitor (whose own children would have potty trained around 2 and night trained around 3) tell the parent next to me at the clinic not to bother potty training her daughter until three and a half at the earliest and night train until seven. Luckily this was not the mother’s first child and she looked aghast and said “you’ve got to be joking.” Leaving children in nappies longer and longer is obviously great business for the disposable nappy industry and it was their strategy. I know this because a close friend of mine runs a market research company that has had contracts with major disposable nappy companies.
This is not unique to Nappy Ever After. The cloth nappy industry as a whole has worked to intervene in the ‘research’ of the disposable nappy industry that said coming out of nappies before three and a half damages the child’s development. Yes, truly, this is what they said and now we have, shamefully, usually in some of the most deprived areas of the country, about one third of children turning up for school still wearing nappies. And then there’s nappy poverty where people have to make a choice between buying nappies, food, new shoes or heating.
Do you think reusable projects need to be integrated into local economies and services so that an extra ‘green’ burden isn’t created on women?
One of the things I’m very mindful of over the years is not assuming it’s women who do the washing. It’s not hard to open a washing machine. It takes time but I just think it’s so important, especially with what has just happened with this tragic event of Sarah Everand. We’ve got to change relationships. When we assume men don’t deal with these things we’re robbing them of something rewarding and enjoyable. Putting nappies out on the line and collecting them up, they’re all clean and you haven’t thrown them away. It’s a rewarding activity. So that’s one of the things I’m really passionate about. You don’t just want one partner to be responsible and we’ve got single parents to think about as well.
The washing doesn’t stop with nappies either. The big thing in London is not having any space to dry them so you’re going to have a damp, unhealthy environment. That’s why London and other big cities really need laundry services. A lot of people can’t wash and dry their sheets easily in a small flat. So it shouldn’t just be nappies. It’s great and you get these economies of scale which are green economies as well. So yes there should be more to relieve the burden on our washing machines, the burden on us and the danger of damp flats. It must be local because once you start traveling miles and miles, it’s not economical and it’s not green either. I don’t
know whether they should be subsidised but we have to think about the playing field. It shouldn’t be the case that it’s economically advantageous to use the bad option. It’s insane. Why do we encourage ‘throw and burn’ of nappies or encourage people to wash their sheets in a way that takes up more energy and makes their flats damp? Using bikes as well, freight bikes, makes sense if it’s local. It just makes it doable.
What about some of the social benefits?
I mean laundrettes are a great social hub. I remember I saw footage from the 1970s, my teenage years, and there were these interviews with these mainly women who would say, “we just love it, it gets us out of the house, this is our favorite time of the week”. They were seniors, isolated people. So the laundrette can be a great hub.
I know you’ve mentioned about nappy laundry services being subsidized. Do you see any other routes to get this more mainstream?
Yes, there’s a lot of ways and ways we’ve had in the past which have disappeared. For example, the best marketing for washable nappies would be if maternity wards and birth centres were using cotton nappies. So the first nappy put on by the midwife was a cloth nappy, it would make it normal. It would also be advantageous for the hospital.
They should be seen, discussed as a norm at maternity classes, antenatal classes. So that’s the thing. It’s not very difficult to reach people. Very few babies are born without interaction with maternity services. It’s a choice like say, to breastfeed, you don’t have to but there are big advantages. It’s free and healthy. It’s just about getting the right people to give people alternative information and invite them in.
What’s frustrating is that it hasn’t got easier to reach expectant parents. It’s got harder and we’re on the edge of climate emergency, loss of biodiversity and this is such an easy and healthy switch. The changes that need to be made they’re not difficult: growing our own food, wasting less, buying less, getting things repaired, cycling instead of using cars for local journeys.
What led you to get started? How did you get involved…
The first real nappy week happened during my second pregnancy and that’s when I heard about Wen and the Real Nappy Association. That was a great help in getting hold of information about washable nappies. The next thing that happened was with the agents of change agenda and Wen telling me in it’s monthly newsletter you’ve got to get onto your council and tell them “it’s a real nappy week coming up, what are you doing?”.
[photo courtesy of Joy Vick]
I used to do that. I did what Wen told me to do. I phoned up and usually they just said, “oh no”. It was Camden council and they said “we think mothers have enough to do, we’re not going to ask that of them”. Then one year there was a different officer and she said, “come in and let’s talk about it”. So I went in and showed her the washable nappies and said, “what are you going to do?”. She said, “what are you going to do?”! That’s how between us we sort of birthed Nappy Ever After.
It was strange, you know, that there was that officer who actually listened, and then said, “let’s do it together”. The collaboration. And it was a female officer.
I know you’ve kind of been keen to emphasize the fact that, you know, sharing these responsibilities and parent led as well. At the moment with women shouldering the majority of care work do you think they’ve got a unique position to come up with these types of solutions to the environmental crisis?
I don’t say they’re unique. They’re just undeveloped or underdeveloped in men. There’s no greater joy than looking after children. It’s just a beautiful thing.Nobody lies on their deathbed saying, “I wish I’d spent less time with my children”.
People who are dependent for whatever reason, physically, mentally, and also the older generation, they have so much that they give us back as carers. What I’d say is that as females, we tend to be more experienced in being collaborative, in being uncompetitive in, in caring, in those kinds of things. But it’s time we gave more men the opportunity to discover the joy and understand the beauty and rewards of caring too.
Thank you so much for speaking with me, Joy!
What on earth can we do about waste? – Islington Labour Environment Forum. Watch the recording of the webinar that took place in March 2021. Speakers: Nicky Gavron – Former Deputy Mayor Of London; Councillor Rowena Champion – Islington Executive Member for Environment & Transport and member of the North London Waste Authority; Georgia Elliott-Smith – Campaigner and UNESCO Special Junior Envoy for Youth & the Environment ; Rembrandt Koppelaar – Economist specialising in circular economy and decarbonization, working with XR Zero Waste on how local authorities can achieve 70% recycling and 50% residual waste reduction. Watch here.
Is Recycling Nappies Really Circular Economy? – read blog by Nappy Ever After here.
Louise Turner is an MSc Environmental Governance student at The University of Manchester and volunteer at Wen.