Kristin Cooper Rainey is passionate about reusable diapers.
One might reasonably ask: ‘Why?’ After all, they have what you might call an image problem, starting with the fact that they’re diapers, and, unlike their throwaway brethren, not exactly the most convenient solution to a problem as old as human heinies.
Truth be told, they also don’t really generate much profit for Rainey’s White Street business, Little Willow, which sells children’s clothing, baby carriers and toys.
But Rainey sees non-disposable nappies as a key element in a life lived with respect for the fragility of the natural environment. Simple as that. So she and her husband, Paul Rainey, have made natural-fiber, reusable diapers a part of their business, just as they’re a part of their everyday lives, thanks to their son, 19-month-old Simon.
redbankgreen visited Rainey recently for what turned out to be a pleasant chat about one of the most disgusting topics imaginable.
First, before we get to the good stuff, tell me about your background. You’re a librarian by training?
Yes, I was a librarian in New Hampshire. I was originally out in California doing computer stuff, and when we moved back to New Hampshire, where my husband’s family is from, I was thinking about what I wanted to do for a career. And I really enjoyed the Internet, and I enjoyed reading, and customer service so I said, ‘I can be a librarian and do all of those things!’ So I got my masters in library science at Simmons College in Boston.
And then Madbury, the teeny town next door to the one where we lived, opened its first public library ever, and I got to be their first librarian. So for three years I was the librarian in a small white ranch house that used to be the police station and was somebody’s house before that. It was wonderful. I loved it.
And then I had the baby, and we decided to move down to New Jersey to be near my family.
How do you go from that to selling all-natural babywear?
I got pregnant and started doing tons of research online. There are these forums, and I got involved, chatting with other pregnant moms. I started on one that’s quite mainstream, iVillage, and then went over to something called mothering.com which is a lot more… crunchy. And I fit in much better over there. I planned for a home birth for Simon. We do everything in a pretty crunchy manner, and it fit in with how I wanted to have my baby and to treat him after he was born.
What does being crunchy mean to you? A lot of people use it as a derogatory term.
We don’t use it as a derogatory term. We try to eat as healthy as we can. We’re not militant in any way. I’ll eat a hamburger every now and then, and we don’t beat ourselves up if we can’t eat natural. But I’m still breastfeeding Simon, and he’s 19 months old. The American Pediatric Association recommends breastfeeding a child up to age two, but seeing moms who breastfeed after six months is pretty unusual, really. He eats real food, too, but the breastfeeding is really healthy for him; he’s only been sick once.
So you have a hippie streak in you?
Somehow I do. I have no idea how I got here. I grew up in Westfield, New Jersey. My sister works in Manhattan. I do not have crunchy people in my lineage. It started with the baby, mostly.
And you don’t mind being called an ‘Earth mama?’
I’m fine with it.
Let’s talk about diapers. Given that you’re a librarian, might we assume you’ve researched the history of diapers?
Well, we did. The Wikipedia entry on diapers says that, in Elizabethan times, children would only have their diapers changed every few days.
Really? Oh, that’s so gross. But that’s probably people who were only taking a bath every three months, too.
We learned also that a woman named Maria Allen was the first to mass-produce cloth diapers, starting in 1887. So in the course of just a couple of centuries, the English-speaking world went from utter ignorance about the sanitary needs of children to churning out millions of diapers for their care.
Yeah… Cloth diapers used to be like, this big [arms spread], and you folded and folded and folded and folded to get it to this big, and you put it on with pins. Those were called flat diapers. Today, the most basic thing is what’s called a pre-fold. It’s got extra absorbency in the middle.
Everybody talks about their grandmothers using cloth diapers and some people talk about their parents using them, but they were very different back then. Now, there are so many available that it’s overwhelming. There are so many categories, and they overlap.[At this point, Rainey demonstrates a great variety of diapers and ways to combine absorbent and waterproof pieces, including pre-folds, pocket diapers, doublers, liners and hemp diapers. Childless redbankgreen struggles to keep up.]
Online, you’ll find hundreds of choices. We really try to make it as not-overwhelming as possible. We sell products that we have tried and feel are very good. And that was one of the main reasons we wanted to open the store. The cloth diapers are not a terribly profitable line of merchandise, but its a philosophy for us that we really love, and we wanted to share that.
Time magazine reported recently that while cloth diapers cost from $6 to $18 each, parents can use them take care of their baby’s needs straight through toilet training for a total cost of less than $300, whereas disposables may run up to $3,000.
Three-hundred is really the supercheapest you can do, if you’re going with pre-folds and covers. But the cost is definitely a plus.
The environmental benefits of cloth diapers are also a big plus. Paul was calculating how big a pile of diapers, the mass you would have if you did the disposables all day it’s a huge number. Newborns use a dozen diapers a day. After that, it’s about eight to 10 a day.
We had no idea. That’s an astonishing amount of ..
We talk about poo a lot in this field.
I imagine that a lot of your new customers are people who have either already determined they want to go natural or are, um, predisposed to the idea for environmental reasons. But isn’t it hard to win people over to non-disposables?
It is tricky, yeah. A lot of people just think they’re gross, and you cannot overcome the grossness factor. A lot of people are afraid of the laundry, but you can get away with doing just an extra load every two to three days.
That still sounds daunting.
Not if you set it up properly. [She demonstrates a storage bag that theoretically doesn’t let the smell out while its contents are fermenting.] So you don’t even have to touch them that much, and with the newborns, you don’t even have to rinse them off. You just throw them in this bag, and the bag goes into the washer with the diapers. They come out fine.
It is work, and if you don’t want to deal with that, there’s no way to overcome it. But think about it: if you have more than one child, you don’t have to buy any more diapers. And some of these diapers you can resell. ebay banned the sale of used diapers, but mothering.com and diaperpin.com have very active trading posts.
The disposable diaper industry argues that a lot of water is used to rinse and wash cloth diapers.
The disposable diaper manufacturers keep coming up with new reasons why cloth diapers are not environmentally friendly. But if you think of a pile of thousands of disposable diapers versus two dozen cloth diapers, it’s really simple.
Obviously, you have a bigger challenge than selling people on the eco-friendliness of cloth diapers. Even if someone agrees that reusables are the right choice, how do persuade them to interact with a reeking load of organic waste longer than they absolutely have to?
Actually, there are kind of two camps now. There are the people who are crunchy-hippie who want to do good for the environment, and then there’s kind of the new money, that also wants to do good for the environment. So there’s a lot of wealthy people coming in, and they’re two very different camps of people.
The people who are already hippie-crunchy don’t really need me that much; they know these are good products. I want to target the people who are reading, like Cookie magazine, which is an upscale Conde Nast publication. I want to reach the mainstream market.