Pampers (P&G) use of wood pulp
Pampers in rush to exit pulp sourcing
In 1956, P&G researcher Victor Mills disliked changing the cloth diapers of his newborn grandchild. So he assigned fellow researchers in P&G’s Exploratory Division in Miami Valley, Ohio to look into making a better disposable diaper3. Pampers were introduced in 1961.
These early diapers were bulky, heavy products composed of fluff pulp (made of wood) with a rayon topsheet, polyethylene backsheet.
P&G in order to control the quality and have a reliable source of fluff pulp (wood), actually bought 650K acers in North Florida and started harvesting the forest to produce pulp for the pampers diapers.
In 1986, thin diapers made with absorbent gelling (also known as super-absorbent polymer) material were released. The reason for this move was more performance improvement and less sustainability. In 1986 sustainability was not really an issue for the consumer and there were not any financial incentives to use environmentally sustainable procedures. This made the average weight of a typical medium size diaper decrease by 50% and reduced pulp usage by ~60% per diaper.
In the 1990s Pampers introduced a thinner diaper known as Ultra Dry Thins. This move was actually the next generation of superabsorbent polymer which also reduced pulp (wood) usage by ~20%. A new problem came to life with this evolution. The super-absorbent polymer (co-developed by P&G, Nippon-Shokubai and BASF) was super effective to transform fluids into gel (solid) but the reaction took 2-3 seconds. (You can check the YouTube link to better understand the way the super absorbent works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-g_0wyhV9E ). As this delay was affecting the performance of the diaper, P&G developed a new fluff pulp, called CS10 and IP protected, material from a special pine tree in North Florida which combined with a new material called AQL (acquisition layer) made out of carded nonwovens (neither spun-bond nor spun-melt) which is made of an IP protected combination of PP and PET fibers. The combination of these materials created a top performing core for Pampers which became the core competence for P&G growth globally.
In the meantime, as Procter & Gamble had reduced its dependence on wood for diapers, decided to exit the lumber business as it was no longer core business. The deal was split in two pieces. The one piece was the deal for the material P&G was no longer using. The deal included the sale of the majority of the land of North Florida and Georgia to Trust Company of the West Minority investors. The amount of the deal is estimated to be around $500M. Today the value of this land is over $1B4. The second part of the deal included the part of the Forrest with the special pine tree that P&G uses to create the CS10 material. The buyer of this land was Weyerheauser. The deal also included selling the CS10 IP and a long-term deal of supply of CS10.
As P&G was growing by double digit figures year on year, in 2002 it became clear that there was not enough supply of pine trees to ensure supply of CS10 to supply the growth of Pampers. At the time Pampers was ~$10B business and the dependency in one material that was sourced from a forest in North Florida was something the business decided to change.
In 2004 Pampers started research to create a pulp (wood) free core.
In 2008 P&G made public commitments to reduce its environmental footprint by 6% per unit by 2012. In 2012 the plan was ready to be introduced. They managed to create a bigger, more sophisticated AQL (7th generation) that could completely eliminate the use of pulp without compromising the performance of the diaper.
The new pulp free product was introduced to Western Europe markets in 2013 with catastrophic results. The pulp was acting as an odor absorbent factor and diapers after 4-6 months in storage, started to have a strong chemical odor. Although there was absolutely no risk for the health of the babies, Procter & Gamble recalled all the new products. As P&G was planning to exit Weyerheauser1, no contact was in place. As P&G wanted to ensure continuity, signed a new 4-year deal with Weyerheauser with a premium of more than $50M per year while the state of Florida publicly committed to shut down the pulp mills and the harvesting of the forest by 20205.
P&G will soon run into the risk of having to change their core and compromise the performance of the diaper.
In 2016, P&G re-introduced pulp free diapers in the premium tier (yellow series with the “magic pods”) that contain lotion (prevents from noticing chemical smell).
Currently P&G is working hard to eliminate pulp from their diapers and plans to eliminate pulp from their diaper cores in 2018 but they do not have a solution to the odor issue yet.
Student comments on Pampers (P&G) use of wood pulp
Great article on the history of Pampers, Alexandros! I definitely understand the strength of the business decision Victor Mills made all those years ago in developing disposable diapers, since cloth diapers are by far more work. However, to be honest I find it very ironic that many companies today are on a mission to eliminate pulp from their diapers in order to make them “environmentally friendly” when their core product, disposable diapers, are completely at odds with being environmentally friendly. Disposable diapers account for 2% of the total garbage in the U.S. and one of the largest contributors to landfills overall – thus the industry itself is very detrimental to the environment. ( http://www.parents.com/baby/diapers/cloth/eco-friendly-diapering/ ). Despite that, companies like Earthy’s Best Organic and Nature BabyCare, who both make “green” diapers, use the fact that their diapers are “environmentally friendly” as their core platform to attract consumers. My question is – can making disposable diapers ever really be environmentally friendly? Are companies being smart marketing themselves as environmentally friendly disposable diapers, when the people that truly are environmentally conscious and willing to spend more money to live accordingly will likely revert back to cloth diapers to begin with?
There are a couple things that stand out to me – first, I had no idea that companies regularly invested in natural resources (e.g. Pampers buying a forest). It makes sense from a vertical integration perspective and and obviously gives the company complete control but I also cannot understand why P&G would want to to take on the headache of dealing with an asset that is not in their core competency. The other thing I struggle with is how to incentivize companies that produce goods with inelastic demand to actually change their practices. Recently, so much of the pressure on companies to change their practices has been coming from consumers who are increasingly conscious of where their item is being sourced from. However, diapers aren’t really a product that stir up that kind of a response because parents want something reliable and easy for their children and are highly unlikely to take risks on a product that is new to market. This made me think of the rise in start-ups that produce environmentally friendly tampons. While there is significant competition in the space, I’m not sure they are gaining enough traction with the consumer to be economically viable. Both diapers and tampons are use cases where consumers are weary and tend to be blind to the environmental impact. Not saying that that is right, but it seems like a much larger shift in mentality to get them to buy into to sustainability for these products.
Alexandros, this had some really helpful background on the history and manufacturing of diapers, something I know very little about! I agree with Lindsey that it is challenging to see how P&G’s disposable diapers could really be environmentally friendly or sustainable. It also seems like Earth’s Best may be a very similarly priced diaper (just a few cents more) and better functional item along dimensions such as fit, leakage, absorbency, and comfort.
Even if it has reduced the wood pulp content, does P&G have plans to reduce its use of other materials in its diapers that may not contribute to their environmental sustainability? For example, is it planning to substitute particular synthetics for biodegradable counterparts? I would also be curious to see how P&G was able to recover from its “disastrous” 2013 launch of the new diaper, and if that has reduced its willingness to try to innovate with future diapers.
 Juliet Spurrier, MD and BabyGearLab Team, “Green Diapers vs. Traditional: What’s the Best Choice?”, February 13, 2015, http://www.babygearlab.com/a/11114/Green-Diapers-vs-Traditional-Whats-the-Best-Choice, accessed November 2016.
Great outline of the history and navigation around sustainability of Pampers Alexandros! Like TD21, I’m a bit skeptical of how changing the materials will be more sustainable. It will reduce their exposure to wood for sure, but overall may cause less biodegradable material in the landfills. Definitely appreciate the effort by the company though.
I’d be interested to see how well the 2016 premium tier diapers are doing in terms of sales. We have plenty of reports indicating that the consumer is more sustainability minded, but I wonder if that is still too small of a segment to make a dent in such a bulk purchase such as diapers.
As an experienced baby diaper changer, I can definitely see how this can be a problem. Currently my daughter needs around 10-12 diaper changes a day. Just imagine how many diapers that means for a year (4,380 per year in my case to be exact). At a price of ~50 USD for a box of 160 that makes it an annual expense of 1,335 USD. In general, parents are concern about this expense, this can be a huge expense for many families and adding a price premium for it to become biodegradable might be a complicated thing for middle class families to digest.
As a parent, I really care about three things: quality, convenience and price. Having to deal with complicated products or experimental products is always a challenge because parents will usually be wary of testing a new diaper that might risk the baby’s health. Reducing the amount of diapers a baby used, quite frankly might be impossible because that is a natural thing. Even if you had a diaper that could have more absorption, I wouldn’t want my baby to be wearing a dirty diaper, even if you told me scientifically that it wasn’t dirty.
There is definitely some great challenges for Pampers to solve, but they need to keep in mind the end used which in my experience might not be fully on board on trying to save the planet before their own children.
Alexandros, thank you for the post. I wonder whether P&G may approach sustainability differently depending on the region. I imagine that consumers in developed countries are more willing to pay a premium for more sustainable products than those in emerging markets. Should P&G commit significant capital to R&D on more environmentally-friendly Pampers with the hope that consumers will reward it for such a move? I would love to hear more from P&G about its plans to improve other brands to be more sustainable.
At this point, firms such as P&G should be designing for sustainability. The R&D and product development processes should incorporate sustainability as a key pillar. As more consumers begin to demand more environmentally-friendly products, such a strategy will yield returns.