My short bio: I’m Kathleen McGrory, the Tampa Bay Times reporter who spent months investigating the diaper industry. I learned diapers are tiny miracles of industrial science, and the technology that keeps babies dry has improved dramatically over the last few decades. Today’s diapers are carefully engineered to absorb a large amount of urine and then instantly dry out. And they are soft. Really soft. To show how they work, my colleague Eli Zhang tore some open, filmed them absorbing squirts of water, and made this interactive graphic.

Our reporting found that manufacturers face pressure to make products that are fancier and longer lasting (i.e. more expensive). But we also discovered that one in three families in the United Stars struggle to afford diapers, and public assistance programs don’t give much help to parents who need these essential products.

Click here to read the story, then AUA!

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Comments: 79 • Responses: 24  • Date: 

Lichruler74 karma

Be honest with me...

Is the diaper industry full of shit?

KatMcGrory15 karma

Ha! We have also had fun with diaper puns!

Chasing_Sin30 karma

Are you aware of any efforts being made to make diapers more biodegradable?

KatMcGrory26 karma

Oh yes, absolutely. This is an entire subject we weren't able to cover in the story. The industry is very much interested in making disposable diapers more environmentally friendly. Some diapers (including the ones made by the manufacturer Poof) claim to already be completely biodegradable. Others are making strides to make their products more biodegradable.

KatMcGrory24 karma

An industry insider told me the technology already exists to make diapers recyclable, and that it will likely become the industry standard in the not-too-distant future.

RufusMcCoot3 karma

Did you not cover this because it would paint manufacturers in a positive light and you either wanted to, or were directed to, paint them in a negative light?

KatMcGrory21 karma

We did indeed mention that the industry is moving to make diapers more environmentally friendly. We didn't have space to get into the broader debate over the environmental impact of disposable diapers. Some environmentalists are concerned about the amount of space disposable diapers take up in landfills. The diaper industry, however, argues that disposable diapers have less of a carbon footprint than cloth diapers, which have to be washed in very hot water. There's a lot to unpack there. It could be an article itself.

halfhere21 karma

Did any of your research include adult diaper tech? Seemingly, baby diapers are on the cutting edge of innovation, whereas adult diaper companies reached an ok “average” performance and appeared to all agree to not push the envelope any further. Babies are in the space age, while adults are still making due with Ford Pintos and El Caminos.

Have y’all noticed this? Or is there an identifiable reason for this disparity?

KatMcGrory8 karma

That's such an interesting question. We ran into some of the adult diaper folks at the industry conference in Austin. I was under the impression that innovation was taking place in that sector, too. To be honest, we were largely focused on baby diapers.

LegendaryCichlid15 karma

What is the actual cost to make a diaper? What kind of mark up are we suffering through?

KatMcGrory28 karma

Hey there! Thanks for starting us off! We had a hard time getting anyone in the industry to give us a precise answer to that question. But we have a sense from consultants that the markup is a few cents per diaper. That may not seem like a lot, but the industry relies on volume. And billions of diapers are sold annually.

KatMcGrory18 karma

One of the most interesting things I learned was that diaper prices vary dramatically country to country. Factories in places like Latin America make reliable products for much less. But the cheaper products aren't as soft, and as a result, don't sell as well in the United States.

lazyassdog1 karma

Isnt that kinda not comparing apples to apples though?

KatMcGrory3 karma

I think you can make the comparison in the context of the global market. You need the caveat, though.

lazyassdog2 karma

Wouldn't a better comparison be the markup on the product between countries.

If Mexico for example has a lower quality diaper, but the markup is 60% compared to a more expensive product in the states with a more reasonable 20% markup.

KatMcGrory3 karma

I totally agree. I bet that markup does vary. I don't have hard numbers on it.

tnrc20999 karma

So why do diapers cost so much? Is it because that fancy technology (love the cross-section photos, by the way) costs a lot to make? Or because companies can get away with it and there's little transparency around the industry?

KatMcGrory11 karma

All of those things. Much of the cost is in the raw materials. There's the nonwoven top sheet (an engineered fabric that acts as a one-way valve to keep the urine inside the diaper), the superabsorbent polymer inside the diaper's core that traps the liquid. The production costs are also a major factor. Some factories can produce 1,000 diapers per minute!

KatMcGrory11 karma

The big companies are also spending big money on innovation (i.e. research and development) and advertising and marketing. But you are right to point out that there is little transparency around the industry, so we don't know the exact breakdowns.

unek9 karma

In article (and in the comments) you noted that you were not able to get a specific manufacturing cost/margin from a manufacturer.

The consultant you worked with gave a profit margin of only a few cents (2 cents). Was there some credible research or a secondary confirmation for this number?

I understand the profit-through-volume concept, but 2 cents sounds like a crazy low margin per unit... especially considering a comparable industry model in razer blades, which maintains far higher profit margins.

KatMcGrory3 karma

I seem to remember reading that the razor example was an extreme case. I think that's why there are so many startups in that space. In the case of baby diapers, you'd be looking at about 8 percent, which isn't extreme, but is certainly profitable... As for your question about credible research, I haven't been able to track down any published figures.

unek3 karma

thanks for replying so quickly. 8 percent makes sense, sounds a lot more reasonable framed that way than the 2 cents I had in my head.

If I could pick away a little further:

Is most of that manufacturing cost sunk into the process or the materials?

Is there any indications that diaper manufacturers/designers are throwing in frivolous design details to increase costs/margins? (were older models comparable and lower costs at some point?)

You named BASF specifically as the manufacture of the absorbent polymer. Are the manufacturers captive to them or do they have alternate options?

Thanks again. I don't have any kids nor do I plan on having them any time soon... but I work as an engineer and the process behind this is interesting to me.

KatMcGrory3 karma

Happy to answer your great questions.

I wasn't able to find out the exact breakdown of costs, but materials and production are obviously both big drivers. On the production side of things, modern diaper factories can produce as many as 1,000 pieces per minute, which is impressive considering diapers are floppy objects and not easily managed. The manufacturers sink a lot of money into capital and capital improvements.

Keep in mind that the so-called "branded leaders" are also spending on research and development. (They come up with the innovations. Everyone else follows suit.) On top of that, they have large budgets for marketing and advertising. This is where a lot of the cost differential between the name-brand and the generic diapers comes in.

I don't get the sense that the design improvements are frivolous. For example, parents like the features that prevent poop from getting everywhere. And they really like the overnight diapers because they help babies sleep for longer increments. Many are willing to pay for the upgrades. You could argue the aesthetic features like Disney characters or artsy designs are unnecessary, but some parents see a value-add there.

As for superabsorbent polymer, I'm told there are fewer than a half-dozen companies producing SAP these days. There used to be many more. But since there aren't a ton of uses for SAP, I'm sure the diaper manufacturers are able to get a decent deal.

masterofshadows5 karma

My wife and I opted for reusable diapers. This literally saved us thousands of dollars over 2 children. Have you done, or do you plan to do any research into the reusable diaper market?

KatMcGrory10 karma

We did indeed look into cloth diapers, but learned that for many low-income families, they simply aren't a viable option. For one, they can be challenging to launder if you don't have a washing machine at home. And many daycares require parents to bring disposables. That said, I know many families prefer cloth, for the environment and the cost savings. I bet I could have written an entire article on the subject.

thewindsofsong2 karma

If families are struggling to afford diapers, where is the pressure for more expensive, higher performing products coming from?

KatMcGrory10 karma

Another good question. I think part of it comes from market forces. The way to make good money in this industry is to make the best quality products. But I think part of it comes from the psychology of parenting. Parents want the best for their kids, and in many cases, are willing to forgo buying things for themselves in order to buy better things for their children.

palbuddy12342 karma

Great article, great research! I'm wondering if the various companies work with each other to keep the prices somewhat constant. It seems they are so close together, and have almost the same features. To what extent is there collusion in the diaper market?

KatMcGrory4 karma

The companies actually go to great lengths to keep their innovations secret. Huggies, for example, can charge a little more when it has technology Pampers doesn't. That's why they don't allow visitors in their factories or innovation labs. I suspect it is a large part of the reason they wouldn't talk to us for our story.

That said, even in this competitive environment, the companies tend to be working on similar things. Case in point: Both Huggies and Pampers recently rolled out tiny, ultra-sensitive diapers for micro-preemies.

You make a good point that the prices are generally consistent (i.e. Huggies to Pampers, Walmart brand to Target brand). But I think that's largely driven by the market. Parents have choices, and are somewhat sensitive to price.

azkaban_2 karma

What kind of resources are available to people suffering from this insane markup?

KatMcGrory7 karma

Low-income parents can use cash assistance to help them buy diapers. But other programs for like the poor like food stamps and WIC (a supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children) don't help with diapers.

KatMcGrory6 karma

More and more civic activists and community leaders are starting diaper banks, which are non-profits that provide diapers and other baby supplies. The National Diaper Bank Network has some good resources and information on that work. But there is still a lot of unmet need.

NoOneOnReddit1 karma

Well, simply, why DO diapers cost so much?

KatMcGrory1 karma

In a nutshell, it's the raw materials, production costs and technology. We found out that diapers are a lot more complex than you might think.

Shifty0x881 karma

Why should I buy these expensive diapers? Like what is the benefit to my hypothetical baby? What happened to the reusable diapers? Too much work, and our throw-away society?

KatMcGrory1 karma

The highest-end disposable diapers tend to be organic and all natural. So that might be one reason. Some of the more expensive products from brands like Huggies and Pampers are specially designed to toddlers on the move, or can keep a baby dry for up to 12 hours. Some parents are willing to pay for those features.

Cloth diapers are definitely still a thing, but as we point out in the story, they aren't viable options for some low-income families who don't rely on daycare.

thesecretsofnothing1 karma

They cost so much because they are a necessity that can be sold for that much.. what other amazing research have you done?

KatMcGrory1 karma

That's definitely a factor, but I don't think it is that simple.

puhisurfer1 karma

Why do diapers cost so much?

KatMcGrory1 karma

It's all in the story.

ivnwng-1 karma

Why does diapers cost so much?

KatMcGrory5 karma

The cost is driven by the raw materials, the production, the research and development, the marketing. We lay it out in the story!

slywillie-1 karma

Should I wear a diaper instead of a traditional bathing suit?

KatMcGrory1 karma

Probably not.