Babies should be burped regularly, so it’s no wonder that caregivers have several burp cloths on hand to prevent messes. To avoid environmental harm, it’s important to be aware of the types of messes these burp cloths can cause further up their supply chain.
WHAT TO BE WISE ON
When it comes to burp cloths, there are three main things to consider. First, the cloths should be soft enough for a baby’s delicate skin. Second, they should be large and absorbent to protect everyone from the inevitable mess. And finally, they should have a minimal environmental footprint. There are burp cloths that can be soft and absorbent without compromising environmental and human health. Here’s what to keep top of mind when purchasing new burp cloths.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Muslin, a loosely woven cotton fabric, is one of the most popular fabrics for burp cloths. This makes sense, since cotton is the most widely used natural fiber on the planet. Unfortunately, it is a water intensive crop that takes a significant toll on the soil and is associated with deforestation. Cotton is also particularly vulnerable to pests and other insects, which has led to a flourishing agrochemical industry around its cultivation. Almost 5% of global pesticide sales and 10% of global insecticides sales come from the cotton industry. Luckily, some cotton is grown in ways that can be kinder to our planet (see Organic Cotton below). In general, a plant-based material like cotton requires less energy to manufacture than a petroleum-based alternative like polyester.
Organic cotton means that the crop is grown without relying on the use of harmful chemicals, leaving the soil, air, and water with fewer contaminants. In an LCA looking at the differences between organic cotton and conventional cotton, the Textile Exchange found that organic cotton produces 46% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, creates 70% less acidification of land and water, the potential for soil erosion drops 26%, surface and groundwater use falls 91%, and the demand for energy can drop by as much as 62%. While we think burp cloths made with organic cotton are the best option, we recognize that they’re harder to come by. Less than 1% of all cotton produced is organic. If you can’t find organic cotton options, we still recommend using conventional cotton cloths over plastic.
Polyester is a plastic fiber that’s derived from fossil fuels. Extracting petroleum (which is needed to produce polyester) involves drilling and fracking, which have a host of negative environmental consequences (*cough*, oil spills, *cough*) that are not infrequent and can devastate already fragile wildlife populations. The environmental effects of drilling overwhelmingly impact people of color and low-income folks, who are more likely to live in communities near these sites. If that wasn’t bad enough, the chemical treatments used by polyester manufacturers are toxic and known to cause neurological damage and even cancer at high levels of exposure, putting factory workers at risk. Plus, every time polyester gets washed, it sheds microplastics (tiny pieces of plastic threads) that enter our waterways and devastate marine ecosystems or even find their way into our bodies. The Plastic Soup Foundation estimates that up to 35% of plastic polluting in our oceans comes from microfibers shed by synthetic fabrics. We’ll pass!
If you really prefer polyester burp cloths, look out for ones made with recycled materials. Recycling uses significantly less energy than making polyester from scratch. Studies have found that using recycled polyester cut water requirements in production by two-thirds, and could lead to a 59% reduction in energy use.
When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications to look out for on burp cloths.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
GOTS is the gold standard of textile certifications (which is why we like to pronounce it as GOAT-S). It requires that at least 70% of materials in the product are organic and that the product complies with multiple environmental and social criteria along its entire supply chain. If you opt for burp cloths made with cotton, definitely prioritize finding this label.
The OEKO-TEX standard guarantees that every component of a product has been tested for potentially harmful substances such as pesticides, heavy metals, and formaldehyde, which predominantly impact people working at manufacturing facilities. This label means that the product is relatively harmless to human health, which is great for the people who make the burp cloths AND the babies who use them.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS
When it comes down to burp cloths, there are two material routes to go: natural vs. synthetic. With natural materials (aka cotton/muslin) comes significant water usage to cultivate the crop. With synthetic materials (aka polyester) comes petroleum extraction. Neither is great for the planet, but if we had to recommend one material over another, we suggest organic cotton burp cloths. If you opt for cotton, make sure it’s GOTS or OEKO-TEX certified.
COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET
“What kind of burp cloths are the most sustainable?”
While there’s really no such thing as “sustainable” burp cloths because they always use energy and water as a result of washing, we came up with this list of more sustainable burp cloths based on what they’re made of.
“Which burp cloths are non-toxic?”
To be honest, ‘non-toxic’ doesn’t actually mean much of anything. In fact, no chemical or material is purely “non-toxic”. Instead of saying “non-toxic”, scientists will determine whether something is NOAEL (aka it has ‘No Observed Adverse Effect Level’). The NOAEL is the highest amount of a chemical an organism can be exposed to before it begins showing some sort of toxic response, like getting sick or developing a rash. When it comes to burp cloths, there aren’t any materials that are explicitly NOAEL, so don’t fall for greenwash-y claims that the cloths are non-toxic.
“Are burp cloths necessary?”
Not necessarily. While you absolutely will need to be cleaning up spit up from baby belches all day long, a clean, soft towel will do the trick. Having designated burp cloths for these messes will likely make your life easier, but special burp cloths don’t need to be purchased to accomplish that.