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.