modern cloth nappies
Behind the brand Living with cloth

#59: Focus on what’s important

Just start – you don’t have to be perfect! Leaks are normal! We love the sage advice of New Zealand cloth nappy brand founder, Alexis, and there’s much more to come in today’s interview. Alexis has developed her own version of the “perfect” cloth nappy (stretch was a must), but she continues to advocate for the use of multiple brands, for “there is no such thing as one brand that fits all”. As a midwife and nutritionist, she also advocates for parents following their intuition. We must learn to slow down and focus on what’s important, she says. And one of those important things is the environment. “We have a finite amount of liveable area; we don’t want them uninhabitable.”
Read on to find out how Alexis manages the juggle of dual business owner, mother to one “full of beans, strong willed and determined little monkey” and partner to her primary school best friend.
Welcome, Alexis @kekoa.nz
Tell us a little about yourself, your family, and where you live?

Surely, I’m not alone at leaving this question until last … I was born and raised in Auckland to a middle-class family. My mom is American so by birth I am also, and we spent many years travelling back and forth to visit family and get out of our winter. When I was tiny, I wanted to be an obstetrician, then a vet, then a forensic scientist (too many crime programs I think) and I finally settled back on obstetrics before spending a year sick – which crushed that dream but opened the doors to nutrition, sport science and physiology. Whilst I loved this, I still felt drawn back to medical school until someone suggested midwifery – a profession which focussed holistically on the normal process of childbirth. I completed that degree as well and during those forty million years at school, I worked in a vet clinic and pharmacy.

Fast forward and I’ve been a midwife for 9 years now, am married to my primary school best friend (yes, we met age 10) and have a full of beans, strong willed and determined little monkey! We made the move from Auckland to Wanaka last year and are loving the slower lifestyle (I say this, however, it’s manic managing little dude AND running two businesses). We of course miss family, friends and all we’ve ever known. I am currently missing travel, as this became an almost yearly event for us, and the friends we have living overseas.

How would your family and friends describe you?

And leaving this question until second to last … I suspect they would use words like kind, helpful, calm, intelligent, critical thinker, logical, empathetic, driven, determined, sensitive (I asked my family). It’s nice to see words included which maybe aren’t deemed “good” traits as we all have our faults.

You are the face behind the recently launched cloth nappy brand, Kekoā. Tell us, from where did the inspiration to begin your own nappy brand come?

When we started with a friend’s stash of nappies, it became apparent how different brands were and that no two OSFM pocket nappies for example were the same. Having looked at the range we were loaned no one nappy had exactly what we needed – whether that be features or size. And so started the quest for “the perfect nappy” (is there such a thing?) and the introduction of our core range whilst I continued product development in the background.

I also found myself living in an area where, although there was a shortage of my profession, the work opportunities + tiny human meant I couldn’t easily do what I was doing … so post maternity leave, I let the creative side loose and voila … I’m sitting here writing out an interview on Kekoā!

What features were important for you when designing your own cloth nappy?

STRETCH! It was apparent from an early age that little dude didn’t like anything restrictive. We struggled to get a nappy which did up tight enough to contain but loose enough he could move. We also wanted something easy to clean as I found many internal fabrics seemed to absorb/hold onto messes and therefore stain easier.

You have said that cloth nappies are a huge step in the right direction for reducing waste. Can you share your take on the environmental benefits of reusable nappies?

I think for me the biggest perk is the volume of waste reduced from landfill. Cloth nappies – like disposables – don’t break down, they are essentially plastic, and add that to a closed “bacteria free” environment and nothing is going to happen. BUT, using cloth full time for one child saves 7,000 nappies from landfill! Good long-lasting brands can see two or three children through and save 14,000-21,000 disposables. Even just one a day saves over 1,000 during those three years so no amount of cloth use is detrimental – it’s not a competition.

There is definitely advantages when it comes to water used to produce a disposable vs reusables, but the biggest issue I see is how do you go about storing something (i.e. landfill) that won’t breakdown. We have a finite amount of liveable area; we don’t want them uninhabitable. Plus, this just takes into consideration developed nations where landfills are an option …

I love that pee (human’s water waste) goes back into the system i.e. by washing it out, it returns back to the ocean. Disposables hold that water and don’t let it back into the environment – I’m big on balance.

Part of your brand philosophy is to do your best by those in your manufacturing supply chain. Can you tell us what ethical manufacturing means to you?

For me it’s about adhering to standards we consider “normal” in New Zealand. For example, minimum working age, working of your own volition, adequate breaks per day and rest per week … and that’s just the manufacturing company. I am constantly looking to better the chain right back to the farmers who grow the cotton/bamboo or the factories producing the polyester that becomes PUL/TPU.

I also choose not to have each nappy individually wrapped and, where possible, the least amount of plastics used or boxes recycled. Going forward we won’t be offering microfiber inserts as a standard option.

It’s about not only looking at the final product but who/what impacts a company had to get those manufactured – often this means not choosing the cheapest.

How do you go about choosing prints for your products?

This first drop was about throwing an eclectic mix out to the market to see what would stick! Whilst it’s easy to see minimalist prints are all the rage, it’s harder finding something that people want that is different – no-one wants a carbon copy brand.

Going forward I have a few personal projects, especially in line with living more eco conscious. I take a lot of inspiration from nature and experiences and like to support minority projects or local projects where possible.

What has been your favourite print released so far and why?

Ooooohhh, it’s so hard to choose one. Wassily for it’s fun and bright colours and Golden leaves for its minimal simplicity. Both have a presence about them.

You regularly take part in the #satnapstack challenge. What tips do you have for nabbing that elusive stack shot?

Definitely natural lighting and picking a backdrop that suits what you’re featuring. For example, dark nappies on a dark background … nothing pops!

What have you enjoyed the most in developing the Kekoā brand so far?

Finding something new, finding a niche in the market and watching how much people love them! It is something you always hope for but never take for granted. I’m enjoying the challenge of manufacturing of being creative with my communication – especially where English is a second language (my mandarin pales in comparison).

What can we expect to see in the future of Kekoā?

In terms of product – expansion of the range including a premium offering. Creating a one-stop shop for parents whose babies suit our product. I also want to support smaller businesses – community over competition – and have products which work together.

In terms of impact – working with projects in need of help, working with artists and suppliers to not only support local but also ensure our whole manufacturing chain reduces its footprint where possible.

Many may not realise there’s actually another side to your business self. Can you tell us about your passion for preparing parents for the uncertainty of parenthood?

The not so little, little secret! Prior to this amazing venture, I spent years working in pharmacy, as a midwife and as a nutritionist. I strongly feel that as a society many of us have forgotten about intuition and following our gut. Our lives have become this barely survivable carnage where any upset (sickness, tiredness, inconvenience) isn’t seen as a sign to slow down and focus on what’s important but as something that must be managed and overcome as quickly as possible so we can get back to 150%!

Sadly, this flows into parenthood where normal newborn behaviour is seen as a problem that must be fixed so we can continue our lives as if we weren’t parents. We forget how immature human babies are (vs other mammalian species) from a gut perspective so things like wind, colic, the fourth trimester are normal.

I have since narrowed my scope down to the first 1,000 days – conception through the first 2 years of life and largely focus on the first year of life. I work a lot with formula or mixed fed babies as there is a huge hole in the parenting journey around this. I also work with allergy babies, introducing solids and tie all of this into a holistic approach where pharmaceuticals don’t have to be the main focus.

How do you balance your roles as a mother and business owner? You say you bank on nap time; surely you can’t run two businesses within nap time? What’s your secret?

It’s not obtainable … read back up. But yes, I do literally slam as much into a single 2-hour nap window as I can and catch up on the rest in the evenings. This often means my own nutrition/fitness goes by the wayside as I focus heavily on ensuring little dude eats well during these first two years (and beyond of course). It’s something I’m working to achieve better balance with but sadly there’s no secret and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone! Friends and family are a great help when they’re down, but we live rural and away from them on a daily basis.

What are your greatest vices when it comes to making it through the day?

Dark chocolate … and a plan! I have a note pad on my phone that whenever I get an email or message of importance, I make a note on there. It’s visible when my phone is unlocked, and I work from this (after orders are packed) if there’s time. It helps give a sense of “achievement” when the days are long, the list is growing, and I feel like I’m getting nowhere.

What did life look like for you before becoming a mum and a business owner?

It was simpler but more mundane – no real challenge. I stepped into business first as Blossom Baby Consulting and still run this as well (although have quietened things down). It saw me work with many beautiful families to help them adjust their expectations of their newborn. I travelled for work, spent 16 months road tripping the US, volunteered delivering babies in Sri Lanka and experiencing culture from their eyes.

How has your previous experience working with families shaped the mother you are today?

Before little dude I had many expectations of what I thought a “good” mother was (I despise this statement now). I put a tonne of pressure on myself to get it right because I had helped so many others. Whilst I talk about the bond you form with your tiny human over time, I forgot everything in the moment and wondered why my stress/worry/expectations made him fussier or more unsettled. I also didn’t expect to be consenting him for surgery at seven weeks, but it’s made me realise … hormones are total dicks! There is no rationalising with the irrational, so I remind myself regularly to be kind, stop, and focus my attention to where it actually matters – little dude, myself, Mr Kekoā.

What has surprised you most about becoming a mother?

How I am the final decision maker. I don’t get to advise parents and leave it up to them to decide … I am the decider! You suddenly second guess if everything you’ve ever passed on was in fact true/helpful.

What part of motherhood to come are you looking forward to most?

I used to look forward to the next stage … can’t wait until he sleeps off me, can’t wait until he sleeps through the night, or walks … now I look forward to the next day and what that holds. It’s a constant work in progress but my wishing for one phase to end only saw a new, sometimes even harder one begin.

What do you remember about your own childhood and are there any aspects you try to incorporate into your own parenting style?

Most of my strong memories are being with someone – parent, friend. I try very much to be present and allow him to explore. It’s hard as so much of our lives revolve around technology (as I write this at 9.30pm whilst my husband sits and watches TV in the other room …).

I also remember some of the negatives and that is absolutely no fault of my parents – they were only doing what was recommended at the time/what their parents did, and we now know research has changed.

modern cloth nappies
Can you tell us how your cloth journey began?

It’s starts back well before children when I was working for a family in the US who used cloth from birth (first baby). I realised how easy they were, how addictive the cloth industry was and how much we had saved from landfill. I knew when it came time to have my own little ones, we would be doing the same! (But I didn’t start at birth, more like 4 weeks and one at a time).

What has been the greatest hurdle on your cloth journey that you have had to overcome?

Probably finding something that worked. We had a winner for a while, but they were a small fit and we soon realised our very average-size-at-birth baby was growing into a chunk! We stuffed up our washing routine which was a strip and sanitise needed months down the track, but this was an easy fix/tweak. I don’t find time an issue as it’s just part of the routine.

What do you consider to be the key to success with cloth?

TRY MULTIPLE BRANDS! There is no such thing as one brand that fits all. Of course, physically yes you can put any nappy on (within reason), but some brands suit smaller skinner babies and others chunkier. It’s about trying a few from many to see what you like and not buying everything from one brand before your baby is here. I two hundred and fifty percent agree that the prints suck you in!

If you could share only one piece of advice when it comes to using cloth, what would it be?

JUST START … YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT – There is this ingrained notion that we need to be “perfect parents”. So, we read, prepare, read again, practice again and then take the leap. We had the wrong laundry detergent, the wrong cycle, I was doing a US version of washing and we needed a strip and sanitise months down the track. Which leads me to my second point …

LEAKS – ARE – NORMAL! I think there is this idea out there that cloth should never leak and if it does, we have to use more and create more washing and it becomes too difficult – so we stop. Heck, we had more explosions in disposables than we ever did in cloth.

It is completely normal to have bumps in the road and because we are now so glued to our phones … help is but a question on a forum away or an article on a dedicated wash website.

What is your advice for combatting leaks?

Embrace them at the start! Tiny humans aren’t robots so whilst the set up you had worked 3 hours ago, it might leak after 5 minutes this time – and that’s ok. Continued leaks can usually be tweaked and again … that phone in your hand gives you access to forums where a quick question usually guides you in the right direction. This is why I advocate for trying lots of brands instead of buying all the same before little one is here – trial packs are great for this!

When do you think is the best time to start using cloth nappies?

Whenever you want to. Just one a day saves 365 from landfill per year, not to mention the trees and water used to produce that. For someone this might be birth, for the customer who emailed me the other day, it’s 15 months with her fourth. There’s no right or wrong.

What is the one common myth about cloth nappies you’d like to debunk?

That they’re difficult or time consuming. You can justify anything to yourself so it’s about a mindset. Washing nappies becomes part of your routine … if you want to make it so.

storing cloth nappies
You credit the cloth community for being ‘the’ expert when it comes to all things reusable nappies. For what have you had to reach out to the community for advice?

I can only speak from my own experience so when it comes to asking about absorbency, fit, features etc. the rest of the cloth using parents are my go to! Just because it’s something I do/don’t like doesn’t meant the majority feel the same. It’s about realising I’m part of a bigger community, even though I’m a brand.

What role do you think disposables should play in the modern family?

Whatever role they need to! If the thought of going away on holiday and doing cloth makes you anxious, then you won’t relax and enjoy your holiday – take the disposables! If the week coming up is frantic and family won’t know what to do with dirty nappies or wash them correctly – use the disposables! Every reusable nappy used is a step in the right direction so be kind to yourself if it just doesn’t work out that week, month, trip … whatever.

What do you hope for the future of cloth nappies in New Zealand?

For parents, I hope to see cloth go back to being the norm for nappies and not viewed as the difficult or crunchy choice. Even half the population using them with some regularity is huge!

Globally, I would love for us to be one of the top cloth-using countries in the world and for our brands to be highly sought after. I would love for them to be produced here but I understand that $60+ per nappy isn’t feasible for most.

How do you plan to speak to your son about the future of our planet?

I want to start that education with our day-to-day activities. I absolutely understand the need for global education around our oceans, fresh water supply, landfills, deforestation etc but often this concept it hard to grasp or seems to be big to tackle. I want him to know where food comes from, how to use all the little bits, how to reuse where possible and this starts with the day to day examples our little family set. Food waste is often one of the largest contributors to our landfills.

What do you see to be the greatest thing parents can do to protect the future of our planet?

Be the change you want to see in the world (Mahatma Gandhi). In other words, set the example so within your own family reusing, upcycling, buying second hand (where possible) is your normal. Children are like sponges and they want to do right by their parents so if they see you living more consciously, they will usually follow.

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