Kimberly-Clark is a large company with worldwide reach. It makes and markets some of the most recognisable brands on your supermarket shelves: Kleenex, Scott toilet paper and Huggies diapers (or nappies as we call them in New Zealand/Australia/UK). However, it is this latter product that is causing Kimberly-Clark to downsize. A massive 13 per cent of its workforce (5,000 people) has been laid off, at least in part due to the slowdown in sales of Huggies diapers as well as other household products.
As Quartz magazine notes, this is largely due to global demography, particularly in the West and in East Asia, in countries like China, Japan and Taiwan. In many of these countries people are having fewer babies and thus the demand for disposal nappies is much reduced. This has reversed a “disposable diaper boom” which started over 50 years ago when women began entering the workforce in greater numbers and required something easier to clothe their babies in. In fact it can be said that the success of the disposable diaper is part of its demise now: it made it easier for women to enter the workforce which in turn was a major reason why women now have fewer babies and less need for diapers.
But it is not all bad news on the demographic front – as one end of the diaper business slows down (that for infants) another is growing to take its place (that for the more mature market). That’s right, sales of adult incontinence products (including Kimberly-Clark’s “Depends”) are surging as the global population ages and more elderly people require more peace of mind. Japan, so often the canary in the demographic mine, is once again leading the way: sales of adult diapers there are already outstripping those of the baby kind. Let’s hope for the 5,000 Kimberly-Clark workers that there are emerging jobs elsewhere in the company where they can turn their skills to making slightly larger diapers than they were used to before.