As Parents we all want what is best for our Children
Keeping them safe, warm, well and nourished may be top of our list, but we are also responsible for creating and maintaining a healthy global environment in which they can prosper. Green parenting is about more than washable nappies and organic vegetables, it is about modelling sustainable living to the next generation, thus teaching them to become responsible citizens of the world.
This article will look at some of the practical ways parents can do this. You may not find all the ideas helpful but hopefully you will be inspired to explore further and find ways for your family to live a greener life.
Parenting begins way before your first baby is born. From the moment you learn that your family is about to expand you begin to think about the type of parents you will be. Decisions about breast or bottle, washable or disposable nappies, the types of food your baby will eat and so on are often made before the little one has even arrived. Pregnancy is a useful time to explore all kinds of parenting options and to prepare mentally and practically for the exciting baby months ahead.
One of the big decisions for ecologically minded families is what kind of nappies to use. Despite some reports to the contrary the general consensus is that washable nappies are far kinder to the environment than disposables. Even when you consider the whole process, from growing and harvesting the cotton, making and distributing the nappies and the repeated washing and drying they have less impact than disposables (see here or any one of a number of other reports online!). The added bonus of washables is that they are chemical free which is good news not only for the planet but also for baby.
Using washable nappies can seem daunting at first. There seem to be so many to choose from, how do we find the right ones? What if we pay out all that money and we don’t like them? Are they hygienic? Are they effective? It can help to talk to other parents who have used washables to get ideas about which type you might like. You may find your local council has a nappy ‘expert’ and even a cashback incentive. These independent advisors can be a great help as you can be sure they are not trying to sell you anything. Some councils and traders offer a ‘try before you buy’ and/or a loan scheme so you can explore different types without making a financial commitment.
An even better nappy option is to buy second hand. Washable nappies have an extraordinary life span and can last for several children. There’s quite a market for second hand nappies (even better for the environment as no new energy has been used for your product). Try www.usednappies.co.uk/, www.thenappysite.co.uk or www.preloved.co.uk for inspiration.
Many washable-devotees will admit to using disposables from time to time, for example on a day out or holiday where washing might be difficult. There are various types of eco-friendly disposables around (see http://www.ecodyfi.org.uk/waste/nappiesproj.htm for a useful comparison of some of the better known ones). Many supermarkets sell a greener nappy or you can try one of the many online green parenting shops (Little Green Radicals, Spirit of Nature, Beaming Baby etc).
Aside from nappies one of the first decisions parents have to make is how they will feed their new arrival. The breast vs bottle debate is a highly emotive one and opinions are often very strongly held. Health, practicalities and cost are likely to feature highly on a mother’s decision either way but the environmental implications are rarely considered. A bottle fed baby requires non recyclable and non biodegradable teats, bottles, sterilizers and scoops not to mention tin after tin of highly processed milk. Production of the milk is a hugely energy intensive process of refining, treating, dehydrating and packaging. Tins, labels, packing crates and distribution lorries add to the impact. Add to this the methane and other pollution from the dairy farms that provide the milk and it’s not a pretty picture. Not every mother can choose and bottle feeding has its place but for parents trying to live lightly breastfeeding is clearly the best choice.
As baby grows and requires more food than simply milk parents have to choose again how their baby will be fed. There is a huge range of pre-prepared baby foods on the market, including organic varieties for those who wish to avoid pesticides and chemicals in their baby’s diet. But the ecological issues are greater than just this and green thinking parents should be aware that production of any tinned, jarred or packet food, for any member of the family, is not the most sustainable option. The same issues of energy intensive factories, processing, packaging and distribution apply to processed food just as much as they do to milk. Yes sometimes it’s easier to pop open a jar than to make your own baby food but as an everyday choice it’s not the greenest (or cheapest!) option. At the beginning babies need only small amounts of cooked fruit and vegetables. It doesn’t take much work to cook a few extra carrots (unsalted water), mash them down and freeze them in an ice-cube tray to use later. Getting into the habit of giving baby homecooked food from the start helps baby learn to like what you like and there’s a good chance that will continue into childhood, making family mealtimes a whole lot easier!
First time parents will also need to consider what equipment they will need for their baby. The choice in many parenting shops or nursery departments can be quite overwhelming! There seems to be a different bit of kit or furniture for every task and it can be hard to work out what, in the midst of such a range, is actually necessary. Truth is, in the early days the answer to this is not much! Baby needs somewhere to sleep, clothes to wear and a method of being transported around. While it is lovely to have everything new for a new baby it’s not always necessary. There is a huge market for second hand buggies/prams, cots/cribs (though you may want to buy a new mattress), nursery furniture, clothes and toys. NCT sales are excellent sources of good quality bargains (see here). The seller is likely to be present so you can ask any questions about the item and have a good look at it before you decide. Ebay is also great but unless you know exactly what you want it can be frustrating not to see your items before you buy, though some sellers will let you view items first. Buying second hand is so much better for the environment because it uses no extra energy or resources and saves usable items from being wasted in landfill.
You might even be able to find (or organize yourself!) a swap shop, where parents get together at a local hall and exchange things their children no longer need for things they now do. It’s all put out like a sale but no money changes hands (though some swaps may take donations for a local charity). Swapping is a great way to get the things you need for the next year or so whilst helping out other families by passing on the things you no longer require. Local charities may also benefit from donations of money and also items leftover at the end. Swaps can be great social occasions too and offer a chance to get to know other parents in your area.
Swaps and sales are also excellent for toys and games. Charity shops, ebay and freecycle are all great sources of bargains and offer children the chance to play with something new without the expense of buying new things all the time. You may be lucky enough to have a local toy library where toys (large and small) can be borrowed. This is an excellent way to keep children interested and enthusiastic at home as there can always be something new for them to engage with, again without the financial and environmental cost of frequently buying new things.
That said it is worth remembering that children need a lot less toys than we may think, especially when they are babies or very young. Boxes, saucepans, wooden spoons and bowls can be just as fascinating for a little one than the most elaborate toy. Try making a Discovery Box; fill a container with interestingly shaped and textured items from around the house and let your baby or toddler explore (be careful that objects aren’t small enough to swallow and that they don’t have bits that might come off and present a choking hazard).
When buying new toys green thinking parents may be concerned about the amount of plastic, packaging and batteries, none of which are good for the environment. Wooden toys may seem a better choice but check for the FSC label to ensure they are made of sustainably grown wood (http://www.fsc-uk.org/). Older children often enjoy educational or creative toys such as science or construction kits (see http://store.cat.org.uk/ for an excellent range), or buy magazine subscriptions, club or society memberships or day out vouchers for more unusual and less environmentally damaging gifts.
Becoming parents makes us think about who we are and what we want our children to learn from us. We want to be good role models for the next generation and to teach them what we think is the best way to live. Making good environmental choices about our parenting not only reduces the impact our families make but demonstrates to them as they grow that we respect the earth enough to make changes in our lifestyle in order to protect it. A baby won’t know that their nappy is an eco one, but each green decision we make helps us to get into the habit of considering more than merely our immediate comfort and ease. What better gift can there be for the generations that are to come than to leave the planet in a better state than we found it, and to leave after us a generation that will do the same?