When you become a parent, your whole world changes. Along with joys like your baby’s first smile and the grasp of tiny fingers, there’s a powerful sense of responsibility. You want to give your child the best life possible—and the best world to grow up in.
This gives you a new take on environmental issues. If you weren’t that concerned about the environment before, you may find yourself thinking about it a lot more. And if you were already an environmentalist, your position suddenly feels more personal. Saving the planet isn’t a vague ideal anymore; it’s a way to protect your child’s future.
That’s what inspires many new moms and dads to become green parents. They want the choices they make as parents to help build a safe, healthy world for their kids.
Green parenting is all about raising your kids in the most eco-friendly way possible. It means making the planet a factor in every parenting decision you make, from feeding your kids to educating them. This can include:
If you’re already an environmentalist, this list will look familiar to you. It’s all the same things you’ve been doing to live a greener lifestyle before having kids. The only difference is that you can now apply the same principles to your parenting choices, too.
Green parenting can start the very first day a new baby enters your home. Long before your child takes their first step, you can begin setting their tiny feet on an eco-friendly path.
Babies go through a lot of diapers. According to Baby Gear Lab, your little nipper will need about 6,000 diapers from birth through toilet training. If you choose disposable diapers like most American parents, those 6,000 nappies will all end up in landfills, where they won’t break down for centuries. Worse, any poop wrapped up in them can leach into groundwater, threatening human health.
And that’s far from the only reason to dislike disposables. Producing them uses hefty amounts of water and raw materials, such as wood pulp and petroleum. Bleaching them can release toxic chemicals called dioxins. They often contain chemicals such as perfumes and dyes that can harm your baby’s health. And last but not least, they’re pricey—between $0.19 and $0.56 per diaper. That adds up to anywhere from $1,140 to $3,360 before your kid is toilet trained.
Cloth diapers are both cheaper and greener. Because they’re reusable, they require less material to produce and create far less waste. Laundering them does use energy and water, making their carbon footprint about on a par with disposables. However, you can cut those impacts by practicing green laundry techniques, as discussed below. And over three years of use, they can save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Not all parents can breastfeed their newborns. It’s not an option for adoptive parents or those who used a surrogate. Some birth mothers are physically unable to nurse a baby. And even if you’re physically capable, you can’t do it all the time if your baby is in day care.
But if breastfeeding is an option for you, it’s a greener and healthier choice. It saves all the resources and energy used to produce and ship formula and the packaging waste it creates. It has health benefits for both babies and birth mothers, too. And, like cloth diapers, it’s an affordable option, saving you $1,200 to $1,500 a year on formula.
When your baby’s ready for semi-solid food, consider preparing it yourself. You’ll avoid packaging waste, and you’ll also know exactly what’s going into your child’s body. Homemade baby food is usually cheaper than the packaged kind, and it can be more nutritious, too. Jars of baby food are cooked at very high temperatures to sterilize them, which destroys certain vitamins.
True, homemade baby food isn’t as convenient. It takes some time to prepare and it doesn’t keep as well as the stuff in a jar. However, “cooking” for an infant doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as mashing up an avocado, a banana, or a ripe pear. If you want to give your baby a wider range of foods, you can cook nearly any vegetable or fruit and puree it in a food processor. Check out sites like Baby Foodie for recipes.
Retailers carry a dizzying array of baby gear, from wipe warmers to bouncy seats. But here’s the baby industry’s dirty little secret: you don’t need most of that stuff. For instance, why would you need shoes—no matter how cute they are—for a kid who can’t walk yet? Why get a special baby bathtub when you could just add an inch or two of water to your regular tub? Items like these are just a waste of space, energy, and resources. And they’ll most likely end up in the trash once your kid outgrows them.
Obviously, there are a few things new parents really need. These include a crib, diapers and a diaper bag, baby clothes, and a stroller or baby carrier. But that doesn’t mean you have to buy any of that stuff brand-new.
Clothes, toys, furniture, strollers, and even diapers can be handed down from one child to the next within a family. And new parents can often get them from other parents whose kids have outgrown them. This could mean accepting hand-me-downs from friends or buying baby stuff secondhand through thrift shops, swap meets, Craigslist, and eBay.
There are a few items you shouldn’t try to get secondhand. Baby car seats, for instance, are unsafe if they’ve ever been in a crash. They also can’t be guaranteed safe if they’re past their expiration date. This makes it unwise to reuse one unless you’re 100% sure of its history. And older cribs may not meet current safety standards. But in general, secondhand baby gear saves resources and energy, prevents waste, and saves you money. And when your kids are older, you can pay it forward by passing on their outgrown stuff to other new parents.
As your child grows, your green parenting strategies can grow too. Instead of just making eco-friendly choices yourself, you can begin teaching your child how—and why—to make them too.
Green parenting is easier when you share resources and knowledge. To find help, search social media sites for green parenting groups in your area. Through these sites, you can meet other parents willing to exchange baby gear and other kids’ stuff.
If you can’t find a swap site near you, consider organizing your own. Talk to other parents you know about having a children’s clothing swap. Meet at one person’s house and exchange your kids’ outgrown clothes for new-to-you ones that fit. This idea can also work well for toys, books, and, for older kids, sporting gear.
Another way to share kids’ stuff is through a toy library. Rather than buying new toys your child will soon tire of, you can borrow them for a limited time. Most toy libraries charge a membership fee, but it’s still cheaper than buying toys all the time. You can search for toy lending libraries near you on the USA Toy Library Association site. And the Center for a New American Dream offers tips on starting your own.
Where there are kids, there are messes. That means a lot of laundry, which in turn means a lot of water and energy use. Fortunately, there are ways to lower this environmental impact.
First, wash clothes only when they’re dirty. Of course, with very young kids, that’s most of the time. But older ones can learn to put their once-worn jeans back in the drawer rather than into the wash.
Second, wash only full loads. One big load uses less water and energy than two smaller ones. Also, use cold water for most loads. According to Consumer Reports, it can get all but the dirtiest clothes clean with less energy use. And always choose an eco-friendly detergent.
If you can, save even more energy by line-drying your laundry. Garments dried in the sunshine are naturally fresh-smelling and free of static cling. Plus, clothes don’t wear out as fast when they’re not subjected to the dryer’s tumbling action.
The laundry room isn’t the only place to choose greener detergents. Lots of cleaning products contain harsh chemicals that aren’t healthy for your kids or the environment. To avoid these harmful ingredients, look for cleaners bearing the EPA’s Safer Choice or Design for the Environment ecolabel.
Better yet, consider making your own cleaning products. You can find recipes online for many household cleaners made from common ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, and salt. Besides being nontoxic, homemade cleaning products are free from packaging waste. And they’re generally much cheaper than commercial cleaners.
Parents do a lot of driving. Sometimes it seems like you’re always in the car, ferrying the kids to school, play dates, and doctor’s appointments. And with every trip, you burn gasoline, pollute the air, and release greenhouse gases.
To reduce this impact, try to make short trips on foot or by bike instead. The exercise is healthy for you as well as for the planet. Your baby can ride along in a stroller, a sling, or a baby seat on your bike. Older kids can walk or ride alongside you.
For longer trips, consider public transportation or carpooling with other parents. And for those times you really have to drive on your own, think about switching to a cleaner electric vehicle.
Older kids don’t need baby food anymore, but many of them still have a taste for packaged food. Snack packs of crackers and cookies, pudding cups, and squeezable yogurt are all kid faves. But they all come with a hefty side of packaging waste. To remove this unwanted ingredient, pack your own snacks at home. Load kid-sized portions of favorite foods into reusable containers for car trips and school lunches.
Other ways to make your diet greener include:
An important part of being a green parent is raising your kids to think green, too. Kids as young as four can begin learning about plants by watering house plants or growing seeds in a cup. They can learn about animals by feeding the birds or helping you care for a pet. And they can develop an early love of nature by spending time outdoors on walks or picnics.
School-age kids can start learning about nature in more detail. You can take them on nature walks and teach them to recognize local plants and animals. They can graduate from caring for house plants to tending a sustainable vegetable garden. And when they’re old enough, they can join you for hikes, camping trips, and nature cleanups.
Bring the learning indoors, too. Read your kids age-appropriate books about the environment, such as Little Green Books, and listen to nature-themed music. Teach them about managing waste by sorting the household trash together, putting items into the appropriate bins. And give them a hands-on understanding of reuse by upcycling trash for craft projects.
If your kids have an interest in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math), encourage it. Learning how the world works can be a stepping stone to understanding the environment. As they get into their tweens and teens, talk directly with them about environmental issues. Share news stories on topics such as climate change and discuss them together.
There’s another way to teach your kids that can be even more effective: by example. Practice green habits like turning off unused lights, appliances, and faucets. Use energy-efficient light bulbs, rechargeable batteries, and reusable shopping bags. Reduce, reuse, repair, and recycle any way you can.
As your kids observe you, they’ll learn to adopt these behaviors too. And they’ll take these sustainable habits with them when they grow up.
Someday, the time may come when you start learning from your kids rather than the other way around. If you’ve taught them to love nature, that love may lead them to desire an even greener lifestyle. For instance, your teen might want to become a vegan or take part in a climate protest. They might even push you to do the same.
Respect these impulses and the motivation behind them. If your kids try to educate you on climate or other issues, listen to them. If they question your choices, take their concerns seriously. They show that you’ve done your job as a green parent—that you’ve raised your kids to become green adults.
To an extent, green parenting is just doing what any good parent would. Choices like using eco-friendly cleaners, breastfeeding, and cloth diapering protect your child’s health, as well as the planet’s. Likewise, teaching your kids your values is something all parents aspire to do. If one of your values is caring for the environment, naturally you want to pass that on to your children.
Bringing up your kids in a green household helps keep them healthy while also building a sustainable world for them. And it teaches them by example, so you can pass on the environmental torch to the next generation.