What does it mean to be eco-friendly?


Helen Holmes looks at ways in which busy families can make their lives more environmentally friendly?


There was a time, not so long ago, when the popular image of an eco-friendly person was a tangle-haired tree-hugger in a Greenpeace t-shirt. Not so any more. Being green has become a popular, and even stylish, life choice. However, the path to becoming an eco-friendly parent is not without its pitfalls. There is a wealth of conflicting information out there and, for the busy parent, navigating the ecological minefield, it can easily become too much to handle.

I care passionately about the world we live in. I am an enthusiastic composter and organising my recycling each week brings me genuine joy, but I have to confess that eighteen months into my son’s life I am still using disposable nappies. Despite the best of intentions I somehow never made the switch to reusables, and now that potty training is looming it seems unlikely that I ever will.

Nothing is better designed to prick your environmental conscience than the introduction of your innocent newborn baby to our less than perfect world, but it’s also a fact of life that there are few people busier than a new parent, and inevitably some of those good intentions fall by the wayside. Doubtless if the eco-police were to pay a visit to my house, they’d find plenty of other things to shock them – I’m not sure what the energy rating of our second hand washing machine is, but it constantly seems to be in use, and I can hardly bear to think about the fossil fuel guzzling implications of my beloved Aga.

Among the conflicting information, which can often be confusing and contradictory, nappies are a topical case in point. There is no doubt that the massive volume of nappies of all types being used each year is significant in terms of our use of natural resources and the waste that we are leaving behind. Last year the Environment Agency published a report, based on five years of research into the issue, which said that there was really very little difference in the environmental impact of disposable and reusable nappies. Whilst easing the conscience of the disposable users, who make up the vast majority of parents, the report sparked fierce criticism from champions of the ‘real’ nappy cause.

It appeared that many of the washable nappy users in the survey were tumble drying their nappies and a fastidious 9% were even ironing them, which, to say the least, was rather undermining their green lifestyle choice. The evidence still points in favour of reusable nappies – if they are washed at a low temperature (no more than 60), line dried and not (honestly, who has the time?) ironed. So the silent majority packing their supermarket trolleys with Huggies and Pampers aren’t completely off the hook, but as Sarah Burrell, of Hampshire-based company Spirit of Nature, says, “It’s important not to be driven by guilt. Naturally, there is a limit to the amount of waste this planet can accommodate! However, please don’t be driven to using washables just because ecologically it’s the done thing. Consider your lifestyle and your current situation – if using washable nappies is going to make your life with a newborn or young baby more stressful, then maybe it isn’t the right option for you.”

In addition to a huge range of reusable nappies, Spirit of Nature also sell ‘eco-disposables’, nappies which are made without the use of toxic chemicals and intensively grown paper-pulp and are designed to degrade faster than ordinary disposables. The catch here is that although the nappies may be designed to compost, often the conditions in a landfill site are not right for them to break down quickly. Moltex, manufacturers of unbleached, biodegradable nappies, have the answer. They say that their disposable nappies can be home composted and will biodegrade in 8 to 12 weeks. To deal with the nappies used by one child you’d probably need a composting area of at least 8’ by 4’, and obviously there would be hygiene considerations in the siting of this. But I have to admit that this is the supremely green option that would tempt me most next time – imagine the satisfaction of turning all those nasty nappies into nutritious compost in just three months, and the wonderful effect it could have on your garden. The contents of your darling child’s nappies could, literally, come up smelling of roses.

Whatever your decision on nappies, there are plenty of other green parenting choices to be made. Although only 5% of parents currently use washable nappies, around half feed their under twos on an organic diet. This massive uptake of organic food for children is probably influenced more by a reluctance on the part of parents to put anything but the purest of substances into their little ones’ mouths than by any kind of widespread concern for the environment. But even if the motivation is a natural instinct to look after your own rather than an environmental conscience, there are still ecological benefits. Organic food is produced with very restricted use of pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilisers, which not only remain as residues in food, but also pollute the land on which they are used, and can damage the health of farm workers.

Another factor to consider when choosing food is where in the world it has come from. An organic melon flown in from Brazil in the middle of the UK winter has had a far greater detrimental effect on the environment than a sack of non-organic potatoes grown locally. Buying locally grown, seasonal produce is the most environmentally-friendly food choice you can make.

Less well publicised, but potentially just as important, are the facts about the clothing we buy. Babies and small children get through an astonishing quantity of clothes. Cotton is the most heavily sprayed crop in the world, and roughly a quarter of the world’s insecticide is used on cotton crops each year. It has been estimated that as much as 20% of the weight of a conventionally produced cotton top can be made up of chemicals. The presence of these chemicals has been linked to the development of allergies in babies and children; but even more catastrophic are the effects on the people producing the cotton: according to World Health Organisation figures, around 20,000 people die each year in developing countries as a result of sprays used on nonorganic cotton. It may not be available in your local supermarket yet, but the arguments for organic clothing are as powerful as those for organic food.

One thing that’s pretty sure to happen when children enter your life is that your previously pared-down, minimalist home will be on the receiving end of a huge injection of chemically-produced, rainbow-coloured plastic. Some of this may be unavoidable – for every fair trade wooden ark you buy, a relative is guaranteed to pitch up with an all-singing all-dancing plastic version that will play any number of tunes that you will then have to listen to at 6.30 am every morning until (joy) the batteries run out. In some ways it’s no bad thing, even if you’re trying to live a green life, for your kids to have a little relative-induced balance. After all, you don’t want them to feel like the most deprived kids on the block.

There is one easy, money-saving, ultra green option, which covers almost everything – toys, clothes, baby equipment, even (reusable) nappies: get them second-hand. Babies seem to require a vast quantity of equipment and accessories. Buying things second hand or being given them by relatives means that no extra resources will have been used to make yet another bodysuit / pram / educational toy, and you’ll also be saving something from the landfill. There are a huge range of places to buy baby equipment, clothes and toys second hand – local papers, ebay, online baby sites, NCT nearly new sales, charity shops and car boot sales.

Naturally parents expecting a precious new baby want to buy them something special, not fill their lives with hand me downs. You could fulfil this need to feather the nest by spending your money on a few really well made things that will actually last, and can in time be handed on to others. By doing this and getting the rest second-hand, you’ll be doing the environment a big favour. At the end of the day, what it’s important to remember is that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Being a little bit green doesn’t have to mean wearing vegan shoes and only flushing your toilet once a week. Using disposable nappies is likely to have far less impact on the environment than the type of car you choose to ferry your children around in, and for every organic baby-grow you buy there’s likely to be a time when you’re just too exhausted to get any further than the local Tesco for a ready-meal. It doesn’t matter. As a society we need to change the way we use the earth’s resources – taking a small step in the right direction is better than doing nothing, it still makes a difference.

There is one final, very persuasive, argument for living your life with a little care for the environment. In his book, The Secret of Happy Children, parenting guru, Steve Biddulph, says that even slightly activist parents have more mentally healthy and positive children. Bringing your children up to understand and care about the world around them will help to preserve the earth for their children. What’s just as important is that it may well also make them happier people.

Green places to shop:

Spirit of Nature Hampshire-based mail order company selling reusable and eco-disposable nappies, organic clothing and bedding and wooden toys. 0845 200 6745 www.spiritofnature.com

Schmidt Natural Clothing Organic clothing and reusable nappies 0845 3450498 www.naturalclothing.co.uk

Tearcraft Selection of fair-trade wooden toys 0870 2404896 www.tearcraft.org

Riverford Organic vegetable boxes from Devon 0845 600 2311 www.riverford.co.uk