Environmentally Friendly Parenting

Being more environmentally conscious is something I’ve been challenged by since having Rupert 10 months ago. It started with the nappy bin – emptying it from his room every day or so and feeling guilty about how much waste I was contributing to landfill. And from nappies, I then started thinking through other things like getting caught up in our cultures baby must-haves and filling my house with things that only get used a handful of times.

Have you ever felt similarly? Nowadays people, not just parents are more and more looking into ways to lessen their environmental impact. It’s a massive and continually growing topic so in this episode I thought I’d share just 10 tips to how families can be making small changes to become more environmentally friendly. It’s not rocket science in any way, but hopefully something here stands out and spurs you to make a step in the direction of living a more green life.

1. Cloth nappies and cloth wipes.

Firstly, if you’re new to MWK I’ve done an entire episode on nappies and their impact on the environment where I discuss disposables, reusable/cloth nappies and biodegradable disposable options – so if you want to really get to know this point, head over to episode 4 for more information.

As a quick runover, basically the environmental impacts of nappies include:

- Disposables affect the environment through their manufacture and use of finite resources which contributes to global warming. And then their end life means that millions of nappies end up in landfill and take hundreds of years to breakdown.

- Cloth nappies’ biggest impact to the environment is through the energy, water and detergents used to wash and dry them through continued use. Ways that we can reduce this impact is by using phosphate free detergents, washing in full loads with a front load washer, not tumble drying but instead line drying, and reusing each nappy for multiple children.

- I’ve just touched on water here with reusables, but even when considering the amount of water used for washing cloth nappies’, disposables still have a far greater water footprint than cloths due to the amount of water used during their manufacture.

- It’s also worth considering the transportation carbon cost for nappies, and as with everything, buying locally made products whether its disposable or cloth will reduce this environmental impact. And of course, whether disposable or reusable, look out for brands that offer plastic free, recyclable or compostable packaging.

- If you’re not able to convert to cloths (or in my experience I do some cloths and some disposables) then there are biodegradable disposable nappy options now on the market. I discuss five great options available in Australia in episode 4 that are worth looking in to.

So that’s a brief look at nappies, but there’s also changes to wipes that can be made to lessen your environment impact. Similarly, you can go down the reusable path – a friend of mine bought us like 20 thin wash cloths from target or something that we’ve used as wipes, just wetting them under the tap before use, and adding them to our wash loads. And then there are also biodegradable wipe options available now also.

2. Continuing the idea of replacing single use items with reusables:

- Cloth breast pads are such a simple way to reduce waste. I had some great cotton ones that had a kind of waterproof backing to them which meant that I could wear them all day and they wouldn’t soak through onto my bra. Having a set of 8 or so saves you a fair chunk of money and of course, waste.

- Burp cloths - I think most people nowadays use those big white nappy towel things as burp cloths (I know I was given a million at my baby shower). These are so perfect to wipe anything up, from vomit to having one on the nappy change table to catch any poo-nami mess… They are so easily washed and mean you use heaps less single use items like wipes or tissues.

- Period undies - Now I’ll be honest I haven’t given these a go yet, as I kind of became aware of them when pregnant so wasn’t bleeding and I still haven’t got my period back, but I do think they sound awesome! And they don’t look like nappies or anything – they look decent. My plan is once my period returns to get a few pairs and see how they go. They’d even be awesome for post-birth bleeding rather than wearing nappies or jumbo pads. You can choose the undies based on the level of flow you have – so with postnatal you’d just get the heavy flow style I guess? Let me know if you’ve got some, what brand they are and whether you think they’re good, as I’m eager to try them out!

3. My next point is to encourage you to go second hand. Not only do second hand items mean that you’re saving money, but most of the time these items are so close to new or used a handful of times, that they almost feel brand new, due to the fact that babies grow so quickly and use things for such a short amount of time. We used facebook marketplace to find our cot and dresser drawers for Rupert’s room, and our pram was another secondhand item. We’ve also borrowed pieces of furniture from generous friends and family like the bassinet we used for what, 3 months or something until Ru got too big for it… Even our rocking chair in his room is from my parent’s lounge room which I’ve promised to return it at some point…

This is the same for clothing – hand-me-downs, and second-hand stores offer clothing that yes, has been worn before, but often only a number of times. I know we have some clothes especially from early on, that Ru only wore once because the weather wasn’t timed right with him being that size. The UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion discloses that the fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of the worlds carbon emissions, which is more than the amount produced by international flights and shipping combined (1)! I read one statement that was aimed at the fast fashion movement practiced by adults but still makes sense for babies clothes which claimed that if we extend the life of our clothing items by just 9 months of active use we would reduce the carbon, water and waste footprint by around 20-30% each (2). So, with kids clothes, clearly our own baby can’t fit in say 0000 clothing for 9 whole months, but by passing that item of clothing along, or purchasing the 0000 second hand, we can work towards these reductions in environmental impact. It’s almost like we need to break free from this consumerist, must-have mentality that is shoved in our faces when we are pregnant! Did anyone else’s facebook start advertising baby products from literally the day you got a positive pregnancy test… it’s creepy!!

4. Continuing on the topic of clothing, if you are purchasing new, look for environmentally sustainable clothing. Basically, items made from eco-friendly materials like bamboo, organic cotton etc. The difference is that these clothes have been made without the use of harsh chemicals that can affect our health and the environment. You’ve probably heard of GOTS certified products – this stands for Global Organic Textile Standards and items that are GOTS approved must be made from at least 70% organic fibres. To get this certification the products are also only allowed to use eco-friendly dyes and the manufacturers must have a functional wastewater treatment plant in place. Packaging cannot contain PVC and all hang tags, swing tags etc must be recyclable or FSC certified. And then socially, to be GOTS certified, all people involved in the production of a product much be treated ethically, with importance being placed on non-discrimination, worker’s rights, and their safety. There are of course other certifications that signify certain chemicals are excluded from production and nowadays a lot of clothing items are going beyond the 70% organic content that GOTS ensures, and claim 100% organic fibres, which is awesome.

These items of clothing, yes – do cost more, but I’ve found they are generally of better quality, meaning you can get a lot more use out of them. My sister passed on boxes of clothing for us to borrow as her son is 9 months older than Rupert and without looking at a label I can tell just by feel the difference between a regular cheap onesie and a brand that I’m more likely to not know the name of. Sometimes the cheaper items feel so crisp and scratchy I don’t even bother with them. And they’ve only been worn and washed with one baby! Good quality fabrics and well-made items of clothing can be used for multiple babies and hold up to crazy amounts of laundering.

5. I’ve touched on water already when looking at nappies and just above when looking at GOTS certification, but a big way to save on water is to bath your baby less. Young babies in particular, don’t need baths daily (you wipe their bums that often and that’s really the only place they get dirty until solids start unless they’re particularly vomitty). Spreading out bath time of your baby to every few days, or sharing bath time amongst sibling or parents will help reduce water use. In our case we often had Rupert passed in with either Jorge or I for a minute in our shower and that was enough to get his bum properly cleaned and his face and neck soaked over.

It’s interesting to compare that the average bath in Australia uses around 94L of water (taking into consideration person getting in etc) whereas a shower uses on average for a 7 minute shower 64L, or 47L if using a water saving low-flow showerhead (3). So, by showering rather than using a bath, you’re already significantly cutting down on water use.

6. Breastfeeding. Now there’s a bit of an overlap here as well as I have talked through breastfeeding as being good for the environment in Episode 6 Is Breast Best Part 1, but it’s still worth mentioning as it is such a simple way that so many mums can actively be more environmentally friendly. (I say simple, but I do recognise breastfeeding isn’t simple, it’s a massive sacrifice to one’s body, time etc – and its often very hard to start out, but if you can make it past the hard stages then it can be such a simple way to lesson your environmental impact).

Breastmilk is in fact the most sustainable food available. It’s a naturally renewable, carbon-neutral resource and is about as ‘locally produced’ as is possible. It requires no energy for refrigeration or heating, no pollution due to its manufacture, no advertising or packaging and no transport (4). And it’s all the nutrients and food that a baby needs for the first six months of its life.

7. And then following on from breastfeeding, at around 6 months of age babies start eating solids. Of course, here is another angle where you can choose to be more environmentally conscious. Firstly, making your own food is not only going to be more nutritious (no additives and preservatives), it will cost less, and it reduces waste and uses less energy. Eating local foods is generally going to be more fresh as it hasn’t had to travel as far, but it also reduces transport footprint or ‘food miles’ as the shorter distance required to travel, the less fuel and energy is needed. On top of this it’s worth trying to eat foods that are in season. Head to your local farmers markets, buy fresh, locally made or grown products or even more so, grow your own veggies – they’ll be organic and as local as you can get.

8. Plastic! It’s shocking how many baby products are plastic. From food utensils and sippy cups to toys, plastic is seriously hard to avoid with kids. In terms of food products, thankfully nowadays there are bamboo or other recycled materials options, but they are definitely more difficult to come by, and are going to be a fair bit more expensive.

When looking at toys, like I’ve mentioned with clothes, there are some awesome toys you can get second hand through op shops, toy libraries and hand-me-downs… And then when looking to purchase new toys consider those that are made of sustainable materials like wood or cloth as these naturally break down, are BPA free and can be recycled. When I’ve looked into wooden toys I’ve often been scared away by the price-tag but big retailers like big w and target now have a range of wooden toys that are pretty cute which mean they’re more accessible to more families. I read recently that LEGO now make their trees, bushes and leaves from plastic sourced from sugarcane as opposed to oil, which is literally making these items more green. LEGO have also pledged to convert fully to sustainable materials by 2030. And as a side note to cut down on plastic use, whether it’s with purchasing toys, or food utensils or anything really, we can actively choose items that are packaged in recyclable or biodegradable packaging over plastics.

9. Cleaning products – to be honest I’ve never thought or cared really about cleaning products in my life. But since having Rupert I’ve become more aware that they actually contain a whole host of potentially harmful chemicals to both our bodies and the environment. Air and water pollution are harmful effects of conventional cleaning agents, but thankfully nowadays there are a lot of cleaning products being made with natural ingredients which are more beneficial for the environment. Of course, homemade cleaner products are a great way to go and often work just as well. Things like vinegar, bi-carb soda, lemon juice offer great options for safely cleaning your home. On top of considering the environmental impact, I’ve really had to re-think what I used before Ru that are now potentially hazardous with an almost crawler in the house… eg. cockroach bait is not great for a baby to stumble upon

10. Transport - not the transport costs of importing and moving products around which I’ve already touched on, but transporting ourselves and our families. You are probably aware that cars are one of the least eco-friendly options of transport available (despite being so convenient). Before a car even makes it onto the road it has consumed huge amounts of energy in its production. Then once a car is on the road, in order to work it consumes fuel and energy and thus produces toxins like carbon monoxide causing air pollution which leads to global warming.

So rather than using a car, here are some more environmentally friendly transport options.

- If you’re a city slicker public transport may be a good option for you… they are generally pram friendly and a lot of kids find things like trains and busses the best… so it’s almost a treat for them to get to experience riding in public transport.

- Cycling is a great option which uses minimal fossil fuels and is pollution free. Bikes have the ability to carry a child, in one of those child seat – or to carry more than one child there are those towing baby carts/trailers which are awesome but I can imagine require some strong legs and good biking skills to pull along, especially if you’ve got hills around your area.

- And of course walking is going to be your most environmentally friendly transport option. With a baby in the pram its easy, and its a great way to get in some exercise and fresh air (which is really important – listen to episode 3 if you haven’t already where we hear about the importance of being outdoors) and it walking can take you places. A lot of mother’s groups early on are made up of mums who all live in the same suburb so meet ups are generally close to home – why not walk. This is often the case with childcare and pre-school that you may choose one close to home – so walking to do the drop off, and as children get older transition to using this time for your kid to use up some energy on their scooter or balance bike.

So that’s my 10 points covering some little tips on how we can make changes to our environmental impact with young children. Thankfully for me, some of these points are easy - doing things like walking places is something I enjoy, so I find it really easy to substitute driving to the shops with walking, or walking to my friend’s houses for catch ups. And I’ve been lucky enough to be passed down a lot of clothes and as I mentioned borrow furniture from others, so we are already in the headspace of using second hand items (although ill admit this wasn’t a conscious decision because I was trying to be more environmentally friendly, it more just stemmed from me being a little tight with money to be honest, but hey – it makes me feel better now knowing it’s also helping the environment).

But there are some points here that are more difficult for me… substituting plastics for more sustainable materials in toys especially is something I need to be more conscious of. What that probably looks like is being more organised and purchasing things that I’m likely to need online before I actually need them. For example when I started solids, it was basically one day me thinking ‘I need to offer Ru solids’ and then just heading to Woolworths to buy some spoons and a cup and things which of course meant I bought everything plastic, as that’s all they had. So there are points here that I definitely need to work on.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about being environmentally friendly with young kids. Do you have any tips, or any go-to websites or brands that you think are great. Please do share…

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If you want to do more reading on this subject there’s SO much out there but here are some of the things I’ve been reading lately…

(1) UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion addresses damage of ‘fast fashion’ (2019)

(2) The Environmental Cost of Fashion (2019)

(3) MDBA Water Volumes (2010)

(4) Breastfeeding and the Environment (2020)

(5) 16 Ways to Eliminate Indoor Air Pollution

(6) The Environmental Impacts of Disposable Nappies (2019)

(7) Eco-friendlier alternatives to disposable nappies

(8) What’s in disposable diapers - and are they safe for your baby?

(9) A commentary on the carbon footprint of milk formula: harms to planetary health and policy implications (2019)

Have a great week mamas – you’re doing an awesome job!

Photo by @woodlark