We've been hearing so much about the environment lately - most of it bleak, disturbing and downright scary. Are things really that bad? Is it too late to fix all of the problems we humans have created? And how do we genuinely incorporate green living into our family's life?
We need answers, and we know just where to get them: from Manda Aufochs Gillespie, a.k.a. The Green Mama! For more than a decade, she's been at the forefront of environmental research, policy and real-world practice. Here she is, giving it to us straight; the good, the bad and the hopeful.
Question: Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, drought and heat waves with temperatures rising above 120 degrees. Is this extreme weather an aberration or a preview of what's to come?
The Green Mama's Response:
Weather isn't climate, but climate-change scientists tell us that, yes, crazy weather is getting more common. Climate change can seem overwhelming, but living green can actually be quite easy. Everything we do - from eating, to shopping, to caring for our family - is connected, and even the smallest of changes can keep our children healthier while helping the environment.
Organic food is the perfect example. Current science tells us that our children are less likely to suffer from a number of illnesses (including diabetes, obesity, and ADHD) if they are not exposed to pesticides. We also know that conventional agriculture is one of the leading contributors to greenhouse gasses.
What does that mean for us parents? On the simplest level, it means staying focused on our child's health is the greenest thing we can do. Some people may want to do more, but in almost all cases the healthiest thing for our kids is healthiest thing for our planet.
Question: What can we do to make our lives even a tad greener?
The Green Mama's Response:
What do you think parents report as the biggest barriers to making more environmentally-friendly choices for their families? Guilt! Parents are too hard on themselves and worried that if they can't do everything, they shouldn't "pretend " to be green at all. The best advice I can give you as you start on your path to greener living is… give yourself a break!
Start with steps that actually seem like fun. Sure, using cloth diapers is the green and cost-effective choice, but if every time you think about doing it you want to cry, pick something else to do! If you feel good and enjoy green living, your enthusiasm will lead to other green habits AND it will inspire others.
If you're looking for a few other easy ways to live greener, here's what I recommend…
1. Become a regular at your local farmer's market or join a CSA (community supported agricultural project, a.k.a. a farm box)
Yes, you can save money and save the world - all at the same time! By joining a CSA or frequenting your local farmer's market, your family will save approximately $500 a season and get the highest quality produce: local, organic and fresh. The health benefits will be felt by the whole family, and you'll sleep better knowing that even if your toddler eats only two bites of carrot the whole day, those two bites have the most nutrition possible - without the pesticides.
2. Toss the "throw-away" habit
Bottled water can cost a family $1,200 a year, paper towels $50, disposable batteries $30, and so on and so on. Other habits that can add up? Disposable dishes, Ziploc bags, baby wipes, and cleaning products. There are greener alternatives for all these things that will save you money and the help the planet. The best part, besides the savings, is fewer trips taking out the trash!
3. Eyeballs on the Labels
To avoid being greenwashed (as in brainwashed), bring along your reading glasses and flip to the fine print next time you're shopping. The most-likely trouble spot: your personal care products. If it isn't certified organic (USDA Organic or Canada Organic Biologique Label) then be skeptical of claims like "natural," "non-toxic" or "safe-for-baby."
Other gimmicky claims that you read on packages are often meaningless as well, with baby products' labels typically being the most misleading. Remember: your skin is the largest organ, and 60 percent of the chemicals you put on it can end up in your blood and then can pass into your brain. These same chemicals are polluting our waterways, hurting wild animals, and damaging other parts of our environment. So do a quick review of the label before heading to the checkout line. Trust yourself: if you can't pronounce an ingredient, do you really want to feed it to your child's skin?
4. Make Big Ticket Items Green Ticket Items
If you're paying more than $500 for an item or if you have to save for it at all, make sure that green is one of its key attributes. That means asking how the specific product will affect you and your family's health. What does this include? Nursery items like cribs, mattresses, any item of furniture, and even your car. Thinking green before you buy can actually save money in the long run (examples are buying a more fuel efficient model of car or an energy efficient appliance) and have a big impact on the health of your home (one crib can off-gas enough formaldehyde to increase everyone in the home's chance of asthma).
5. Avoid the Plastic Trap
So much about having a child forces you up against plastics: plastic bottles, plastic toys, and even plastic lining on cans of formula or food. Many plastics have been found to leach BPA, phthalates or other chemicals. Other likely sources include the lining of canned goods (including formula) and soft chewy toys. The exposure levels for North American children are among the highest in the world. If you are looking for an alternative, get back to the basics with glass, stainless steel and natural fibers like cotton and wool.
6. The Uber-Coolness of Composting
Talk about fun! Your kids get to watch their organic food turn into soil and then turn into more organic food (or flowers). And you get to reduce your household garbage by more than 40 percent. But no, you say, I live in an apartment. No problem! Learn how to compost in your apartment at www.thegreenmama.com.
Question: We want to talk to our young kids about the environmental challenges we're facing, but not in a way that is too frightening. How do we broach the topic carefully?
The Green Mama's Response:
Ultimately, your child will likely become your teacher when it comes to the environment. For now, model what you want them to do. Start a compost pile or worm bin together if you have a young child. If you have an older child, get them to research the health and environmental aspects of your next big purchase.
Start asking questions about green topics in front of your children and find the answers, together. Thoughtfulness and curiosity about our planet are the most important green habits you can teach. How is my carrot being grown? What is this strange-sounding chemical in my shampoo? What do you mean it isn't toxic if it says keep out of reach of children? If you start asking, they will, too. Then the whole household will be engaged and learning, and companies will soon recognize that a healthy environment matters to your family.
The future is ours!
Most of my work as the Green Mama is with parents and with businesses that serve parents. Why? Because becoming a parent is the greatest act of hope there is. And it is that hope that propels us into taking steps - big or small - to ensure the future is safe and green for our children.
Learn more tips for practical green living at www.thegreenmama.com or in person at The Green Mama Cafe this fall.
About Manda Aufochs Gillespie, The Green
Going green is no longer a trendy catch phrase; it's a way of life for us parents. No one knows that better than Manda Aufochs Gillespie, a.k.a. The Green Mama, who provides green consulting, education, and inspiration to families and businesses. With over a decade of experience as a community planner, project manager, consultant, and writer, Manda established Chicago's first green daycare and served as a consultant on a multi-million dollar eco-village project. Manda's work has been showcased on ABC's Save My Planet, HBO's The Lazy Environmentalist, and shares current research and ideas on The Green Mama blog (http://www.thegreenmama.com/blog). She travels internationally and virtually to offer workshops, classes, and consulting on the many aspects of green living.
Wendy Widom is CEO of Familes in the Loop (FITL), Chicago's hippest hub for parents and kids.
See more of Wendy 's stories here.