Growing Up Green

No way around it: your child is an environmental disaster. How eco-parenting can ease the impact

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Robbie McClaran for TIME

The Timmons family of Brownsville, Oregon takes extra steps to teach their children for a eco-friendly envirornment.

Want to wreck the environment? Have a baby. Each bundle of joy gobbles up more of the planet's food, clogs garbage dumps with diapers, churns through plastic toys and winds up a gas-guzzling, resource-consuming grown-up like the rest of us. Still, babies are awfully cute. Given that most people still intend to procreate, what's an environmentally conscious parent to do?

Today's green-minded families go far beyond eco-consumerism--the buying of organic baby goodies like mohair-filled crib mattresses, flame-retardant-free pajamas and fair-trade toys. Call it eco-parenting: it's not just buying greener but fundamentally altering the often wasteful art of child-rearing. "For us, environmental awareness and activism isn't just a question of health," says Jonathan Spalter, a 45-year-old father in eco-haven Berkeley, Calif. "It's a moral and ethical issue that we hope to teach our three little girls." That means early potty-training, monitoring the water temperature in their children's baths and choosing "products that walk softly on the planet." Their kids are already on board, with one daughter telling Spalter's wife Carissa Goux, 41, "Mommy, you shouldn't waste so much."

It turns out that the act of having kids triggers many to go green. An April 2008 Roper poll found that people identified having a child as their primary motivation for protecting the environment; 91% said the most important reason to recycle is the impact it will have on their children's future. In fact, new parents are the leading edge of environmental awareness, says Alan Greene, a pediatrician at Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford and author of Raising Baby Green. "I've seen a dramatic increase in parents taking environmental responsibility for their children in the past 15 years."

True eco-parenting extends beyond the kitchen compost. "Parents are not just changing their behavior at home," says Deirdre (wife of Don) Imus, author of the just published Growing Up Green! "They're realizing they need to get involved in greening their communities." Take actress Laura Dern, mother of two. First she hired Green Life Guru, a Los Angeles--based environmental-services company, to evaluate the eco-fitness of her house. "After they advised me on water filtration and solar paneling," Dern says, "I realized, Wait a minute--I'm sending my children off to a school, which can be a toxic environment." Now she and other parents are working with the company to eliminate chemical-ridden carpeting and pesticides at their children's school and introduce composting and recycling programs there.

Naturally, a host of new books and services have sprouted to guide the eco-parent. Healthy Child Healthy World, by Christopher Gavigan, offers advice on everything from having an organic pregnancy to reducing a child's carbon footprint, while Imus' book counsels parents on detoxing their sippy-cup supply and lobbying for greener legislation. A number of services focus on recycling. Zwaggle.com is a nationwide marketplace for used toys, children's clothing and gear. In Los Angeles, the most recent LA Kids Consignment Sale offered more than 25,000 used breast pumps, high chairs and Exersaucers. Kidsconsignmentsales.com lists 1,100 such events across the country.

Admittedly, this emphasis on raising kids green can make some parents reel. Heather Timmons, 32, a full-time mother and homeschooler of four children in Brownsville, Ore., sticks to the doable. She tackles a different environmental challenge each month, whether it's (almost) eliminating paper towels or making her own household cleaners with vinegar and baking soda. "I believe it's important to do your part and be responsible," says Timmons, who does so by consolidating car trips, buying toys secondhand and substituting vintage plates for paper at her kids' birthday parties. "But at the same time, I don't want to be freaking out about it." Parents have enough to freak out about already.

Paul is the author of Parenting, Inc.