Here in New York, the flashing billboards that dominate the skies year-round are constant commercials shouting at you to consume anytime you step outside. But before and after the holiday season, it's somehow even more impossible to ignore the ads begging you to buy cheaper, buy bigger, and buy more.
At art & eden, we know that you care about sustainability; you want feel assured that what you invite into your home and the lives of your children is ethically made, and you care about teaching your children respect for the planet and its people. But with advertising becoming even more aggressive during the holidays, it can be especially hard to remind kids that less is often more, and that the bright and slickly advertised products they see around them are just not very good--in most senses of the word. Plastic toys break and end up in landfills; inorganic cotton clothes use huge amounts of pesticides; electronics use metals that are mined by abused laborers. The question is especially present right now, but it rings true year round: how do we teach our children to think and care about sustainability? Well, we've rounded up 3 practices you can engage in any time, but especially right now, to help young children connect their stuff with its impact on the world and its inhabitants.
1. Grow Things
Even in this chilly, sleepy time of year, it's possible for new life to take root. Growing plants, herbs, and even fruit or vegetables with your child is a perfect opportunity to talk about sustainability. As you walk your child through the practice of planting and waiting, you can discuss the importance of proper care of plant life for the environment, especially the plants we put into and on our bodies. As you surround your seedlings with organic nutrients and fresh water, compare the results with what you might find at the grocery store and discuss why the plants look different. Not only are you teaching your children a respect for plant life, but you're also opening up opportunities for conversation about how farming practices affect the resulting food we consume, and the land itself.
2. Care For and Repair Things
Especially with the convenience of big box online retailers, it's tempting to give up on and replace objects that just need a little TLC. This teaches children that their possessions aren’t very valuable or worth caring for, and that casual consumption has no consequences.
The problem, of course, is that there are very real consequences. Take a single cotton shirt. Cotton is a water-thirsty crop, using around 713 gallons (2,700 liters) of water per shirt. Cotton accounts for 90% of natural fibers used in garment production, in factories from Kazakhstan to Indonesia, for major fast-fashion brands. In a dramatic example, the water supply for the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan was redirected to commercial farms to meet the tremendous demand for cotton. This shrunk the Sea to just 10% of its original volume, significantly diminishing the ecosystem, destroying soil, and creating a wave of dust storms for residents of the area.
When we buy cheaply-made products to replace ones that have worn out, we signal to industries that we don't care about the planet and teach kids that their possessions are disposable. But by carefully choosing ethically-made items that last, we are not only likely to buy less, but we make the act of purchasing a thoughtful process that imbues our possessions with significance. We are more likely to treasure these objects. And by taking the time to mend and repair them, rather than just disposing and consuming again, we demonstrate to kids that objects aren't easily replaced.
3. Ask Questions
We all want to encourage curiosity in our children. One of the easiest ways to do it is by modeling question-asking. "Where did this come from?" "What is it made of?" "Who made this?" "When I throw this away, where does it go?" are all critical questions we can and should ask of each object we bring into our lives. When you take your kids shopping, ask them to check labels. When you bring home a gift, talk about what it's made of.
It's not just that conventional materials like inorganic cotton leach chemicals into the water supply. It's also that these materials are usually being handled by exploited workers. In just 2013, a major garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed because building owners had scaled up to increase industrial production and refused to acknowledge safety warnings. The demand for fast fashion and low-cost clothing meant brands turned a blind eye to the management of their factories, which were staffed by mostly women with families. It's mothers who are most directly affected by the substandard conditions in the garment industry. In India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and other countries who supply most of our fast fashion demands, the workers are primarily women who don't have other family members who can provide for their children. Working in unsafe, egregiously underpaid positions is one of very few options to care for their children.
Abstractions don't resonate with children. If we want our own kids to care about sustainability, it helps to make the issues concrete. Now, it's up to individual families to decide when it's appropriate for their children to understand the full impact of their clothing and other objects. But even young children can understand that there are real people who go to work every day to make their clothes and toys, people with kids of their own. We can teach them that object they own has a story, and guide them towards uncovering it.