Shades of Green

Every environmentally-concerned parent knows the dilemma: Ecological children's products cost more.

Why is it so expensive? This question gets asked repeatedly about ecological products and their derivatives, often angrily. Behind it lurks an attitude that sees ecological products as luxuries, and those who believe in them as wealthy, pampered and wasteful. This question is amplified when you want to raise ecological babies and children, because the ecological consumption for youngsters, or at least large parts of it, poses difficult budgetary challenges. Reusable diapers, environmentally-friendly playthings, natural clothing and of course organic food are mostly characterized by discouragingly high prices.

Before getting angry, one should remember that people concerned for the environment and merchants who offer green products do not always have the same interests. People concerned about the environment, or at least the purists among them, tend to produce for themselves the products they need, including soaps and creams. Moreover, they barter with other parents and hand down toys and clothing, including reusable diapers, from one generation to the next. And another thing: Green parents' shopping basket is also overall less costly environmentally than that of "regular" parents, because the green products do not come in fancy packaging, but rather in packaging that is biodegradable.

So it is true that green toys and clothing are more expensive, but there are considerable savings on diapers and the plethora of toiletry products for babies that most ecologically-minded parents do not purchase much if at all.

Another, somewhat extreme contention in this context is that ecological products for children exacerbate the social and health gaps between those who can afford them and others. The only answer to this is that greater demand will probably increase supply and lower prices. In the meantime the monetary costs of green children are definitely a discouraging factor, because most consumers are not ecological purists and when they compare the prices of two products, one ecological and one regular, they do not think about pollution of infrastructures or long-term profit and loss, but only about the price.

The root of the problem is the way we are conditioned to look for inexpensive products without thinking about their implications. The notion that cheap - at least regarding non-ecological products - is expensive is true because they harm not only the planet's health but also, and mainly, children's health. There is something unreasonable, even distorted, in parents who react with disgust to natural and expensive soap while entirely ignoring concerns that massive, long-term use of harsh cosmetic ingredients can be harmful.

This order of priorities with respect to children's products definitely impedes the green revolution. These children will be here long after the rest of us, and it is they who will determine the consumer agenda in the future. The products they use today are likely or liable to determine their taste and worldview in the future.

Toys are a good demonstration of this dilemma: Non-ecological toys are purchased very often, not only because they break easily but also and mainly because every day new and cuter sorts of Webkinz are invented. So it's true that a new, handmade ecological toy is far more expensive, but it should remain with the child and his family for many years and even get passed down to grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The idea behind "Omer," wooden toys and natural crafts materials in the spirit of anthroposophy, is a good demonstration of the problematics arising from the very fact that they are defined as ecological playthings. Ostensibly, anthroposophical toys are a model of consideration for the green trend because they are made of natural materials. However, the more basic question is why children even need toys that are consumer items, and to what extent these answer children's needs - or perhaps they are only, somewhat paradoxically, a reflection of the ugly sides of the consumer culture that transforms every good idea into a brand or marketing tool, or both.

Anthroposophical toys sold in retail chains and specialized shops are indeed attractive, pleasant and heartwarming, but at the same time even more than other playthings they give rise to the old question of whether toys defined as such are better than any pot and two wooden spoons that can become a drum, or a broom that can become a horse or airplane.

Of course there is no one answer to all these questions, and there is also plenty of self-righteousness and prissiness in the attempt to claim it is possible to live in our culture without consuming very costly toys sold in stores that sometimes serve as a substitute for, or at least an equivalent for, love and attention.