Sustainability

Why I'm Teaching My 5-Year-Old to Be More Eco-Conscious

Plus, how to stay firm on your eco principles—even when they’re tested (and broken).

June 26, 2020
Photo by Weston Wells

A Full Plate is a column about family life and the home by contributing writer Laura Fenton, who explores the intersection of sustainable living and home design through a mother’s eyes.


I’ve always considered myself a bit of a tree-hugger, but it wasn’t until I was expecting my child that I got serious about my efforts to reduce waste and my carbon footprint. Talking to other parents, I have realized this is a common experience: As soon as you start thinking about your child’s lifetime, you understand how important it is to conserve and protect our planet’s resources. Ironically, having a child also immediately makes it harder to live a low-waste life (hello, disposable diapers and an endless stream of plastic!).

Staying firm on our low-waste principles has been even harder since my family began following stay-at-home directives, practicing social distancing, and increasing hygiene measures, but I don’t want my son to think that making the green choice is optional when times are tough. My hope is that if composting, mending, shopping secondhand, and engaging in activism are all “normal” to my son and his peers—rather than the "alternative", "hippie" things to do—we’ve got a better shot at a sustainable future. My family’s eco principles have been tested (and broken!) on many occasions recently, but this experience has left me even more committed to making ecological choices every day. Here are some of the ways we’re still striving to live more lightly on the earth that you can try too:

My hope is that if composting, mending, shopping secondhand, and engaging in activism are all “normal” to my son and his peers—rather than "alternative", "hippie" things to do—we’ve got a better shot at a sustainable future.

1. Mend and make do

Consuming less and keeping things out of the landfill is one way to reduce our waste and our carbon footprint. Our Room & Board sofa (seen above) will be 10 years old this summer, and it is starting to show its age. Instead of dropping it off at a local charity or sending it to the landfill, I’m eyeing a replacement cover either from the manufacturer or maybe something jazzier from Comfortworks. My duvet that’s looking yellowed may get a refresh with a DIY tie-dye project. The same spirit applies to our clothing: Inspired by Katrina Radabaugh, the author of Mending Matters, I’ve stitched my ripped jeans shashiko-style. Determined not to buy a second set of size 5T pants when I know my son is going to outgrow them any day, I cut one pair up and used it to patch the rest of the hole-y knee pants.

2. Push Pause on Wants

At the end of last year, I realized that the convenience of my family’s memberships to online retailers that offer free shipping had resulted in us ordering a lot of stuff we didn’t really need. Many of the things we bought online could have been done without or purchased from a local shop. So I decided I’d try to shop more locally and independently in 2020. We also put a pause of at least 24 hours on any online purchases. The first three months went by pretty smoothly, but sticking to my “shop small” pact has been harder with the coronavirus shutdowns across the country. It takes more work to find things elsewhere, and my husband has expressed frustration at the high price of shipping from some shops, but I think it’s worth it to keep those smaller businesses around, especially the ones that have brick and mortar locations that make our communities richer.

3. Invest in the best

When my son was little, the difference between the low-cost clothing brands and the more expensive ones was hard to notice because he grew out of clothes before the wear and tear could show. Now that he stays in a size longer, I can see what those extra dollars are buying: An extended useful life. This has been a reminder for me about all the things we buy for our home: While they may cost more upfront, well-made things last longer (sometimes even a lifetime) and therefore cost less over time.

4. Shop second-hand

I’m a woman who loves nothing more than a morning spent at a flea market. It will be a while before we’re all rubbing elbows over stalls of vintage furniture again, but I am still shopping secondhand. When I needed a book for research recently, I bought it from a used bookseller online and when we finally caved on buying the PJ Masks vehicle my son has been asking for since Christmas, I ordered it from eBay. Any summer clothes we need will come from secondhand marketplaces online.

Keep up an eco-friendly laundry routine

Staying home has actually made it easier to stick to washing in cold water, air-drying everything, and avoiding the dry cleaner at all costs. Following an eco-conscious routine has a two-fold sustainability impact: We use less energy, water, and cleaning products when we’re being mindful, and our clothes last longer when they’re subjected to a gentler laundering. Plus, I may be an outlier, but there is something so satisfying in doing laundry with care.

Shop bulk-ish

While we can’t browse the bulk aisle at our local health food store right now, we are still trying to find ways to reduce the packaging waste associated with our food. I always opt for the biggest container because the larger sizes use less material than their smaller counterparts. Plus, we still shop for mostly whole foods, rather than more processed ones, so there are no individual wrappers and excess packaging (though heeded my son’s repeated requests for string cheese). I’m also still bringing my own bags to the store. Best of all, I’ve found ways to order my favorite ingredients in bulk, like lentils from Timeless Natural Food and flours from Farmer Ground Flour (we order through the Lewis Waite Farmer Network), which will be incorporated into my pantry-stocking routine going forward

Connect with farms

Seeing and reading about the ripple effects of the pandemic have reinforced my commitment to local food, so I’m trying to do my part to help keep small-scale farmers on their land. My family is a longtime member of a CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm and we plan to continue to support our CSA and all the vendors at our local farmer’s markets—even if it means taking extra precautions to pick up our produce. We’re also donating to our local food bank to help other families stay fed during this crisis.

Grow something

Since we live in an apartment, it’s not likely that we’ll ever grow our own food in a meaningful way, but this summer, I’m making it a goal to at least fill some pots of fresh herbs and maybe even a cherry tomato plant. Producing even a little bit of our food will teach my son about the connection between growing and eating, plus, being able to snip a few fresh herbs for a meal is my idea of self-care.

What are you doing to keep up your sustainable lifestyle? How has your family changed its usual routines? I’d love to hear more in the comments below.

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Laura Fenton

Written by: Laura Fenton

Laura Fenton is the A Full Plate columnist at Food52. The author of The Little Book of Living Small and the former lifestyle director at Parents magazine, she covers home, design, and sustainability. Laura lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in a 690-square foot apartment with her husband and son. You can follow her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton.

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