"Green Washing" Comes to the Child Care Industry

With rapidly increasing consumer interest in environmentally friendly products, manufacturing and building, the practice of "green washing" has reared its ugly head and crept into even the child care industry. Find out why "eco-friendly" is sometimes more about marketing than stewardship of the environment.

I was so excited to read recently that a building certified through LEED (Leadership In Environmental Design) with a platinum rating had a child care center located in it. While there are thousands of LEED-certified public and private schools, there continues to be a lack of environmentally certified child care centers.  There is an eco-friendly childcare program in Oregon, but it consists only of a checklist for a center director to complete and mail in. This would be similar to allowing centers to complete their own NAEYC accreditation with a checklist.  Instead, we offer them training, support and a third-party professional certification process.

What I also have observed is that just because a childcare center is LEED-certified does bit necessarily mean the building or outdoor environment is developmentally appropriate for children.  I was so disappointed to learn the new LEED-certified childcare center previously mentioned has an outdoor environment modeled after Steve Irwin’s work. And yes, that is Steve Irwin from Australia. According to press releases, children can learn about the environment by riding their bike on an anaconda-like bike track, observing wooden animals with binoculars or playing in a house like Bindi Irwin’s.  For those designers and early childhood staff who think this is developmentally and culturally appropriate, I remind you that children learn about the outdoors and the natural world by direct experiences with nature that is relevant to their culture and home place. Children need to develop empathy and understanding of their own local flora and fauna before they “save the rainforest” a million miles away.  I admire Steve Irwin’s work, but I strongly doubt that children can relate to Australia.  How can a building that is so right on the inside be so “wrong” on the outside?

The press release also talks about using a curriculum to teach children about the environment. We teach young children about the environment by providing them the opportunity to act upon and be in the natural world, not by providing them a curriculum. We also transmit our values by being good role models for children. Children need outdoor environments that are as healthy and supportive as their indoor environments. A supportive environment includes plants, trees and shrubs for shade, hiding, collecting and investigating. We are good role models by showing children how we recycle and make good decisions.

Another child care center in the same city as the LEED-certified building discussed earlier claims to be a “green” center. Yet it has an outdoor environment that appears to be void of plant life, including trees for shade, according to the video I watched on YouTube. While a center touts itself as being so healthy inside, what is healthy about an outdoor environment with nothing but plastic and concrete? Yikes, even Wal-Mart knows humans need plants. Just check out the trees and shrubs in the parking lots. 
It is sad to me that centers are using the word “green” to cash in on parents’ fears about health -- without truly doing what is right for young children.  This practice is called “green washing.”

This same “green” childcare center states it imports rugs from New Zealand.  I hate to be the one to tell them, but we have sheep right here in the U.S. that produce wool we make rugs from. So why use enough gas to kill several hundred trees by shipping a rug around the world from New Zealand? These are not sustainable practices for neither children nor the environment. 

While I have not seen pictures of the U.C. Berkeley Day Care Center, I have watched the YouTube video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6zjbIH0TA8. So much about this center seems right when it comes to a sustainable child care center.  It is not LEED-certified, but the indoor environment is bright with sunlight, neutral furnishings, nontoxic cleaning and green building materials.  The outdoor environment shows children in the natural world of plants and is rich with as many loose parts and as much sensory input as the indoor environment.

These examples show that early childhood centers can get sustainable practices right, but most early childhood staff need ongoing training and support for creating environments both indoors and outdoors that are healthier for the children, staff and the planet.  Early childhood centers can be models in our country for demonstrating to young children the responsibility of being good earth stewards.  The practice of “green washing” in child care -- exaggerating a company’s environmental claims for marketing reasons -- is one that will no doubt hurt the sustainable movement. Some people will use it as just one more excuse to do nothing.  However, let me remind you that our country considered lead and asbestos good building materials until we proved how unhealthy and toxic both are for our environment.  So do the right thing. If you are going to call yourself sustainable, “eco-friendly,” green, or anything similar, please do your homework and do it right for everyone’s sake.  Educate your staff and parents on how to live lighter and be good role models for young children.  We are all connected on this place we call Earth.