Giving green

"Green" can go out the windows during the holidays. Sure, 11 months a year we turn off the lights when we leave the room, but come December we string up 10,000 bulbs in the yard. A year’s worth of newspaper bundling is forgotten for the allure of glamorous gift wrap. And a festive dinner from the co-op? Nah, let’s fly in Maine lobster.

But the excess of the holiday season can also inspire families to dial back the decadence. One way to do that is by giving greener gifts — recycled materials, more-durable toys, Earth-friendly products, and even eco-educational books.

Better living through wood

Plastic used to be an inescapable fact of modern childhood. No more. Walk into independent toy shops like Wonderment and Kiddywampus and you’ll see shelves lined with all things wooden.

Why the switch? One reason according to Lisa MacMartin, co-owner of Wonderment, is quality: parents are looking for toys that stand the test of time and their toddler’s fingers. "A lot of plastic toys break or lose pieces, so parents just throw them away," says MacMartin. "They just end up in a landfill."

Buying lasting quality can mean buying less. MacMartin points to a popular line of cars and trucks produced by Fagus, a German company that makes their solid toys with interlocking pieces so they withstand years of crashes. "This line is more expensive, but they become long-lasting heirloom toys that families will enjoy for years rather than throwaway toys," explains MacMartin.

Wooden toys are also often more sustainably made. Jennifer Kielas, store manager of Kiddywampus, recommends ImagiPlay’s colorful puzzles and play sets because they are made from rubberwood trees, a byproduct of the rubber industry (once the tree is at end of its rubber production cycle, it is usually burned). "Kids go right for these puzzles because they’ve got bright colors, and often parents don’t even realize how environmentally friendly they are," says Kielas, who displays the puzzles in a special "Kiddygreen" section of the store.

The recurring recalls of lead-tainted toys has also made parents look to nontoxic woods.

Tina North, owner of ReGifts, a green gift shop in South Minneapolis, likes the simple rattle made by North Star toys. The company uses sustainable materials and nontoxic vegetable stains that won’t make parents cringe as the toy moves toward open baby mouths. "The media has made people more aware of what chemicals are on these toys, and it’s gotten parents talking," says North. "It’s important to think about where we get our toys and who makes them."

The folks at Creative Kidstuff point to Plan Toys as some of the best for wooden toys. The Sit N Walk Puppy has all of what Jennifer Dunne, a senior buyer for the company, loves about Plan: the wood is well-polished, so there’s no fear of splinters, the toys are coated in a vegetable dye to eliminate the possibility of flaking paint, and the wood holds up to whatever a toddler can dish out. "Parents are turning towards brands that combine great quality with responsibility," she says.


 Greener grade school

Kids who have outgrown simple wood blocks are ready for some eco-learning experiences. North likes the Amazing Dinosaur Plant by Dunecraft, which grows in a matter of hours and can dry out into a brown ball and be brought back to life again and again. Kids can also learn about climate change and disappearing habitats in The Adventures of Riley, a series of books for early readers.

One of the most popular toys for this age group at Creative Kidstuff is Ringgz, a fast-paced strategy from Blue Orange Games. "All their games are wooden," says Sara Hale, a buyer for the store, "and for every tree they cut down to make a game they plant two trees."

For little artists, the nonprofit Crazy Crayons, based in Wisconsin, melts down the stubs of donated crayons and makes new ones in fun shapes like butterflies, hearts, and planets — no two are alike. North says that giving a 100-percent recycled gift allows parents to teach through their treat. "Giving a gift can be a lesson," she says. "And kids are really accepting of these ideas."

Something from nothing

This generation of teens has watched Leonardo DiCaprio drive around Hollywood in a Prius and Coldplay’s Chris Martin support fair trade. So "eco," for them, equals "hip."

"High-school-aged kids are more accepting of the need to be green," says North. At ReGifts, Relan messenger bags and purses, made by an Eagan-based company from the waterproof vinyl of old billboards are popular with teens. Each bag is one-of-a-kind, and the handles are made from recycled tire rubber. "Teenagers want something more mature, but it still has to be fun," says North.

Teenage boys are drawn towards North’s display of Splaff wallets, belts, and messenger bags. They’re all made from recycled racecar tires and the rubber tubing inside old bicycle tires and they’ll stand up to any teen’s use and abuse.

Guys and girls alike are impressed by 14-year-old Ethan Oscarson’s one-man jewelry operation, Caps for College. Oscarson is turning his collection of 500 vintage bottle caps into custom and ready-made bracelets and necklaces, available on his web site and at ReGifts. "Since I was really little, I’ve always taken junk and tried to build things out of it," he says.

Even baby’s on board

Parents of the tiniest tots are often the first to seek out safer, greener toys. The New York company Kinderware employs Aymara Indian women from the mountains of Bolivia to hand-sew cloth dolls. The company pays the artisans based on fair trade guidelines, and the women get to work out of their homes. "Kinderware is a high-integrity grassroots operation, and that’s important to a lot of parents," says Dunne. "These dolls are a great contrast to the mass-produced licensed characters that you see a lot of because they let children be creative."

Locally, Woodbury-based Blissful Bath makes vegetable-based organic bath products, like Tiney-Hiney Rub and Blissful Baby Soap, for sensitive tushes. That means no nuts, no chemical preservatives, no artificial colors or fragrances.

Will a tush rub make a baby more environmentally aware? Will a teenager consume less if given a recycled gift? Maybe, maybe not. While green giving might be more about a parent’s peace of mind, it can’t hurt to pass along a message of giving back to the Earth.

Monica Wright is assistant editor of Minnesota Parent.