Whole Foods, Gerber say demand for green baby products is strong

Shop at any retailer patronized by educated, eco-conscious young parents — places such as Nordstrom and Whole Foods — and you'll find plenty of products for babies that promise not to be harmful, either to infants or the environment.

In fact, when I asked Whole Foods about the demand for green baby goods, the company emailed me a statement from Maren Giuliano, executive global whole body coordinator, who wrote, "At Whole Foods Market, we have definitely seen a growing consumer demand for sustainable toys — our Green Toys line has been extremely popular with shoppers this holiday season."

I also reached out to Gerber, which began offering organic baby food in the mid-1990s and says 90 percent of its fruits and vegetables are grown within driving distance of its factories. "[T]he majority of our consumers purchase a mix of organic and natural products," wrote Wendy Johnson-Askew, VP of corporate affairs for Nestle Nutrition, Gerber's parent company, in an email. "[W]e have seen growth in our organic pouches; however, this may be as a result of the growth of pouches instead of the growth of organics."

Additionally, bloggers watching the actions of such corporate behemoths are increasingly making a living doing so.

In an email, Manda Aufochs Gillespie, founder and president of The Green Mama and author of a book coming out in the spring, wrote, "When I started [seven years ago] there was virtually no one doing anything around green parenting. Now there are numerous others. The green product market has become one of the fastest growing sectors of the skincare market, the food market and even the construction world. Green is on everyone's minds these days. Unfortunately, this also means that greenwashing has become big business."

Decades ago, greenwashing wasn't even a concept — a fact that speaks to consumers' growing desire over the years for products that are good for people and the planet.

A pioneer in green baby gear

When Becky Cannon first became a mother, she lived in Japan where natural baby products, such as cotton and wool diaper covers, were pretty easy to get. After moving to the U.S. and having her second child, it was a different story.

Cannon's passion for raising her children without exposing them to harmful chemicals led her to import diaper covers from Japan, collect other natural baby care products and even begin making her own cloth diapers. In 1982, she started selling these items to others by mail order. 

"We did organic cotton way back years ago, introducing it several times when there wasn't much of a market for it," Cannon said. "It's not always an easy thing to do. It was a very small market at the time. Organic was really not even a word that was used."

By the time she took her company, i Play., outside her home, where she ran it for 13 years, her annual revenue hovered around $1 million.

Today, her eldest daughter, Emi Kubota, who has an MBA from Columbia, is co-owner and vice president of the 62-person company based in Asheville, N.C. The company has two brands: i Play swimwear, layette and outerwear, and Green Sprouts ware, toys and baby-care products. Collectively, the brands encompass hundreds of products sold to 25 countries and scads of household name retailers including Whole Foods, Amazon, Diapers.com, Target and Buy Buy Baby, a fast-growing retailer owned by Bed, Bath and Beyond.

While natural baby care products were at one time a highly niche market, today it's flooded with companies trying to woo the hearts and pocketbooks of parents younger than 35. These parents, who tend to be environmentally conscious and focused on sustainability, prefer organic options and want transparency in the products they buy.

Cannon says that when she started her company, maybe 10 or 20 others were making natural baby gear. Now hundreds of companies are doing it, although many only focus on one specific product, such as glass bottles.

What's new and next

Kubota says right now, a lot of health-conscious consumers are interested in homemade baby food. As such, a plethora of appliances for pureeing, cooking, storing and labeling baby food are available.

In line with this trend, i Play. plans to launch a new food product line next spring or summer called Grow Healthy, which will include organic short grain brown rice, an organic sweet rice and millet combination, a millet and quinoa combination, organic adzuki beans, a probiotic supplement and sesame oil.

"[It's] all the things that you would need to create a nutritionally complete equivalent to what most doctors and pediatricians recommend to be a first solid, the instant rice cereal, which has a lot more items on the ingredient list than you might want to put in your baby's mouth. So we're providing the basics for making your own version of that at home," she said.

The meaning of 'green' 

When people talk about green baby gear, they can mean eco-conscious products such as those made by California-based Green Toys, which boasts about using recycled milk jug plastic in its products instead of sourcing virgin plastic that would consume far more energy. Alternately, "green" can mean the products don't contain chemicals and materials that can harm people.

Cannon says her company is in the latter camp, and all of its products are BPA, PVC and formamide free. While the company is focused on the environment — for instance, it uses organic cotton in layette products and vegetable-based inks on compactly designed packaging made from 100 percent recycled paper — she says her main priority is the health of babies.

"If you have to choose a plastic that's going to affect the baby's health or the environment, I would choose the one that's best for the baby's health," she said.

Along that line, next year Cannon plans to publish a book titled "Grow Healthy, Grow Happy: The Whole Baby Guide," which will include recipes, her advice about natural food, cooking methods and food philosophy, as well as natural considerations in child development and a section on materials and products.

Photo of baby food by Africa Studio via Shutterstock