Skip to content

Eat your cake and have some more, but not on paper plates

HPIM5038.jpg

Four kids celebrate a joint eco-friendly birthday party in Toronto. (Courtesy of Lisa Borden)

When Aden Bany Ata turned 2 last May, he and his friends spent his birthday party chasing the crickets and ladybugs that they had just set free. They also potted flowers in the backyard, and snacked on vegan cupcakes baked by Aden’s mom, Deborah Conquest.

Conquest, 36, of Rochester, N.Y., sent out e-vites instead of paper invitations, used everyday plates instead of paper plates, and baked bug-shaped cookies for each child to take home rather than give out plastic goody bags filled with treats.

“Parents are becoming more aware that birthday parties are wasteful,” said Tiffany Washko, who writes about “green” birthday parties and the growing trend of eco-conscious living on her blog, naturemoms.com. After all, “green is the new black.”

As sea levels rise, glaciers retreat, and the effects of global warming take center stage, more people are becoming conscious of their carbon footprints. Some parents believe that reducing their impact to create a better world for their children is an immediate concern. For them, throwing eco-friendly birthday parties is the newest form of green living.

In Toronto, Lisa Borden of Borden Communications, a design and marketing firm that promotes environmentally conscious living, has made green birthday parties part of her new campaign. When she began speaking to party venues two years ago about becoming more eco-friendly, they resisted because they thought there was no market for it. Now she speaks to around 400 people a month about green living and green birthday parties, and is finding that more people are willing to incorporate her suggestions.

The trend comes at a time when birthday parties are growing in extravagance, and parents increasingly spend thousands to make their child’s birthday party unique.

“We live in a supersizing culture,” said Bill Doherty, a professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota and director of Birthdays Without Pressure, an organization that works to take the pressure out of birthday parties. “Parents of this generation will spare no expense and effort to make their children feel special.”

In Chicago, LaShanna Douglas of Elegant Party Creations by Shanna, worked with a family to convert their living room into a tea party for their daughter’s birthday. Green fabrics were draped on the walls, and fake grass was brought in to make the room transform into an outdoor setting. The cost? $3,500.

Alison Smith and Debbie Zinman created ECHOage, a green birthday party business, to provide an alternative. Launched a few months ago in Toronto, hundreds of families have used their services, and hundreds more are registered for the coming months. Because of the tremendous demand, they have expanded their business to the United States. “We feel there’s been a real current of change in terms of how birthday parties can become more meaningful,” Smith said.

To reduce wastefulness and to infuse value into birthday parties, their motto is “one gift, one cause.” Instead of giving gifts, all guests are asked to make a secure money donation online. Half the proceeds go to a charity of the child’s choice, and the other half goes into buying one special present.

Their approach has some critics. Brian Costin at the Heartland Institute in Chicago is skeptical that kids will take pride in contributing to a charity if it comes at the expense of opening a mound of birthday presents. “There’s lots of ways to celebrate the environment and preserve it at the same time as allowing kids to enjoy in some of the luxuries that modern society has afforded them,” he said. “Would they have a birthday party with no electricity,” where the kids “would have to play in the dark? Everything has its limitations.”

But Smith contends that her approach allows kids to enjoy one large present that they would not have otherwise had. Rather than get a bunch of toys that will collect dust in the corner, one boy was able to buy the guitar he always wanted, while another child used his pooled money to buy a snowsuit he had been admiring, she said.

For Emily Fano of New York City, focusing on the celebration rather than materialism is a key element of green birthday parties.

At a joint birthday party she threw for her two kids, aged 7 and 4, who were both born on Dec. 12, arts and crafts was the main activity. Kids decorated pine cones with paint and glitter and tied strings around them. Instead of goody bags, each child took a pine cone home to use as Christmas ornaments or home decorations.

Traditional birthday parties “teach a bad message to our children that more is better and accumulating stuff is desirable” said Fano, who uses birthday parties to instill values in her children. “I wanted birthday parties to almost be a statement about what we do believe in.”

Though Fano does not believe in depriving her kids of the pleasure of opening presents, she asked guests to bring second hand items as gifts, like used books, or arts and crafts items. “I think it’s a matter of explaining things to children. They get it, they’re smart.”

Lisa Borden couldn’t agree more.

“Birthday parties are a real cross section of what’s wrong with our world: overstimulation, not focusing in the right thing, throwing tons of things away, eating crap,” she said. “There’s still a way to have your child get presents, there’s still a way to give loot bags, and there’s still a way to eat cake without destroying your child’s health and the world.”

E-mail: lsg2126@columbia.edu