By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008
There's a six-week wait for a $15 stainless steel sippy cup made without harmful compounds. At the annual toy show in New York last month, retailers lined up to put in orders for a children's tea set made of recycled plastic milk jugs. And some big box chains are eager to start selling a $300 organic crib mattress that was tested in a special chamber to ensure it doesn't emit any dangerous gases.
Last year's recalls of lead-tainted toys alerted many parents to the possible presence of toxic substances where they least expected it: in their child's favorite toy. Entrepreneurs and national retailers learned a lesson too: Uncertainty over the safety of the everyday products that surround their children means parents are willing to pay handsomely for peace of mind.
All they have to do is look at the rapid growth of businesses that cater to chemical-conscious moms and dads. New parents -- a growing portion of whom are members of tech savvy and advertising-averse Generation X -- have turned to blogs to read up on the potential health effects of plastic additives such as phthalates and bisphenol A, and to track down products that contain alternative compounds, no matter how obscure.
To be sure, the families buying these products make up a small segment of the U.S. households with children under age 3, which totaled 12 million in 2006, according to the U.S. Census. But market researchers say their disposable income makes them influential beyond their numbers. They've helped spur growth in the multimillion-dollar market for baby furnishings, clothing, gear and personal-care products that would otherwise inch forward in lock step with the nation's not-so-fast birth rate.
Major retailers are taking notice. While the Food and Drug Administration last month said the health effects of phthalates, for example, are not clear, Toys R Us said that by year-end it would not sell baby products that contain the compounds. Wal-Mart Stores handed down a similar edict to its suppliers, who must begin complying on August 1. Whole Foods plans to start selling its own brand of baby bottles in June, joining a slew of boutique bottle makers, including one that markets an $18 shatter-proof glass bottle with nipples imported from France -- seven times pricier than the typical model.
The American Academy of Pediatrics concluded in 2003 that phthalates, which have been linked to reproductive problems, are of concern and that more research on their health effects is needed. The group has no position on bisphenol A, known as BPA. The chemical and plastics industries have tried to allay consumer fears over BPA and phthalates, common ingredients in a host of plastic products. "Both BPA and phthalates have been thoroughly tested by regulatory agencies around the world, and the conclusions of those studies support continued safe use in the products they're in," said Sharon Kneiss, vice president of the products division at the American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing the nation's largest chemical companies.
Parents such as Laurie Cunningham and her husband, Travis Bowen, choose to err on the side of caution, even if it means paying more.
Last summer, the Centreville couple started looking for an organic crib mattress because they wanted to avoid exposing their daughter, Samantha, now 8 months old, to potentially harmful flame-retardant chemicals used in mattress filling. Then "it all sort of snowballed," Cunningham said.
She and her husband now use cloth diapers because they are concerned about chemicals that help make disposable diapers absorbent and about the impact of diapers on landfills. They painted the nursery with a special kind of paint that is formulated so it doesn't release harmful gases.
The couple would have kept going until every item in the nursery met their standards, but given that the prices for organic furnishings can be 15 to 20 percent higher than conventional ones and 50 to 100 percent higher for clothing, the couple decided to spend the bulk of their budget on the things the baby would be in contact with for the most hours each day. They bought a $500 handmade crib from Oregon coated in a non-toxic wax finish and a $230 crib mattress made of organic cotton and wool.
"We prioritized because everything is expensive," said Cunningham, who now acquires second-hand toys and clothes to save money. She and a neighbor, Alexa Hutchins, are starting a local chapter of Holistic Moms Network, a national group for parents interested in green alternatives. Hutchins also sprang for an organic crib mattress for her 6-month old son Max that was handmade by the Amish in Ohio.
So far, parents like Hutchins and Cunningham have helped drive up sales of organic baby-care products to $15 million in 2006 from $12 million the previous year, and organic baby food to $235 million in 2006 from $206 million in 2005, according to the Organic Trade Association.
That trend is likely to continue as more members of Generation X -- defined roughly as those born between 1965 and 1979 -- start families. Parenthood, market researchers say, is turning the "whatever" generation into hyper-vigilant homebodies.
"We're the first to be raised in day care in record numbers. Forty percent of us were latchkey kids. We were raised on television and Star Wars. We have an abiding fear of being left alone or feeling abandoned, so we will do anything to avoid recreating that in our own children's experience. We're ultra protective," said Susan Gregory Thomas, author of Buy Buy Baby, a book about baby-product marketing.
James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, a Boston and New York market research firm, said another demographic factor that may be driving demand for chemical-safe baby toys and gear is the higher education level of Gen X moms, who are 70 percent more likely to have a college degree than Baby Boomers. College-educated women, in turn, tend to start families later in life, have fewer children, more disposable income, and are more in tune with environmental concerns, Chung said.
"It's a huge change to become a mom. You do anything you can to prepare for this awesome responsibility," said Lynn Miller, who writes the Organicmania blog on the DC Urban Moms and Dads site. After last year's toy recalls, "mothers feel they need to do more research and take it into their hands."
The proliferation of blogs has played a key role in plugging parents into the market for baby goods free of potentially harmful substances. They played a pivotal role in the recent explosion of BPA-free baby bottles.
Questions about the health effects of phthalates and BPA have been around for years. In 2006, Whole Foods, a natural foods grocery chain, stopped selling baby bottles and sippy cups made with those chemicals. But interest in BPA-free products soared after a panel of scientists organized by the National Institutes of Health concluded in August that there's "some concern" BPA could have neural and behavioral effects on fetuses and young children. Several parenting blogs picked up the news, and some parents began throwing away old bottles and replaced them with ones made without the suspect ingredient.
Almost immediately, several new baby-bottle makers sprung up, claiming to have phthalate- and BPA-free bottles. A 9-oz. BPA-free plastic bottle costs anywhere from $10 to $20 -- at least $6 more than conventional bottles, Babies R Us spokeswoman Jamie Beal said.
Many parents turned to conventional glass bottles, which cost less than $2 but are too fragile for some families.
Several manufacturers of alternative plastic bottles said their prices reflect higher production and raw material costs. ThinkBaby and BornFree use a resin to make BPA-free plastic that is 10 times more expensive than the more widely used polycarbonate. Many of the upstart bottle makers also insist on manufacturing in places such as the United States and Israel where labor costs are higher.
Then there's all the lab work required to ensure the chemicals used to make the bottles are safe. Consumers are paying to "feel assured we're doing the utmost testing," ThinkBaby founder Kevin Brodwick said.
Not only are green manufacturers' customers willing to pay higher prices, but they are also willing to endure wait lists of six weeks or more. Demand has been particularly acute in Canada, where earlier this year, a major sporting goods chain removed polycarbonate water bottles from its shelves over concerns about BPA.
"Canada is crazy. We could sell every cup we make to Canada right now," said Bret Plate, chief executive of KidBasic, the one-year-old maker of a stainless steel cup called the Safe Sippy.
Established bottle makers maintain that BPA doesn't pose any danger to babies and toddlers. But they have begun bowing to BPA concerns. Handi-Craft began selling glass bottles in January and plans to start selling BPA-free plastic ones in April, a company spokesman said. Evenflo now labels some of its products BPA-free.
So what becomes of the nascent green bottle industry once bigger companies step in? Jeremiah McNichols, who closely tracks the chemical components of baby bottles and sippy cups on his blog, Z Recommends, said it will survive because parents "want to be dealing with companies that take those concerns to heart."