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Green is the new black for kids

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 6, 2011 - To paraphrase the old saying, if it looks like a stuffed elephant and it feels like a stuffed elephant, then clearly it's a ... plastic bottle.

Well, not exactly.

Jessica Kester is holding a small stuffed elephant made of chipped plastic, melted and recycled into fleece.

"The average (fleece) animal is 10 (plastic) bottles," said Kester. "People are like, 'You can do that?'"

That reaction is one of the reasons she started Verde Kids, a small Webster Groves storefront that opened slightly more than a year ago when Kester, a former teacher and Missouri Botanical Garden youth and family program coordinator, noted her own shopping habits.

"The green movement is such an important part of how I was starting to buy products," said Kester who has a master degree in environmental management. "I wanted to make the best choices that I could, finding stuff that I could feel really good about buying."

Some of those items were available on the Internet but many consumers don't like to shop that way.

"My goal in opening this company was for people to be able to shop for their kids while being able to see and touch all of these products," she said. "They are available online, but I feel that you want to see things in person."

The 36-year-old Glendale resident now offers a wide variety of clothing, toys and other items geared toward children age 8 and under from glass baby bottles to organic cotton shirts to fleece outfits manufactured on much the same principle as the stuffed elephant.

"Everything we have here is selected based on the criteria that it's made in an eco-friendly way in a fair labor situation, minimally packaged," Kester said. "We're just looking for things that are a little bit different than what you are going to see at every other store."

Some toys are made from recycled plastic while others come from easily renewed wood from old rubber trees that are past their useful life, and were previously slashed and burned.

Even classics like wooden building blocks get a new spin. One set comes from a company that plants 100 new trees for each one it cuts. Another replants and uses non-toxic dyes.

"My nephew who has these has gone from building just towers to having figured out how to build suspended bridges," she said.

Baby bibs are also available with an eco-friendly twist.

"They're made of organic cotton and have a non-reactive coating on them as opposed to some of the plastic coatings that can start to leech and possibly be bad for the baby's health," Kester said.

Bib laminates aren't the only coating Verde Kids worries about. A brand of environmentally conscious, kid-friendly nail polish is on the shelves as well. It was developed as an alternative to solvent-based polishes by a mother who put store-bought polish on a disposable plate for her daughter to use only to find later that the substance had eaten through the Styrofoam.

"She set out to make a nail polish that was better for children because she knew kids are always chewing on their nails," said Kester.

Some items are seasonal. Garden in a Bag allows children to learn a lesson about sustainability by growing themselves a Christmas evergreen from scratch.

"It's a fun little stocking stuffer for this time of year," Kester said. "It has all the material and the seeds. They can just plant their own little pine tree."

Nearby, a display of hand puppets made from discarded sweaters illustrates the concept of "upcycling," or repurposing used materials rather than recycling them.

All in all, Kester said the store offers 3,000 products from about 100 vendors, some of which are available in the St. Louis area only at Verde Kids.

A few products have a hidden feature as well.

"This company donates proceeds back to children's charities," Kester said of one line in the small kitchen and bath section. "We look for a lot of companies like that which have a social component."

Even the store's decor is a part of the ethos of the establishment. The floors are made of fast-growing, renewable bamboo while the racks and counter are repurposed wood from old barns. The hangers are all bamboo or recycled cardboard and most of the other furnishings were picked up at garage sales or resale shops.

Kester, a native St. Louisan who has previous experience in retail, said response has been good so far to her business concept and the shop has developed a customer base.

"It's been great," she said. "People are really interested in the products. We have a lot of things that aren't being sold anywhere else in St. Louis."

She thinks things will grow even faster once the economy recovers.

"I knew opening a business in this environment would be tough but I didn't want to miss my opportunity, some day look back and say, 'Oh, I should have tried that,' she said. "This had become a bug in my ear for so long, it just wasn't going to go away."

David Baugher is a freelance writer.

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.

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