Interview: How To Run
A More Eco-Friendly Nursery
We get the lowdown from Little Green Rascals owner Vanessa Warn

Trying to be more eco-friendly can be a little bewildering. What really matters? Where do you start? How can you save the earth without it costing the earth?

Step up Vanessa Warn, who owns Little Green Rascals Organic Day Nurseries. A six-setting nursery group in York, Little Green Rascals are paving the way in the early years for how to run a successful nursery business with sustainability at its core.

Making sure that you do your bit for the environment is more important than ever, and that’s why Vanessa’s story is so important. Hopefully, you’ll find plenty of tips along the way to get started and even find out how to save money while you do it.

It all started with a nappy

“My first foray into sustainability was all about nappies,” Vanessa begins. As a 100 place nursery, with around 70 of those in nappies that get changed three times a day, the numbers soon start adding up.

The answer? Biodegradable nappies. Or so Vanessa thought.

“We’ve got quite a big bit of countryside here in Elvington, and we dug a big pit and they were all going to biodegrade,” Vanessa explains. A few years on, the first nappies had only just started to do their thing and it was all starting to look a bit unfeasible.

“Now we actually incinerate the majority of our rubbish with a local supplier. Huge conveyor belt, people in hazmat suits, that sort of thing.” After taking out the recyclable materials from their rubbish, everything that’s left is incinerated and the energy generated is sent back into the natural grid.

This is a hallmark of Vanessa’s approach to running her business. Try. Learn. Try again. Succeed. And that’s exactly why she’s got so much experience to draw on when it comes to running a sustainable, successful nursery business.

Why sustainability matters at Little Green Rascals

So why go to such extreme lengths when so many providers wouldn’t stop to think for a second about the destination of their nappies?

“I think, quite simply, it’s a guilty conscience,” Vanessa says. “Sustainability has always just been ingrained in me and I feel a responsibility of what I’m doing and the impact my nurseries have.”

Having been conscious for years of her impact at home, Vanessa wasn’t prepared to compromise on those eco-friendly attitudes for her business, and she doesn’t think you should either.

Why you should care too

“I’ve always felt that with tiny steps, you complete a marathon,” Vanessa says. “I get really frustrated with people saying, it doesn’t make any difference, or that it needs to be China and other countries that have to change things.”

She’s not wrong – the things that you do really can make a difference. You are more powerful than just one person, with influence over your staff, parents and the children too. After all, isn’t that the reason that we’re doing this?

“All nursery providers worry about money and time,” Vanessa points out. “But what trumps all of that are the children. We’re planning for a future generation and whatever you’re doing will leave a footprint that they have to grow up into.”

That’s why sustainability matters.

And if you’re still not convinced…

It’s more than just ‘doing the right thing. Vanessa’s eco-friendly approach sits well with parents too.

“That honesty and care for the environment is indicative of care,” she says. “If I’m being honest and realistic of how I’m taking care of the environment then they trust me to look after their child too.”

“That little bit of time and energy that you put in not only gives sustainability to the planet but sustainability to your business too,” Vanessa goes on.

“It’s a real partnership with parents on that level, and that makes parents want to send their child to our nurseries,” she says. “I think our waiting lists are proof of that.”

The three easiest ways to be more eco-friendly

Now that you know why it matters to look after the environment, Vanessa can talk us through her starting points for a more eco-friendly nursery.

1. Crafts and paper

“Given how much children draw and paint, that’s where I’d start because it’s the biggest easy win,” Vanessa says. What this means is looking for more eco-friendly paints, pens and glitter.

When it comes to paper, there’s a huge potential to reduce waste.

“I’m talking about paper on all sorts of different levels,” Vanessa says. “Paper that the children draw on, toilet paper and paper they wipe their hands with. It’s hard to believe how much you get through in a nursery and if all of these things are recycled or chlorine-free then it makes the world of difference.”

2. Recycling and composting

As we’ve talked about before, composting and recycling not only makes a big impact on the environment, but it teaches children crucial lessons about the world we live in.

“Composting is such a pleasure,” Vanessa says, “in six month times, you can use that compost in your garden and that’s really satisfying for the children.

3. Going organic

Going organic can have a big impact on the health of your children because they use far fewer pesticides than traditional farming. If you want to start introducing some organic food, then The Dirty Dozen is a good place to start, says Vanessa.

“The Dirty Dozen are the best foods to eat organic because usually they get sprayed by fertilisers on average five or six times,” she explains. “There’s a second list who are sprayed less regularly, which are fine to buy non-organic so long as you can get them locally sourced.”

Locally sourced food has a big impact on the environment too, as the reduce transport gives it a much lower carbon footprint than food imported from further afield.

“You don’t have to do everything we do. You can just pick literally one thing – one thing can make a heck of a difference.”

Vanessa Warn, Owner, Little Green Rascals

Getting everyone onboard

Being eco-friendly is about more than just the impact of your business. In fact, it’s not even just the impact you have on your children. Your environmental tentacles can reach everyone who you interact with at your setting.

1. The parents

For Vanessa, getting parents onboard with her mission is about being as transparent as possible about her costs. “Parents are happy to pay that little bit extra knowing that we have higher costs in order to do what we do,” she says, “because it releases a little bit of guilt from them too.”

At the end of the day, parents care too, and by showing you care about these issues, you can stand out from the crowd.

For those who don’t? “We organise special parents or grandparents days all the time,” Vannessa says. Forest school days where the parents can come in and explore nature with their little ones make an impact too. “It just helps to reiterate to parents that this stuff is important. It’s easy to get busy and keep your head down, but when you hear about environmental issues people do realise how important it is.”

2. The staff

“I’m a bit of a mother hen,” Vanessa tells me. With 180 staff under her, she realises the influence she can have. “There’s a lot of young girls who work for me,” she explains, “so it’s good to see them interested and ask questions about how they can make skincare or makeup choices that have a more positive impact.”

Staff at Little Green Rascals also receive:

  • Three free natural treatments a year
  • Nutritional organic lunch with the kids
  • Regular fruit and veg boxes
  • Big Christmas and summer parties

Of course, none of this comes cheap, but looking after her staff’s wellbeing has a broader impact on her eco-friendly mission. “I want them to talk to the parents about these issues too,” Vanessa explains. “I don’t want them to give it lip service either, and that’s why we do these things, because that’s when it’s not genuine anymore. Parents can tell if it’s not real.”

3. Pester power

Getting the kids involved with feeding the chickens, composting and recycling doesn’t just teach the children those important lessons either.

“Pester power is one of your most powerful tools,” Vanessa says. “A friend of mine who runs a local attraction told me that if he could convince children to come back or ask to go in the shop they have there, that pester power is worth an absolute fortune. I tried to harness that pester power thinking about recycling.”

It works too. Vanessa is always hearing back from parents whose children are asking them ‘Where’s our compost bin?’ or ‘Why can’t we recycle more?’. “It’s just about drip-feeding information, and explaining that we do have a responsibility to do something about it,” she says.

How to save money

We know what you’re wondering. What about the cost? It is true that while there are plenty of free eco-friendly initiatives you can try, not everything comes cheap.

“I do have to take a hit. We are absolutely not as profitable as we could be,” Vanessa explains. “But it’s about the choices you make, and if you think about saving the planet for the generation you’re trying to bring up, then it’s important we start to take some of these steps”

With that in mind, Vanessa put on her business hat and gave us some great ideas to reduce cost, to make up for the money that you’re spending on saving the world.

1. The best nappies for the job

After deciding to incinerate their waste, Vanessa knew they could save some money on the expensive nappies they were using. So she put the parents to the test.

“I want it chlorine-free, I don’t want petroleum-based plastic in them and I don’t want any phthalates,” she told parents. After trying out every single nappy on the market, there was a clear winner.

“In the end, we came down to the Aldi Mamia nappy. It fit every single one of my criteria, but was a fraction of the cost.” Now, the money she saves on nappies pays for the incineration process. Not bad.

2. Bulk buying

When you’re looking to save some money, bulk buying is your friend. “We buy wet wipes by the palate and then share them between the nurseries,” Vanessa explains.

She admits it can be a pain to transport them between the nurseries, but by bulk buying and storing things like paper and wipes, they save a fortune. But if you don’t have the luxury of working in a nursery group it’s time to…

3. Increase your buying power

Nursery groups can often make savings due to economies of scale. They can guarantee a lot more business for a supplier, so they get discounts. But if you’re not a chain, setting up a local buying collective with other providers can give you exactly the same advantages.

“If you can guarantee a certain amount of produce over a certain period, most companies will give you wholesale prices,” Vanessa explains. In fact, when Little Green Rascals started out, Vanessa paid up front for palates of wipes, receiving the delivery bit by bit. This meant they could still get the savings without having to store thousands of wet wipes.

4. Just ask

Vanessa’s final tip? “If you don’t ask, you just don’t know if they’ll do it,” she proclaims. Get in contact with local suppliers, and see what they can do. Many might be aligned with your environmental goals and be more than happy to do their bit.

What’s more, once you have these processes in place, you’ll get to reap the rewards for years. “A lot of these things, you have to put in some time and energy in the first instance, but once you’ve got it set up, you’ve got it for life,” Vanessa explains.

More things to try

Keen to learn about other ways you can positively impact the environment? Here are just some of the things that Little Green Rascals do to be more sustainable. Why not pick a couple and see if they could work for you?

  • Recycled and FSC materials for stationery and crafts
  • Fair-trade and/or organic food
  • Grow their own vegetables and fruit
  • Encourage wildlife in the garden
  • Eco-friendly cleaning products without chemicals – no bleach
  • Eco-friendly sewage systems
  • 100% renewable energy used
  • Incinerated rubbish, recycling the energy
  • Low energy lightbulbs
  • Rainwater for watering
  • Composting and recycling encouraged wherever possible
  • Local suppliers and tradesmen to encourage green miles
  • Recycled cotton wool and paper
  • Biodegradable wipes
  • No phosphates in washing powder
  • Organic cotton hoodies
  • Recycled-plastic coats

Early Years & The Environment Guide

Interested in more helpful advice? Get your free copy of our guide on how to be more sustainable now.