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10 Tips to make Back-to-School more Sustainable

Posted by Ange Defosse on
10 Tips to make Back-to-School more Sustainable

So, I checked the stats to start this one off.

We love to hate on the consumerism of V-Day and Christmas, piping off about how far into debt we all get and we still just do the same ol' thing each year. But I found all of these numbers pretty interesting, because no one really talks about how expensive this crud is, right? "Back to school" is this unwritten traditional thing that our society takes part in, or at least I always have, and I'm a 34 year old mama getting my own sons ready for this return to routine. We know how the flyers and shops do it - as soon as one holiday ends, the next one pops up immediately, taking advantage of our anticipation... and so, this stuff starts in July now.

And man, is the anticipation real with this one this year. We've been home for ages with our kids, and we are ready for some normalcy, a routine, a fresh start. But we need to realize that in our society, we consumer more - by many times over - than the majority of the world, and we aren't even happier about it as a result. So what we find normal, is actually, this heavy expensive thing that is not normal, and definitely not sustainable.

Some stat snacks for you:

89% of people purchase new footwear, and 84% purchase new clothing (Tighe, 2020).

In North America, parents are spending, on average, $796 *per child* on back to school shopping (Consumer Behaviour, 2020).

By and far, stats show that it is mass merchants that do the most business, with 48% of shoppers doing everything online (Tighe, 2020).

And... "92% of Canadian families believe that back-to-school shopping is a financial burden" (Consumer Behaviour, 2020).


Back to school is a consumer holiday. As a parent, we want the best for our kids. It gets us right in the guilt - everyone's doing it, right? Our kid can't be the one in the same stuff from last year... right?

Here's a list of some ideas (and personal opinions, this is just me chatting away here!) of ways to do it differently - the bottom line being, we need to try to do things differently.

1. Don't buy a new backpack and lunch box if it's not needed.

We have to stop the cycle of "new just because." I remember the automatic purchase of these items, even with my bags at home from last year... well, from merely a couple months before, being just fine.

If you do buy new, think about buying something that is going to last. We all know what the backpacks look like that aren't going to last, they are usually covered in a thin plastic that will wear or fray before winter hits, and we will throw it out when the strap breaks, because it's not worth fixing. 

If a brand new backpack isn't in your price range, but you want to aim for quality, check out Poshmark or Marketplace. There are so many Fjallraven Kanken bags on there that we were able to choose the colour my son wanted and know it will last him a few years. We snagged a Plant Lunchbox (and a cover that my son liked) on Facebook Marketplace from another family that told me she was buying a new one "just for fun." If we can back away from the concept of buying and using resources "just because" we can start to replace things when they need to be replaced, and use less resources (and spend less) overall.

2. Review school supplies before buying

Sure, pencil crayons might be on sale at eight stores this week. My mom loved the hand-me-down game, but she always bought new supplies to fill new pencil cases every fall, and stockpiled whatever was leftover from last year. My sibs and I are all in our thirties now and there is a washbasin sized tub of mostly still unused pencil crayons in her kitchen cupboard. I doubt I ever used up my pencil crayons in a year, or were even close to it. And, if there was a colour that I'd broken, we likely still had like 16 of that colour I could have replaced it with.

Instead of buying new packages of everything, open up last year's pencil case with your student and see what's needed based on what they already have. 

3. Avoid "phase" buying

I remember my sister went through a "horse" phase... you know, as we tend to do when we are 10, right? She had everything horse related, and people just knew that they needed to produce a gift with that theme when buying for her - it was just such a well-know obsession of hers. Then, one Christmas, she had to write "NO horse stuff - I'm out of that phase" on her Christmas list and underlined it, emphasizing that she would no longer be accepting things the old her would have loved.

That's the thing about kids. They love the dang bananas one day, and the next day, they swear they never ate them at all they just hate them that bad. Fave TV shows become baby-ish, Disney movies are churned out, fresh McDonalds toys are released, and a new must-have line of merch along with it.

All of the licensed and themed stuff in the big box stores has kind of the same purpose as all my sister's horse knick knacks and stuffed animals did that hit the trash pretty quickly when she decided she'd matured past that phase. It's not meant to last, and we get rid of it not because it's not still useable, we toss it because it's time for our new passion.

But we honestly don't need to "own" what we are passionate about. Especially if it means we won't love it for long, and it involves investments of money and resources.

Avoiding clothing, bedding, back packs, shoes, and binders with phases on them is a great place to start if you are hoping to decrease your impacts. It's kind of the same thing as avoiding trends as an adult. Choosing more timeless standards for key items (say, a colour your child loves, in a better quality material) helps decrease the endless cycle of stuff.

4. Save your spent school supplies to recycle instead of tossing them

Over here at the shop, we've just invested in another Terracycle box for collecting spent markers, pens, and writing utensils cased in plastic. Grab an old bread bag and fill it with last year's markers that are dried up or used up, and save the landfill from those little plastic bits that will take hundreds of years to degrade. 

If you're not in the area and receiving deliveries or able to drop off at the store, check out your local Staples or ask at your school, as many locations around may already have one of these boxes installed. It's an easy thing for kids to collect and take ownership of their waste, too! And, it's free to drop off at these boxes!

5. Invest time into a new tradition

Sure, maybe school shopping isn't a financial burden for all, and it can be fun to do with our child. In some ways, it can feel like we are getting them ready for something big, and we want to provide them with the best. Plus, we know it might be a nice day out for us to make a memory.

You might be wondering what to do, if you don't head out on that shopping trip topped with a sundae or supper out somewhere special. Maybe it was the only time you felt your own parents focused on what you wanted for a day, and there's a lot wrapped up in that. Maybe you don't want to do it differently, because maybe back-to-school has some personal significance for you. I totally get all of that.

If you're at all queasy about the cost and the unnecessary consumption that comes with this semi-holiday, then why not try a new tradition? Take the kids to a drive-in as summer fades away, or a beach away from their usual spot? Maybe an epic water park date, or a geo caching trip to a new provincial park with a picnic? Ask the kids what they want to do, and spend the money on a hotel with a pool or an adventure that will create some pretty amazing memories instead. The "end of summer adventure" you take can be more of a time to connect than cruising around a mall or department store, or time spent tapping around on your phone.

6. Choose better paper products

If your child requires new paper packages for their binders, notebooks, or printer paper, opt for recycled or FSC certified papers. This certification ensures that forestry management is at the heart of the resource development and production for those products, and can ensure a more sustainable future by choosing in that way. 

You can also check out our new post consumer recycled paper notebooks we have for a step above that - available in sketch book, grid paper, and composition formats.

7. Try out new lunch + snack options

Earlier this year, I got to work on some projects that talked about reducing food packaging waste. Not surprisingly, bulk food shopping was at the heart of it all. As a fam, we've ensured some more fibre and nutrition in our diets with a switch away from pre-packaged, processed foods to a more bulk basic based diet. Litterless lunches are a pretty key piece for schools in planning for Covid restrictions (and we have a son that was in JK that truly needed assistance with opening wrappers, if we were going to send those), but it needs to be more than us opening the packages at home and throwing it out in our own bins instead of in the school's trash.

To help reduce all the tiny packaging, you can try to make a few different lunch snacks that are still nut-free. Trail mixes of raisins, dried cranberry, Cheerios (or other cereals), chocolate chips, and pumpkin or sunflower seeds replaced granola bars without much work or even any baking, and are all available readily in bulk shops. Chia and hemp hearts were mixed with some of the trail mix to make a yogurt topping so that kiddos just have to dump it and some fruit on top (using little containers to scoop yogurt from a larger one is also another great change). The bulk food store also offers mini cookies, full size cookies, crackers, snack bars, chips, and a ton of dried fruit options without the packaging. You'll be dumping your trash a lot less, saving money in some cases, and simplifying lunch making by having the ingredients do double duty for other recipes in your kitchen, as well.

8. Rethink Presents

Honestly, when I used to teach, I couldn't grasp where I would put the round of mugs and hand soaps that I received every Christmas and end-of-year day. Chances are, you're not likely to be able to match that teacher's home decor or tastes if you really just don't know them that well, and it's going to end up in a donation bin or trash can.  

If you're not sure what to get a teacher, and your go-to is usually some kind of bath and body product or generic gift that is tough to deal with if it's not needed, opt for consumables. Honey, coffee, wine, chocolate, cheese - it can all be used up or shared with loved ones without the knick knack or personalized wine glass that adds up to more clutter that we simply just don't need. Another great idea is a gift card - even if it's just for a coffee - and bonus points if it's electronic (printable on paper) or not a plastic-based card, for a small local business. That's a gift for a small shop, too!

9. Try out a new way to shop for children's clothing

After finishing up a long series on sustainable clothing and wardrobes in our Instagram stories last week for our Friday Sustainable Living stories, I thought I would get a few of the key ideas down here for shopping differently when it comes to your children's clothing, if you're looking to move away from big box, fast fashion items for your kids this fall.

Here's a few general tips to get started:

  • Start with their current closet - try items on, see what fits, fix what needs a new button or knee patch. Then, decide what you actually need to add to the closet to round it out instead of hitting sales first, asking questions later.
  • Avoid clothing with unnecessary plastics. Logo screen printing across the front of shirts prevents that portion of the textile from ever being recycled, and has to be cut off. The same goes for any sequin tops (as those are pretty "in" right now) - it's a lot of plastic waste that will fall off and break apart.
  • When shopping, ask yourself if you would repair the item if it had a small hole or needed a repair or if you'd likely just toss it. If it's not worth fixing, it's likely not worth buying.
  • When shopping sales, ask yourself if you'd pay the full price for the item. If you wouldn't, you don't likely need it. This, by no means, means that you have to not take advantage of sales, but it can help you sort through the good - and unnecessary - stuff when shopping.
  • If you have more than one child, work to invest in items for the oldest that have the quality to last through all of your children and beyond. This is called "heirloom quality." And, it doesn't just have to be for skates and life jackets! Choosing footwear and basic clothing in smaller increments as it is needed is a great move away from fast fashion, and can still be done with children's sizes, too.
  • When buying heirloom quality, choose basics that can suit all of your kids - basics like crew neck sweaters, boots, t-shirts and jackets.
  • Watch small, quality clothing brands for sales and shop the next size, or thrift for the next size. Once your child needs it, you won't need to contemplate the pile of t-shirts that won't look fresh a few months later in the fast fashion shops (and likely get to do it from the comfort of your couch!)

10. Remember that our society's level of consumption is NOT normal, and you don't need to participate in any of this.

So, basically the key takeaway here is to not feel pressured to buy into the whole frenzy of buying new just because everyone else is doing it. I totally get the parental guilt that gets added in at moments like this - if I don't do x, then my child will feel left out/stuck out/singled out. I'm already anticipating it for Christmas and every birthday party I will ever plan for my little boys, because I still feel it all the time, even with knowing that I want to be more conscious about our consumption. It's there, it's real, and we need to acknowledge it and move forward in a better way than succumbing to it. Then, my friend, you're on the fast-track to feeling out of control and not in charge of your spending or your decisions. It doesn't have to be that way; there are other ways to value our precious little guys.

The truth is, there are tons of children that cannot afford back to school shopping and this is just one more time that the split in socioeconomic status can be made clear to children. The more fresh, brand-new logo t-shirts your child has in September is unfortunately not helping them to bridge, or understand, that gap in the classroom. 

And quite honestly, there is more to be gained in helping our children understand their place in resource use and the waste cycle then there is in helping them learn how to jump into the overconsumption that plagues our society. What has always been normal about this stuff is not actually normal, and it doesn't lead to happiness or a better future for any of us. As geeky (or... backwards hoit-ey, haha) as that all sounds, it basically means that they can play a role in helping us look at what we already have, being grateful for what they have, and learning to see what we need and only go about acquiring that. Possibly a lesson in sewing, or fixing something up, or making it "new" with a fun iron-on patch each year rather than a whole new backpack. A lifetime of grabbing whatever we want, whenever we want, because it's on sale or we feel pressure to buy, is a scary lesson to walk forward with (and one I personally know the consequences of - a lot of debt, a lot of unhappiness, a lot of trying to find meaning with clothing instead of the internal stuff). 

Anyway, if you feel like you're in the category that stat from the start of this whole chat encompasses - the one that states this big back to school shop is a financial burden for 92% of families - here's a friend telling you that you don't need to do it. Making a plan to create some lasting memories with your child and having some good conversations about this stuff might be a great way forward too, if you still feel that lingering guilt of "being different" and want to keep moving forward positively (as we do!). 

Please let me know what you thought of this blog post with a comment below, or share it with someone that you know would enjoy it! Thank you for following along in our own journey towards less waste, friends!




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