eco-friendly and sustainable back to the school season shopping tips

Eco-friendly & sustainable tips for back-to-school shopping

Eco-friendly & sustainable tips for back-to-school shopping


It seems like decades rather than 17 months, schools across the nation are finally ready to return to in-person classes in a few weeks (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend indoor masks required). Kids are likely bursting out of their pandemic cocoons. They’re ready to see and be seen in real life—returning to the pre-pandemic life just like their parents. They are eager to pick up new school supplies and new clothes to fashion that new look.

In fact, according to the National Retail Federation, U.S. back-to-school spending is expected to be at an all-time high this year, a whopping 42% jump from 2019. Whether buying online or physical stores, that huge increase in volume will add up to a boost in manufacturing, packaging, shipping, and returns to meet consumer demands. All of these will have a huge impact on the environment. So how do we cut down the impacts on environment of this back to school shopping?

The key, say sustainability experts, is not necessarily to go down rabbit holes searching for companies that use bicycle power to run their factories. It’s to shop more mindfully in the first place. It is suggested that you make a full complete shopping list with your kids, go over “inventory available at home”, make the final shopping list, then you make one purchase (whether online or to physical store). So you don’t make multiple trips to the store or all purchases can be delivered together. This will greatly reduce vehicle emissions.

According to EPA, nearly one-third of the U.S.’s solid waste comes from containers and packaging—that is, things that are used to ship, store, and protect products and will be discarded soon after the product is purchased. From EPA’s data, we can see that Americans are recycling more solid wastes in the past 20 years, but we are also producing more, so the amount of solid waste going to landfill hasn’t decreased in the past 10 years. Part of the reason may be that online shopping and return becoming even more convenient and easy, but they do require more packaging.

EPA chart of US solid waste and garbage growth in past 50 years

According to Meagan Knowlton of Optoro, “5.8 billion pounds of waste went to landfills from U.S. returns in 2020 alone”. Many companies don’t have the time and effort to inspect every return, or the items are out of season, so they end up in landfills. Meagan adds that the transportation of those returns added up to 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, which is equivalent to 3.5 million cars’ annual emissions.

It’s natural for kids to want new items to mark important moments like going back to school in person (as a parent, I am pretty excited too!) Even though most kids have heard or learn about protecting the environment, they’re not always aware of how their consumption affects it. A good place to start would be educating them to help our kids make an informed and smart decision.


-Start teaching kids about environment protection early.

We can raise a generation that has totally different buying habits than we had in the past. The first step is to read them books about environment protection, as they grow older, have them read on their own to absorb the information. The next step would be talking to our kids about shopping and its impact on the environment. Put their knowledge to work. Ask your kids “Are you prepared to have this item not decay in a landfill for years after we no longer live on earth?” Let them understand an action today will have an impact for years to come.

-Remember Your 3 (Green) Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

It never gets old to start off with the basics, the 3 Green Rs, these waste-reduction strategies will take you far in ensuring an earth-friendly back to school shopping or any other efforts in saving environment.


-“Many people think that dopamine is released when the brain receives a reward, but dopamine is actually released in anticipation of a reward,” says Asha Patton-Smith, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Virginia. “So the buildup in dopamine is before the buy, then surges with the buy.” Patton-Smith suggests reconciling kids’ need to be kind to Earth with their need for more stuff by having a series of conversations, go over questions such as “do I really need this?”, “how would this impact the environment?” Let your kids understand that buying less not only benefits the environment, it benefits your wallet too.

-Communicate with school staff to understand exactly what’s needed to avoid excess purchases.


Go over the inventories your kids already own. Take this chance to have kids clean up their rooms, clear out their drawers, see what they got. Very often you can find partially-filled notebooks, school supplies, textbooks, lunchboxes, or backpacks used by older siblings that just need a bit of cleaning before reusing them, especially these items:

  • Backpacks: Backpacks are made to last more than one school year. Wear and tear is inevitable, but we can give it a fresh look with a wash, adding fun patches if there are holes, or pins/buttons.
  • Pencil boxes/pouches: Similar to backpacks, these products can be used for years. Again, a wash and some patching will give it a new life.
  • Colored pencils, markers, crayons, etc.: Sharpen up your pencils and crayons to extend their life. Store them in a durable, reusable container if the original boxes are falling apart.
  • Notebooks: All the sheets in a notebook are rarely used up in one year, you can take off those unused pages and put them in a binder.

Recycle: When it’s time to retire old school supplies, don’t forget to think recycling first. Check with neighbors to see if something will be useful to them. Separate plastics, paper, glass, and metals, put them in the recycle bins.


Sustainable back to school shopping 2021, reduce, recycle, reuse


Here are couple more eco-friendly and sustainable shopping tips

Buy stuff that lasts. That cute K-pop lunchbox probably isn’t going to have the same appeal in a few months or next year. But a simple, slick, more durable lunch container stays hip at all ages. Use parenthood as an advantage and asks kids ‘Would you prefer to buy that water bottle with your favorite character on it, or would you prefer the one like Mom and Dad has?’ Kids feel even cooler because they are using something that an “adult” is using.

Buy better quality. My neighbor and I used to shop for clothes together although our shopping behavior is quite different. I would pick up couple of bargain (or as they call it “fast fashion”) pieces while she would spend the same amount of money on one pair of jean. Sure enough, my bargain pieces didn’t last very long and her jean lasted years. Remind kids that bargains are good but quality is more important. Fast fashion items might be cheap, but they’ll likely wind up in a landfill much sooner than something better made. Buying higher-quality products means you’re buying less of them. When buying clothes, look for quality, read the reviews, better yet, look for clothes made with sustainable fabrics like Hemp or Azlon from Soybean.

Be patient. Explain to kids each delivery produces greenhouse gases. By waiting a little longer for your order, you can reduce the number of delivery cars on the road—and the greenhouse gases they emit. Even if you wind up getting multiple packages after foregoing expedited shipping, you're likely making a difference. Look for Carbon Neutral Delivery.

“The products may be coming from two warehouses, but they're sending two trucks fully loaded to your location rather than sending one car to your house,” says Miguel Jaller, codirector of the sustainable freight research program at the University of California Davis. “If you don’t need two-hour delivery, don’t require two-hour delivery.”

Care for returns. Retailers (online or physical) are making returns easier than ever, it’s so convenient that very often people over looked the environmental impact a return has. Especially for clothing, “bracketing”, or ordering more than one size/color and returning what doesn’t fit happens at almost 40% rate. That means we created 40% more carbon emission and packaging than actually necessary. So make sure your kids understand that “you can return it!” comes with other costs and the quicker you return something that’s been kept in perfect shape, the more likely the item will be resold and kept out of a landfill.

Fix what you can. Encourage your kids to fix things that only need a minor repair. Let them use their imaginations or find repair videos online for that loose cap on water bottle, broken zipper, or jammed mechanical pencil. They’ll feel proud, and the stuff might survive another year or two.

A final tip or suggestion Attending School In-Person? Walk or Bike!

Well, this is not about shopping but it’s related to back to school and environment so thought I’d throw this in. If your child is attending school in-person this fall, encourage him/her walk or bike to school. Given the current health crisis, walking or biking to school in socially distanced groups, will likely be the safest option and help relieve congestion for those students who must rely on public transportation. One way to make the walk to school fun is to get neighbors to join (appropriately socially-distanced) the walk to school. Parents can take turns to supervise this “walking school bus”. Similar approach can be taken for bikes. Every effort counts towards saving the environment!


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