Yeah, I know… Some of us ‘don’t need no education’… But, like it or not folks, Back to School is definitely here! In fact, many schools are already in session. So, it’s possible that you’re already even ‘over’ back to school. It’s never too late to use these tips for making your school year- and your kids’- as earth friendly as possible.
The start of school at any point in life can be very exciting. But, it can also be very expensive! School supply lists abound, and nabbing all that your child might need or want for the school year can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. (Lame!) But, what’s even more lame is that many school supplies can also come at great expense to the planet & your children’s health.
The good news?
Our purchasing power is yet another opportunity for us to invest in the best possible health for our children and the Earth.
Here’s a chalk board (or digital board?) full of ways to honor the planet while you shop for back-to-school:
School Supplies for a Happier Planet
Back in my day they came by paper. Maybe now they’re texted or shared by Google Docs with parents several months in-advance. Regardless, a school supply list has either hit your view already or is coming up fast. So, how to get your green on?
Take a look at what you have left over from last year
New things are often an unnecessary luxury or a perceived need pushed upon us by the advertisements of profit-hungry businesses. See what’s already in your house – that list may grow shorter than you think! Repairs, repurposing, and upgrades will usually come at a lesser cost to you and the Earth.
Technological tools are an increasingly dominant portion of kids’ mandatory school needs. As vital as they are to our kids’ education in the form of calculators, laptops, tablets, and who knows what else, we want to purchase them with mindfulness of their potential health risks to youth and the planet. Technological tools can be made with some of the most caustic toxins in the world, with devastating consequences for human and planetary health from manufacturing to disposal so it’s important to be aware of what’s in their devices and that we buy them only when it’s really necessary (see tip (1) above).
Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics provides a ranking system for the world’s largest electronics companies in terms of their efforts to combat climate change, eliminate hazardous substances from their products, recycle responsibly, and use sustainable materials in their products and packaging. You can read a detailed report card for each company to empower your technological shopping decisions.
For everything else:
For everything else on your child’s school shopping list – from art supplies and paper products like notebooks and folders, to pencil cases, pens, and back packs – the primary mantra is ‘avoid toxics.’
- Plastics and synthetic materials can turn up in nearly all of these supplies and are nearly impossible to avoid completely, but there’s a lot that you can do to avoid the worst of the worst. For example, plastics containing polyvinyl chlorides (PVCs) are one of the most sinister ‘out there,’ for multiple reasons – including that they can be particularly harmful to children, who are extra-sensitive to toxins during their development. Green America offers some tips for avoiding PVCs in school supplies and some tips for helping their schools eliminate PVCs, too. Extra: Greenpeace offers some thorough solutions to avoid PVCs throughout your life.
- Paper products should be minimally impacting to the environment. We’re talking smart production practices to include low to zero deforestation along the supply chain. Here’s a Greenpeace overview on how to find the most earth friendly papers for your students.Spoiler alert: Buy recycled papers that are produced without chlorine bleaches.
- Art supplies: These too can have toxic components. Check out Green America’s article on how to make sure your child isn’t exposed to toxics during creative play time.
All things considered, here are some of the best sites that I’ve seen for finding green school supplies:
Healthy School Lunches
No conversation about back to school would be complete without discussing what’s going to be on the lunch table for our hungry students.
Many schools around the nation are serving foods or ‘food products’ that are sub-par in quality and nutrition, not to mention minimal in their considerations of the future of your child and the planet. It’s a work in progress, and the changes are ours to make. Packing your child’s lunch can offer you a plethora of ways to ensure they’re eating nourishing foods when they’re away. There are plenty of fun ways to make your kids’ food experiences at school nourishing and fun (that link shares several), and here are four big tips for child and planet friendly packing:
- Watch out for GMOs in the foods you pack. Genetically Modified Foods (GMOs) are everywhere in the grocery stores, and pose major challenges to human health and the environment. The great news is that it can be easy to avoid them. Check out this comprehensive Greenpeace Guide to GMO-free shopping!
- Buy local, buy organic: This tip packs a double-punch in that many local, organic foods that you can find are also non-GMO.They are often rock-star foods in terms of reducing environmental impacts during production and transport and offering outstanding nutrient profiles for your kiddos. Farmers markets are an excellent way to find the best tasting and healthiest food for your meals all year, and it’s super easy to find a farm, farmers market, or CSA near you (click here for Local Harvest’s location tool).
- If you’re including seafood, make sure it’s sustainable! I had to throw this one in here, because Greenpeace’s Carting Away the Oceans guide makes it so easy to find ocean-friendly seafood options. So, if a tuna sandwich or fish sticks is in your lunch plans for the school day, check it out! Also cool: Greenpeace Canada now offers you an app for finding sustainable tuna.
Great news! Costco just announced it’s selling sustainable and super affordable canned tuna caught without using FADs!
- Use reuseable and earth-friendly materials to pack your children’s lunches: This tip can also save you a lot of money. Look for BPA, PVC, and lead-free lunch containers in a variety of sizes that can replace the need for plastic bags each day. Switch-out disposable juice boxes or water bottles for toxin-free thermoses or camelbacks and your child will be eating in green style. Even lunch boxes and reusable ice packs can be made out of recycled or sustainable materials.
When I was in school, I think that my family spent the most money on our ‘back to school clothes.’ My mom often worked two jobs – one of them at a clothing retail store, just to have their discount – specifically to help us afford that time of the year. Eek!
The back to school clothing trend was and, as I observe, still is all about getting new stuff, all about name brands. But, we have a number of options to balance perceived and actual needs on the green. Here’s some tips for back to school clothes shopping:
- If you’re buying new, then buy clothes from name brands committed to Detox! What’s that? Well, too many of the biggest clothing brands have dangerous toxins incorporated into their manufacturing processes and, ultimately, final products: clothing items that you and your children wear. These toxins impact the environment and human health in horrible ways. You, like we, might even call them ‘little monsters.’ Here’s a full report about the monsters living in clothing and what Greenpeace is working to do about them through our international Detox Campaign. There (and here), you can see whether your favorite name brands are stepping-up to the plate to Detox their clothing lines. Shop to support the Detoxers and avoid those falling-behind, then, feel free to Take Action to support global Clothing Detox!
- Buy second-hand: A way to offset all of the environmental impacts caused by producing new clothes is to simply buy second-hand whenever possible. Thrift stores are easy to find almost anywhere, and offer the best prices for often only very lightly used clothing items. This option gives you high quality and quantities of clothing for pennies on the dollar of buying in ‘new stuff’ stores. And never underestimate good old fashioned hand-me-downs.
- Buy greener fabrics: This tip is usually relevant when you are buying new clothing items. Whenever possible, opt for planet-friendly fabrics like organic cotton or hemp, repurposed or recycled materials. Here ‘s a heap of eco-fabric ideas.
- Repurpose all you can, and when you can’t: recycle! When it comes to last year’s wardrobe that’s damaged or too small this school year, check out these tips for how to repurpose them! Finally, here’s how to recycle clothes that just can’t be salvaged.
When it comes to back to school shopping, to save money and planetary resources, it’s all about buying with purpose. School supplies and clothes are meant to be tools that enable our learning. Their “newness” and branding are not meant to define us, although the companies pushing them will always prefer you to think otherwise. “Profits over People and Planet” is too often the mantra. So, empower yourself and your progeny! Save money, your family’s health, and the planet by finding the school tools that are right for you and leave you feeling great about your legacy on Earth.
All my best wishes for a Happy Back to School, folks!