Back to School: Shopping Green

By Pax Rasmussen

From Kindergarten to College: Helpful Hints
by Pax Rasmussen


It’s hard not to notice that Christmas comes earlier to the department and grocery stores every year. Same for Halloween and Thanksgiving, as well. Ever afraid of a lull, stores bleed one holiday into the next.

Back-to-School seems to be overlooked entirely as a holiday, but to retailers is second only to the behemoth that is Christmas. Last year, consumers spent more than $438 billion on Christmas. Back-to-School? Including Back-to-College, $47.8 billion. For comparison, that’s about as much as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day and the Superbowl, combined.

Back-to-School, besides packing a punch to our wallets, is relatively hard on the environment as well. Many of the items purchased for Back-to-School are disposable, short-term-use items, often made from non-renewable resources and involving environmentally questionable methods. More than that, Back-to-School is one of the biggest clothing retail seasons, so the problems with labor conditions and globalization become concerns for the eco-savvy shopper, too.

Fortunately, there are ways to send your kids back to school that are easier on the globe. As always, shopping local helps (it keeps money in the local economy as well as reducing waste created by product transportation). If you end up going to the office superstore, ask if they carry “green” supplies. Or just head for Office Depot (3rd West at 21st South). They create and track their own environmental goals annually. Also, check out greenearthofficesupply.stores. for a whole selection of ‘green’ office supplies.

We’ve included some handy recommendations for items to look for.

Back-to-School Buying Guide:

Obviously, the best thing to do to reduce consumption during the back-to-school season is to reuse as many items as possible. Instead of buying new backpacks, see if old ones can’t be patched or otherwise repaired. Often, mechanical pencils can be returned to perfect working condition if new erasers are added. For items that must be purchased, following these guidelines can really help!

Paper: Look for paper with a high post-consumer waste (PCW) content and that is processed chlorine-free (PCF). Chlorine bleaching produces extremely toxic byproducts often flushed into streams and other watersheds. High PCW paper may very well be made from the paper you threw away last year. Brands that carry both these types of paper include: Ampad Envirotech, Treecycle’s Earth-Friendly Second Nature, Mead Grad Recycled products, Envirographic 100 by Badger Paper and Downtown Paper #3 by Arbokem.

Pencils and Pens: Look for products made with PCW and/or with wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Good brands for this are Sanford’s Paper Mate Earthwrite Pencils and Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, as well as Wheely’s pens by Discas Recycled Products Corp.

Scissors, Rulers and Binders: Look for the “No PVC” symbol. Polyvinyl chloride is highly toxic and very polluting to produce. Keep an eye out for Dura Tech binders, Kleen Earth Recycled Stainless Steel Scissors by Acme United Corp, Envirogrip Recycled Scissors by Fiskars, Kleen Earth 12″ Recycled Plastic Rulers, Presstex or TuffStuff Recycled binders by ACCO.

Backpacks and lunchbags: Again, avoid PVC. Alternatives include recycled rubber, organic cotton, wool or help. Green Earth Office Supply, Hemp Sisters Inc. and EcoBags lunch bags are great brands (look at for more details).

Shoes and clothing: Buying organic cotton and hemp are the best bets for environmental responsibility. Hemp lasts far longer than cotton or just about any other material for clothing, but is often very expensive, as is organic cotton. Clothing is often of concern socially as well as environmentally, so it’s good to buy from sweatshop-free companies, such as American Apparel (, Red Wing Shoe Company, Timberland, New Balance, SweatX, Urban Rugby, Mina Wear, Ecolution and Patagonia. To totally go against the grain of commercial shoes, take a look at AdBusters’ Blackspot Sneaker, the anti-Nike shoe: metas/corpo/
blackspotsneaker. For a list of union-made products and companies, check out

White Out: Don’t buy it. White Out is highly toxic, flammable and can be fatal if inhaled in quantity. Instead, buy equally effective white tape, made by Post-It or Liquid Paper. ◆

When out shopping, look for the following…
Sheets, bedspreads – organic cotton
Rugs – recycled content
Pillows – organic cotton
Accessories (artwork, candles, frames etc.) – fair trade
Towels – organic cotton
Personal care – organic, all-natural, cruelty-free
Shower curtain – non-PVC
Organic cotton or hemp
Second-hand threads
TV and DVD—Energy Star label
Cell phone—recycle the old before buying the new
Batteries—NiMH rechargeables
Backpacks – hemp, recycled rubber, non-PVC
Desk, chair – used or sustainably harvested wood
Copy paper, notebooks – highest content post-consumer waste recycled
Pens and pencils –recycled materials
Computer – used or refurbished may suit your needs; or from responsible manufacturers; or a product that can handle your longer-term needs
Light bulbs – compact fluorescents
Microwave, minifridge, etc. – Energy Star label
Coffee, tea – fair trade
Chocolate – fair trade
Snacks – organic
Fresh, local food from the farmers’ market
Laundry detergent – low phosphate (or make your own—see sidebar)
Drying rack – great energy saver if you have room
Cleaning products – non-toxic, no chlorine bleach
General things to keep in mind
Reduce, reuse – The first tip is to take care of what you already have! Avoid waste. Make things last. And don’t let a little wear send you on a shopping spree.
Buy recycled products – Recycling is great. (For comprehensive info on where to recycle in our area, visit But the recycling loop isn’t complete until the materials collected at curbside and drop-off sites are remanufactured into new products and purchased by consumers. The less “virgin” resources that go into products, the better.
Buy energy efficient products – Whether it’s a light bulb or a computer, choose the most energy-efficient model. For electrical appliances, look for the “Energy Star” logo.
Buy local – This supports your local economy and reduces energy consumption required by the global transport of goods.
Avoid excess packaging – A large percentage of our municipal solid waste stream is the result of unnecessary packaging. When given a choice, select the product that is sensibly packaged.
Whenever possible, reuse or recycle packaging.
Avoid polyvinyl chloride, or “PVC” – Often labeled as “Number 3” plastic, PVC is a leading source of dioxin (a potent toxin) in the environment.
Use customer comment cards: These suggestion-box-sized cards encourage stores to stock products that are better for our health and the health of the planet. Copy this page and share with your friends.
Look for green labels – Whenever possible, look for labels that let you know the product is certified as environmentally friendly. But be careful—don’t blindly accept a product that calls itself “green” and doesn’t offer any substantiation. To get smart on what labels mean, visit Consumers Union’s Eco-labels website at

Make-Yer-Own Nontoxic Laundry Detergent
1 ounce liquid castile soap
1 cup washing soda
(available in the supermarket)
1 cup baking soda
1 cup white vinegar
Fill washer with water and add each ingredient in the order given.
Launder as usual.

Portions of this article came from New American Dream ( under the Creative Commons License.


This article was originally published on June 7, 2010.