If you are getting ready to head back to school, for yourself or your kids, chances are you will be stocking up on supplies and maybe refreshing your wardrobe. Education is about planning for the future, so it is more important than ever to think about how your choices affect the planet. With a bit of planning, you can make greener choices.

Back to school shopping is big business in Canada. Aside from Christmas, this is the highest revenue period for the retail industry. Each year, Manitoba families plan to spend almost $300 each on school supplies. Between July and September, Canadians spend almost a billion dollars on school related supplies like stationery and office supplies, and over half a billion on children’s clothes. How families spend their back to school budgets can have a big impact on the environment.

Here are some tips to make your trip back to school softer on the environment:

1)  Look for low toxic materialsLGLW - bottled water ban (main page)

Many of the products made for children contain harmful chemicals. Although BPA has been banned from baby bottles, it is still found in countless products including canned food and lined water bottles. Vinyl PVC is used in everything from backpacks and binders to lunchboxes and plastic sandwich wrap. PVC can harm your children and is toxic to the communities where it is produced and ultimately disposed. Instead choose non-plastic, sustainably harvested materials including organic cotton, recycled paper, and uncoated metal for things like paperclips or lunch boxes.

2)  Consider used items

Thrift shops and used clothing stores offer many good quality articles and supplies, often at a fraction of the cost of new clothing stores. By giving these items a second home, you reduce the amount that goes to landfills and can save money at the same time. Also many items made from synthetic chemicals like vinyl and chlorine will emit dangerous gases called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and dioxins, respectively, for months after they are produced. By buying second hand, you can substantially reduce your exposure to chemicals.

3)  Choose sustainably produced productsLogo - fsc

Look for products that are made from recycled content. Where possible choose 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper since it uses over 40% less energy to make and doesn’t add to clear cuts or destroy forests. If you are going to use non-recycled wood products, be sure they are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified to ensure that they were harvested sustainably.

4)  Eat local and sustainably

Plan to make your school lunches litterless by using recycled containers and avoid individual wrapping. Choose locally produced, organic food where possible. Pack fresh and healthy fruits and vegetables instead of highly processed foods that contain genetically engineered or synthetic chemical ingredients.

5)  Plan to walk or cycle to schoolASRTS- Ecole Robert H Smith

Walk or cycle to school instead of driving. Healthier kids are ready to learn. Fewer cars on the road means less idling in front of the school and fewer toxic fumes for kids to breathe in. Children growing up today will have to live with climate change. Reducing greenhouse gases will make everyone’s future more secure. Learn more on our Active and Safe Routes to School page.

6)  Beware of greenwashing

Increasingly, companies use environmental claims to promote their products, while covering up their environmental or social impacts. Look out for labels that use confusing, or unwarranted claims, or logos that imply they are environmentally friendly without any certification or information to back up their claims. Ask questions from your retailer if you are uncertain how a product is produced or where it comes from.

7)  Reduce your back to school consumption

These days the list of school supplies ranges well beyond the traditional pens, pencils, erasers and paper, though these items are still needed in most cases. Many families will be looking for calculators, washable and permanent markers, flash drives, DVD drives, laptops, and more. Consumption for kids is driven even faster by a marketing push that includes characters from their favourite TV shows and movies. Resisting this pressure can be difficult, but it can also provide an opportunity to teach your kids a valuable lesson: increased stuff is rarely associated with greater happiness. That is a lesson we should all remember.

Reducing your ecological footprint doesn’t have to mean going without. You and your family can live green while living well. As you or your family get ready for school, think about your kids’ health and the health of the planet. Make choices we can all live with.

Some other resources:

Tips for avoiding PVC in your school supplies from the Center for Health, Environment & Justice.

Consider making litterless lunches for you and your family.

Statistics Canada, Back to school… by the numbers (including data on back to school shopping).

Green Action Centre’s Active and Safe Routes to School program helps kids with planning walking or cycling school buses, and choosing healthier school travel plans.

Ideas for green school supplies including calculators, pens and binders.