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An Earth-Friendly Back-to-School

Annelise Pierce is one of my first friends to inspire me to care about how and what I buy, and to think about who it affects. She's not a perfectionist in her effort to be a conscious consumer, but rather looks at the big picture of life's priorities, while maintaining that direction. In this blog, she shares her process through one of America's favorite buying traditions--school shopping, as well as thoughts to help us reconsider how to approach it in an earth-friendly manner.  :) 


For many of us it wouldn’t be the start of an academic year without new clothes, shoes and school supplies.  The annual pilgrimage to the big box stores for an an outfit for the first day are a tradition for most families. But as a thrifty and creative mom with concerns about the environment, I’ve always struggled between wanting to enjoy the fun and joy of my children’s new school purchases and wondering “do we really need all this stuff?”

When my children were young, I kept the buying as simple as possible. But as early elementary transitioned into the middle school years for my oldest, I surrendered to her desire for the fashion and frills.  Gladly, I bought the new school outfits.  Less gladly, I even went a little crazy and bought the locker disco ball one particularly memorable year. What can I say? Sometimes it’s hard to know where to draw the lines.

But let me tell you, there are rhythms to motherhood.  Seasons that we do not want to miss but that will quickly pass.  Splurge when it’s time to splurge.  Follow their hearts, value their wishes. Trust the investments you made when they were young.  Model, model, model.  And let them find their own way into this organic artisan life - after all we’re all still finding our way too.

This year, my oldest is a senior.  She is now in charge of her own back to school shopping - we give her monthly funds to spend when she needs and she budgets them herself.   She still splurges - mostly on the perfect jeans or the significant shoes.   But now, she’s finding her own earth-friendly, budget-friendly, still fashion-friendly way.  When she announced that she and a few friends were going back to school thrifting, I drew a deep breath and tried to pretend that I wasn’t throwing an inner party.

Thrifting, they find things I wouldn’t know to look for. Wrangler jeans with the perfect 80’s waistlines are scissored and frayed at home into cut-offs rivaling anything Urban Outfitters offers. Tommy Hilfiger tees from the 90’s are carefully edited into a trendy cut-out v-neck. Of course, additional treasures like funky mugs and classic books arrive home too.  Her successful afternoon of shopping soon turns into an evening of home-cooked indian food and trivial pursuit as she and her friends laugh and play.  

Her cost?  Less than $20 for an afternoon of creative joy and the acquisition of new things to prepare for a new year.  Saved cost to the earth? Inestimable. Since thrift stores purchases are recycled, they are now, generally speaking, fair trade, ethically produced and add little to no toxicity to the environment.

My daughter is definitely cooler than me.  But I have hope that some of my hard-won wisdom has taken root in her heart and is leading her towards these choices. For all these years we’ve been seeking to model to our children that new isn’t necessarily cool.  That clothes and gadgets aren’t the main thing.  That while it’s fun to have awesome things, it’s not nearly as important as being an awesome person.   I’m starting to dream that maybe it’s paying off. We didn’t get here in one year, or two.  We still take a few steps forward and sometimes many steps back.  But we’re learning as individuals and as a family,  that we can embrace both culture and stewardship. There’s joy in this responsible life.  Beauty in it.  Creativity abounds.  Art thrives. And there’s no need to be old-fashioned to be environmentally ethical.


Here’s some ideas to get you started on your own earth-friendly (and budget-friendly) back to school.

  • Back to School clothes:  Just, why? If buying back to school clothes is simply a go-to tradition, take a look at whether it is really working for you.  Do your kids need new clothes?  Do they really want them?  Are they just responding to the peer pressure to show off their new outfits?  If new clothes meets their hearts felt needs, it’s probably completely worth it to splurge on one or more new outfits to start the year.  Otherwise? Maybe a  “back to school adventure” could become your new tradition!   Is it cool not  to have new clothes on the first day at school? Remember, all their friends are watching - what you choose has a domino impact.
  • Backpacks and Lunch Boxes: We only replace these when the old ones are too worn to be attractive or too outdated to be appropriate. We end up buying backpacks or lunch bags every few years.  We try to buy name brands (quality) and try stay away from trends - although in those tween years it’s awfully hard to say no to the panda and psychedelic patterns so we definitely sometimes go with the fun stuff.  Remember, seasons!  

  • Binders, Folders, Composition books: Buy new, buy few. My big waste savings in this area comes down to timing.  Rather than following the elaborate back to school lists in the weeks before school, I wait until after the first day for many items.  Before school starts we simply pick up one fun binder of my child’s choice, a folder, some lined paper and dividers (depending on age). These are plenty for the first day and usually the first week. Most times they need far fewer folders and comp books than the supply lists call for. By waiting to buy we save time, money and most of all, the earth.

  • Extras: Fancy pencil cases, erasers, pencils and pens:  It’s fun to have a few brand new things every year and this is a great area to splurge.  The fancy erasers are usually only a dollar or two more than the others and will last just as long. This is where my kids get that feel-good “new things” experience.  Just don’t go crazy.  Stick to needs or real wants then buy only what you need and not more.  Teach your children to care for their possessions.  Do you need 100 black pens? Could they care for just five and make them last half a year? Sometimes it’s not about the money as much as it is about learning healthy habits. Cheap prices often help us forget about the real cost to the earth.  

  • Classroom Supplies:  These are the shared supplies the teacher asks for: tissues, glue, markers.  I buy all of these unreservedly.  Teachers work extraordinarily hard.  I want them to feel supported.  Also, here’s a great place to volunteer classroom hours each spring:  sorting and inventorying classroom supplies to ensure less waste next year!   

  • Treasure Box Supplies: Careful!  Remember, what you buy is for one purpose only: to teach our kids that good actions lead to material rewards. What kinds of rewards do you want them to get used to?   Purchase well, not necessarily cheaply.  I’d much rather get 10 good yo-yo’s that will actually be treasured, loved and used by the students that receive them, than 50 cheap nothings from the dollar store. Probably 90% of this stuff ends up in a landfill within a few days because it was useless, gimmicky, or unwanted.  Maybe you can be a part of building something better?

Most importantly, in all of these purchases, teach your children to value their things, to care for them, and to make them last. Buying new should be a treat, not a constant exercise in replacement. In our family we work early in the year on establishing stewardship habits such as where they keep their school belongings: the special pocket or backpack for each item so that everything has a place and can always be found.  For example, my younger kids get one hoody each.  I expect them not to lose it, or if they do, to find it fast! When that hoody gets too stained,  worn or tired we replace it with another that they choose and love. They have less to manage, I have less to clean up after, and our lives are simpler.  You’d be amazed how much this one habit of simplicity changes your life. And surprisingly, our kids don’t seem to feel any loss with fewer possessions.  Their minds are freed up to concentrate on the real work of childhood: play, not possessions! (Bonus, we rarely spend time looking through the lost and found at school!) I want my kids to learn to care for their things and experience the structure of a well-ordered life.  A new thing doesn’t always cost much, but the old lost one can cost the earth (and our mental energy) a lot.  And these habits are the ones that will shape their adulthoods and save them much lost time and energy down the road.

Your turn!  What do you do to make back-to-school special and memorable?  How do you keep this season earth-friendly?  I’ve very much still in learning mode so please, share your ideas in the comments!

Annelise Pierce is a freelance web content writer and essayist. She raises four sometimes exuberant teens and pre-teens in her Northern California home, surrounded by wildflowers, baby quails and an excess of bumblebees.  Annelise has generally broken all of life’s most important rules but is finding her way anyway. She blogs at The Social Sciences and is working on one of her first books: The Rhythms of Parenting:  Seizing Opportunity, Skipping Regret.




Lauren AllenComment