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Back to School Shopping: 6 Ways to be More Sustainable and Zero Waste, and Save Money too!

It’s that time of year when summer is coming to a close (at least, in the Northern Hemisphere!) and school is just around the corner. This is a time when parents feel the crunch to spend money on school supplies, and students headed to college are also looking at buying big ticket items from furniture to laptops and cell phones. It’s estimated that spending for grade school and college in 2019 is going to be high: about $80.7 billion dollars in the US, according to the National Retail Federation

With this much consumption, perhaps it’s time to reflect on what we’re actually buying. Do students need new school supplies every year? How can we go about this more sustainably, and with a zero waste mindset? If you’re headed to school or college this year, or you’re a parent of a student and forking out the cash, here are 6 tips to save some money and shop more sustainably!

1. Map out what you actually need

It can be easy to go overboard with back-to-school shopping. Shiny new pens and pencil cases, fancy calculators and decorative binders and journals, oh my! When you think about it, do you really need ALL THE THINGS? And do they have to be new each year? 

Consider what you really need to get through the school year ahead. You may get a list of suggestions from your school or college, so let that be your guide. If not, you’ll have to assess what you’ll require and create your own list, and possibly add to it during the school year if necessary. The important thing is to keep it simple and think like a minimalist. Only put something on your shopping list if you actually need it and will actually use it. Less is better, for the planet and your wallet!

2. Shop your own stuff first

Unless you’re headed into Junior Kindergarten, there’s a good chance you were at school or college last year, so you already have some school supplies. Compare your shopping list to what you already own! Do you already have a working calculator, set of pens and pencils, and functional backpack? Okay great! Take those off of your shopping list, and consider the following options for what’s left. 

3. Host or attend a swap

For supplies: Most people already have a lot of school supplies in their homes. Perhaps not neatly organized reflecting the KonMari method, and maybe a bit strewn about (this is the perfect time to corral everything!). If you're a parent, maybe your grade-school child is totally over their Pokémon backpack from last year (one reason to avoid trends), and wants something with a unicorn on it this year. With ages and tastes changing over the years, it’s great to get together with other students and/or parents to swap school supplies. That perfectly functional Pokémon backpack might be easily traded for that unicorn backpack! 

For clothing: Who doesn’t like a closet refresh for the start of the new school year? This is especially necessary for kids who’ve grown out of last year’s clothes. Whether you’ve actually grown out of your clothes or your tastes have changed, try hosting or attending a clothing swap to refresh your style without spending a dime! Get friends, family and/or other parents together, and swap away with all of your unwanted fashion and find some new-to-you gems.

It’s a win-win: get a bunch of friends and acquaintances together, bring all of your unwanted school supplies and/or clothes, and trade away! It could help you save some cash and keep unwanted things out of the landfill and overburdened charity shops. Plus, it’s fun and social, and you could have snacks and drinks too!

4. Check out the secondhand options

The most sustainable option is the one that already exists, right? With that in mind, consider what’s still left on your list and determine if you can get any of it secondhand. Check out local Facebook groups, websites like Craigslist and Kijiji, apps like VarageSale, trading communities like Bunz, companies like ThredUp, and charity or consignment shops. From clothing and school supplies to electronics, you’ll likely find something on your list is available secondhand. 

For the college students: If you’re getting an apartment and you need furniture, buying secondhand will really help you save money. While Ikea tends to be a go-to store for budget-friendly furniture and home décor, this inexpensive stuff typically lands on the curb at the end of the school year. College and university towns see this every year – the mass dumping of unwanted furniture and school paraphernalia when students leave town for the summer. This stuff ends up outside in the elements, most likely to get damaged and head to the landfill. When you shop secondhand, you'll save money and give your new-to-you stuff a new life, thus supporting the circular economy.

Keep all of this in mind when making purchases, and deal with your unwanted things responsibly at the end of the school year (i.e. sell your stuff or find local programs that take unwanted furniture and other items like used textbooks and clothing).

5. Skip the trends 

Want to make sure that what you buy this year will last you year-after-year? Skip the trends altogether. A Pokémon backpack, for example, is likely to go out of style before the backpack is no longer functional. Whether you're in grade school or in college, avoid trendy school supplies, décor and fashion.

Stick to timeless styles so that you don’t have to buy something new each year because what you have is already SO LAST YEAR. What is timeless style? Well that’s up to you and your personal tastes, but a few tips include keeping things simple (less embellishments) and avoiding cool patterns or colours that might not be cool next year. 

6. Buy things that are made to last

Last but not least, when you do end up in a position to open your wallet and make a purchase, buy things that are made to last and that can easily be repaired. Durable items should hold up year after year, and not need to be replaced as soon as the school year is over. 

How do you know if something will stand the test of time? Check the general construction of what you’re buying, read the reviews, ask friends and family, find out if there are any warranties or guarantees, etc. If it feels cheap and breakable, then it probably is. Use a discerning eye and do some research when making your purchases, and it’ll pay off in the long run. You’ll consume less and spend less, and send less to the landfill!

A few extra tips

Going back to school is an exciting time. Prepare ahead to avoid getting overwhelmed by everything you have to do and buy to be ready for the school year. Here are a few final tips to keep things sustainable and low waste with new purchases:

  • Find things that are made from recycled materials

  • Buy items that are easily recycled or composted

  • Purchase things that come in bulk (split these with friends) 

  • Buy items that come with the least amount of packaging (or ideally, none at all)

  • Shop with your reusable bags!

Lastly, without being to obvious, you should create a zero waste kit for the year (you probably already have everything you need already). This will help you skip single-use disposables and reduce your waste throughout the year.

For more tips on going zero waste, read the book and head to zero waste 101!


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