As Summer comes to an end in Canada, the Fall semester of school for elementary, secondary and postsecondary students is imminent. A large aspect of preparing for the new school year is back-to-school shopping which can be exciting for some or a necessary bore for others. Unfortunately, this annual phenomenon can be environmentally taxing. This article will explain the environmental impact that back-to-school shopping has on the environment and ways that individual consumers can limit that impact with smarter decisions.
Two main environmental problems of back-to-school shopping are buying new clothes and school supplies for the new year.
Purchasing new clothes for the new school year is a significant part of back-to-school shopping. For some students, it is a necessity as they grew out of their old clothes during Summer break, while others want new clothes to impress their peers. Nevertheless, the consumption of clothes is an international environmental issue. There are many common materials in clothes that are not environmentally friendly. Synthetic materials like polyester, rayon, nylon and acrylic are all made of petroleum, so they are not biodegradable and are comprised of a non-renewable resource that uses extraction methods harmful to the environment (Team 4tify, 2021). There is also the problem of fast fashion, which is the purchasing of cheaply and unsustainably made clothing (significantly underpaying employees in unsafe environments that often use child labour) for the sake of following a trend and then later disposing of them in landfills when the trends are over (Stanton, 2023). This is very common for middle school students, high school students and even undergraduates, as it is very easy to be entranced by clothing and trends seen on social media.
Buying new school supplies is another problem. For elementary school students, the use of technology to write notes and do assessments is less common than using old-fashioned pencil and paper. In secondary and post-secondary school, technology is more typically used. The frequent use of notebooks, binders, pencils, pens, highlighters and other school materials means that they must be replenished at the beginning of each school year. One of the main problems with school supplies is the excessive packaging used for these products. Plastic waste and plastic itself are very bad for the environment for multiple reasons, including the fact that it ends up everywhere and contaminates the water, natural habitats and even our bodies (through the consumption of microplastics), it is produced by fracking – a very disruptive technique used to obtain non-renewable resources, it is made of non-renewable resources, it lasts forever as it does not break down, and it kills wildlife (GrrlScientist, 2018). It is hard to find school products that either do not contain any plastic or are not packaged in plastic, even when the packaging is unnecessary. Moreover, people will discard products like binders and notebooks before they are even finished.
Unfortunately, there is little that individuals can do to have a significant impact when it comes to climate change. However, consumers should still try or limit their own carbon footprint. In the case of back-to-school shopping, there are some things that people can do.
For clothing, do not over-purchase and be mindful of already owned items. Although this is hard to moderate, being aware of what one already owns is helpful to ensure that a person buys only what they will wear and need. Look for items made to last, with more sustainable materials like organic or recycled cotton and linen. If a piece of clothing is slightly damaged, try repairing it or upcycling it into something else.
With school supplies, it is important to use everything until they cannot be used anymore. Before shopping:
- Take stock of what is already owned to avoid over-consuming and buying things unnecessarily.
- Choose to buy products like pencil cases and notebooks made from recycled or more sustainable materials like paper or aluminum.
- Buy refillable pens and then continue to buy refills instead of replacements.
- Instead of using single-use Ziploc bags for lunch, get brown paper bags or reusable snack bags.
- Look for backpacks made with recycled and sustainable materials and opt for fabric binders instead of plastic binders.
Many small changes can be made to ensure that one’s back-to-school endeavors are not too harmful to the environment.
GrrlScientist. (2018, April 23). Five ways that plastics harm the environment (and one way they may help). Forbes. https://forbes.com/sites/grrlscientist/2018/04/23/five-ways-that-plastics-harm-the-environment-and-one-way-they-may-help/
Stanton, A. (2023, August 4). What is fast fashion, anyway? The Good Trade. https://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/what-is-fast-fashion/
Team 4tify. (2021, January 12). Worst fabrics for the environment. 4tify. https://www.4tify.co/blog/worst-fabrics-for-the-environmentBack-to-School Shopping