Here’s an Earth-friendly guide to back-to-school shopping.

As schools reopen, kids want new stuff (finally!). Here’s how to shop more sustainably.

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation that schools return to in-person classes in the fall (even with everyone masked), kids are likely bursting out of their pandemic cocoons. They’re ready to see and be seen in real life—and they’re eager for new looks and new stuff.

In fact, according to the National Retail Federation, U.S. back-to-school spending is expected to be at an all-time high this year, jumping 42 percent from 2019 with an average increase of $59 more per family than last year.

Together with the extra online shopping we’ve been doing (Amazon reports its sales increased 37 percent between 2019 and 2020) adds up to a boost in manufacturing, shipping, and returns to feed consumer demand. And that can have a huge effect on the environment.

It’s natural for kids to want new items to mark important moments like going back to school in person. But even though most kids are passionate about protecting the environment, they’re not always aware of how their consumption affects it.

“Eventually, stuff becomes another piece of plastic that will never biodegrade in kids’ lifetimes,” says Molly Nation, assistant professor of environmental education at Florida Gulf Coast University. “You can ask: Are you prepared to have this item not decay in a landfill for however long amount of time? Being really intentional about our purchases and understanding our greater footprint is a great start.”

Here’s how you and your family can shop for back-to-school in an eco-friendlier way.

What shopping does to the Earth

If you’ve ever ordered something in a few colors or sizes with a plan to keep just one, you’re not alone. Forty percent of us shop that way. (It even has a name: “bracketing.”)

But according to the EPA, nearly one-third of the U.S.’s solid waste comes from containers and packaging—that is, things that are used to ship, store, and protect products and will be discarded soon after the product is purchased. Those returns? Often, like packaging and containers, they simply end up in a landfill. 

“We found 5.8 billion pounds of waste went to landfills from U.S. returns in 2020 alone,” says Meagan Knowlton, director of sustainability at Optoro, a company that helps businesses streamline their returns to reduce waste.

Why all the waste instead of your item being resold? “It might take too much time and effort to inspect every single product,” Knowlton says. Or it might be out of season by the time it gets back to the store. “These companies are really good at selling to you. They’re not necessarily optimized at bringing products back.”

Knowlton adds that the transportation of those returns added up to 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. That’s about the yearly emissions of 3.5 million cars.

Reducing fossil fuel consumption from shopping isn’t just about vehicle emissions—it’s also about the environmental cost of production, especially when creating synthetic plastics from natural gas, coal, or crude oil.

That can include lots of back-to-school items like synthetic fabrics, glitter, or even erasers that are hard to recycle. If nothing changes, a team of experts from organizations including the Center for International Environmental Law predicts that CO2 emissions from producing plastic products could triple by 2050.

And what happens to those products is concerning: According to a report published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as of 2015, 79 percent of the plastic produced in the last 10 years was in landfills or littering the environment. And 40 percent of that plastic comes from—you guessed it—packaging.

Talking to kids about shopping and saving the planet

Kids care deeply about protecting the environment, but their brains are also wired to want new stuff. That’s because the thrill of shopping can boost the feel-good hormone dopamine in kids’ noodles.

“Many people think that dopamine is released when the brain receives a reward, but dopamine is actually released in anticipation of a reward,” says Asha Patton-Smith, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Virginia. “So the buildup in dopamine is before the buy, then surges with the buy.”

Patton-Smith suggests reconciling kids’ need to be kind to Earth with their need for more stuff by having a series of conversations—and by modeling good behavior.

"Parents are the best example,” she says. “By consistently not buying the new, hot thing themselves, or by explaining to kids what they’re buying and why they’re buying it, kids will start to learn through experience.”

Start by helping children think critically about their consumption: “What is this thing doing to help the environment, or how is it hurting the environment?” If they’re salivating over, say, a cartoon-figure thermos, have them think about where the product came from and how it gets to your house. Older kids can break out the cost of transporting goods, how much fuel is used, or how much water is used to grow the raw materials.

“So kids begin to understand the thermos is so much more than what they see,” Patton-Smith says.

And even if you broke down and bought those sweet sneakers, Patton-Smith suggests checking in after a few weeks to see if kids still feel the same way about the product.

“Those dopamine levels fall after the buy,” she says. “We can use that instant gratification as a teaching moment to reshape how children look at things,” she says.

Sometimes the best way to show kids the impact of their consumption is to bring them face-to-face with their actions by visiting a recycling center, landfill, or dump.

“I was once told that when you throw something away, it’s going away from you, but it’s not actually going away,” Knowlton says. “It’s staying on the Earth, it’s going to a dump or a landfill, and it’s going to sit there for a long, long time. If you keep using a product, you’re keeping something in use and not putting it in a dump.”

How to shop sustainably

Experts agree that mindful shopping is the key to teaching kids about Earth-friendly consumption. “We can raise a generation that has totally different buying habits than we had in the past,” Nation says. Here’s how your family can get that done this back-to-school season.

Look for stuff that lasts. That cute K-pop lunchbox probably isn’t going to have the same appeal in a few months. But a sleek, more durable lunch container stays hip at all ages. Ellis Jones, associate professor of sociology at College of the Holy Cross, says you can use your kids’ desire to be more grown up to Earth’s advantage.

“I often frame it as ‘Would you prefer to buy that water bottle with your favorite character on it, or would you prefer the one like Mom and Dad has?’” he says. “They feel even cooler because they have one that’s something you earn as an adult.”

Be patient. Explain to kids that by waiting a little longer for your order, you can reduce the number of delivery cars on the road—and the greenhouse gases they emit. Even if you wind up getting multiple packages after foregoing rush shipping, you're likely making a difference.

“The products may be coming from two warehouses, but they're sending two trucks fully loaded to your location rather than sending one car to your house,” says Miguel Jaller, codirector of the sustainable freight research program at the University of California Davis. “If you don’t need two-hour delivery, don’t require two-hour delivery.”

Look for swapping or gently used options. When Los Angeles mom Annamarie Dopheide’s six-year-old wants a new plastic fad item (say, one of those hot pop-it fidgets to keep at his desk), “I let him help me make a post in our Buy Nothing group,” she says. If it doesn’t appear, they’ll shop for a more sustainable version.

Buy better quality. Remind kids that fast fashion items might be cheap, but they’ll likely wind up in a landfill much sooner than something better made. “Buying higher-quality products means you’re buying less of them,” Nation says. So if you need just one pair of leggings or one backpack, explain that it’s better for the Earth to spend the same money on the one you really need than to buy two cheaper-but-trendier ones for the same price.

Do a scavenger hunt. Before picking up a new binder just because it’s cool, have kids search the house for something similar they could decorate themselves. If it’s still a must-have? “I’ll often tell my five-year-old, ‘Let me take a picture of it and we’ll talk about it later this week if you still want it,’” Jones says. "I wait to see if she asks about it, and if she doesn’t, she’s let it go.”

Care for returns. Returns aren’t ideal, but they happen. So make sure your kid understands that the quicker you return something that’s been kept in perfect shape, the more likely the item will be resold and kept out of a landfill. “Try to maintain the original packaging as best you can,” Knowlton says.

Bargain shop. At the same time, kids can help keep other people’s returns out of dumps by doing some bargain hunting for high-quality goods. Often, Knowlton says, items in the clearance or “open box” section are returns—and just as good as full-price goods. If your kid isn’t sold on clearance, Patton-Smith suggests showing off your own finds to warm them up to the idea.

Fix what you can. Are your kids great at fixing things? Let them find repair videos online for that broken zipper, leaky water bottle, or jammed mechanical pencil. They’ll feel proud, and the stuff might survive another season.

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