7 ways to shop sustainably for back-to-school

Planet-friendly gear and supplies can reduce your family’s impact while helping kids learn about environmental responsibility.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg — August 8, 2023

Back-to-school shopping is expected to reach an all-time high, with parents spending $41.5 billion for the new school year. But millions of those markers, plastic sandwich bags, polyester backpacks, and even PCs end up in landfills, where discarded products made from plastic can take decades or even centuries to decompose.  

That makes back-to-school shopping season — the second biggest after the winter holidays — an ideal time for parents to make more environmentally responsible choices and, in the process, encourage kids to adopt sustainable practices from an early age. According to a recent HP study, 91% of parents are concerned about the climate crisis, and 64% prefer to buy products that are sustainably sourced.

“I’m sure it doesn’t make an enormous difference which lunchbox I buy,” says Siena Kaplan Thompson, a parent in Tamworth, New Hampshire. “But it’s a small way I can make a choice toward protecting the world I want to live in.”

From plastic-free school supplies to laptops made with recycled materials, here are a few ideas for your back-to-school checklists. 

Tech that keeps plastic out of landfills

One of the biggest back-to-school expenses — technology — can also be one of your most sustainable purchases. Choosing devices made from recycled materials or plastics removed from the ocean reduces waste in landfills. For example, the HP Pavilion Plus 14” Laptop is made from upcycled aluminum waste plus ocean-bound plastic that’s been collected and recycled in Haiti. The HP Spectre x360 13.5” 2-in-1 Laptop PC also includes recycled plastic, along with parts made from agricultural feedstock waste instead of plastic. The HP ENVY Inspire printer is made from 45% recycled plastic and is itself recyclable, while an HP Instant Ink with Paper Add-on subscription ensures you get printer supplies you need when you need them, and the pre-paid envelopes makes it a snap to recycle used cartridges.  

From left to right: HP ENVY Inspire printer, HP Spectre x360 13.5" 2-in-1 Laptop PC, Wasteboard, Micro ECO scooter.

From left to right: HP ENVY Inspire printer, HP Spectre x360 13.5" 2-in-1 Laptop PC, Wasteboard, Micro ECO scooter.

Transport that reduces your carbon footprint

If your kids live close enough to take human-powered wheels to school, you have options made from sustainable materials for an emission-free ride. Micro makes an ECO line of scooters out of recycled fishing nets and plastic; Bamboo Skateboards are light, durable, and made from sustainable, fast-growing bamboo; and Dutch-made Wasteboards are made from waste bottle caps. Greenstar Bikes and Bamboocycles bike frames are made from bamboo. For older students, electric bikes and scooters can reduce the environmental impact of longer school commutes.


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Planet-friendly consumables and reusables

For basics like pens, pencils, markers, and gluesticks, check last year’s stash first. At the end of the last school year, Lindsay Karloff Giroux, of Raleigh, North Carolina, made a point to set aside her 10-year-old son’s still-serviceable supplies for the fall. “I’m curious to see what that looks like when he gets a little older and wants the ‘cool’ things, but so far he’s OK with reusing supplies,” she says. 

If buying new ones, look for products made from recycled, durable, or sustainable materials such as wood, cloth, and steel. Onyx and Green sells sticky notes made from recycled paper and plant-based glue sticks. Eco Pen Club’s highlighters are made from 85% less plastic than typical highlighters. TreeSmart’s pencils come from old newspapers, and Sprout offers plantable pencils, giving kids a fun and productive alternative to throwing them away. Wisdom Supply Company’s zero-waste, recyclable notebooks are free of plastic and vinyl, and Decomposition uses 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper to make notebooks in fun, colorful patterns and also offers pens made of recycled plastic. When purchasing paper, take an extra second to make sure it’s certified by organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). FSC-certified paper products meet a strict level of transparency and other standards, such as traceability to the forest where the trees were harvested. 

From left to right: Eco Pen Club highlighters, HP Renew Slim Briefcase, Decomposition Pen, HP Prelude Pro backpack.

From left to right: Eco Pen Club highlighters, HP Renew Slim Briefcase, Decomposition Pen, HP Prelude Pro backpack.

Sustainable styles for clothes and backpacks

As clothing brands crank out billions of new garments to capitalize on trends — known as “fast fashion” — consumers are buying more clothes than ever and getting rid of them quickly in favor of the next styles. In the US, only around 15% of clothing and other textiles are reused or recycled. The rest — 34 billion pounds a year — goes to landfills or incinerators, wasting energy and polluting waterways.

Often, kids’ clothes are made from synthetic fibers that don’t biodegrade. It’s easy for active kids to rip and stain their clothes, and they quickly outgrow them. To minimize waste, try vintage and second-hand stores or buy-nothing groups, and look for natural materials like linen, cotton, bamboo, or wool, which can last longer and make great hand-me-downs. Kaplan Thompson likes Little Green Radicals for its certified organic and fair-trade cotton clothing, compostable packaging, frequent sales, and commitment to transparency and ethical production. The family-operated Little Spruce Organics specializes in organic, eco-friendly textiles free of artificial dyes. To reduce waste, Jackalo uses organic “deadstock” fabric, or unused material from previous collections in its designs.

For backpacks, instead of a new polyester pack featuring your child’s most recent favorite character, try a plain cotton or canvas one and embellish it with patches, or one made with recycled fibers. The durable HP Prelude Pro backpack is water-resistant and made with 95% recycled external fabric, while the HP Renew Slim Briefcase is made of recycled fabric and vegan leather handles. Some products, like Fjällräven’s backpacks have a warranty that allows for repairs and replacement, while Jem & Bea makes kids’ backpacks from repurposed fishing nets and ghost nets lost at sea.

Recycled, reused, and rented room décor

The furniture industry has its own version of fast fashion, elevating inexpensive items that get replaced every few years — about 80% of which ends up in landfills according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

When furnishing or refreshing a child’s room, dorm, or apartment, get creative with items you already have. Use a toy chest to store clothes, or an unused stool as a bedside table. Explore grandparents’ basements, vintage and thrift stores, and buy-nothing groups for hidden treasures. Transform old furniture with a fresh coat of nontoxic ECOS paint or use Washi tape to add color to dressers and chairs

When buying new, choose products made from reclaimed wood or fast-growing trees and plants — mango, rubber, rattan, and bamboo. Check the National Wildlife Federation and Sustainable Furnishings Council’s Wood Furniture Scorecard to see how companies rate at responsible wood sourcing. For dorm rooms or apartments, Fernish and Cort offer furniture rentals as an alternative to buying. College move-out day at the end of the semester can also be a great opportunity to find barely used items like mini-fridges on campus and in student-filled neighborhoods.

From left to right: HP Sustainable Swaps printable, Fluf lunchboxes, HP Carbon Footprint Calculator printable.

From left to right: HP Sustainable Swaps printable, Fluf lunchboxes, HP Carbon Footprint Calculator printable.

Plastic-free alternatives for single-use lunch items

When packing school lunches, look for longer-lasting items than the paper napkins, plastic bags, and straws kids will use once and throw away. Try cotton lunch bags from Fluf or insulated cotton options from Life Without Plastic. PlanetBox’s stainless steel lunch boxes have space for metal silverware and reusable cloth lunchbox-sized napkins, and its lunch tote bags are made from recycled materials. Inside lunch boxes, you can use fabriccompostable, or paper sandwich bags. To avoid excess packaging, Molly Earle, a parent in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, packs snacks in empty Talenti gelato containers and Stasher reusable silicone bags.

Help kids understand how they can make a difference

As you shop, aim to have meaningful conversations about how buying choices impact the world around us, and inspire them to think about incorporating sustainability in their own lives.

HP printables like “Sustainable Swaps” and a “Carbon Footprint Calculator” sheet offer a hands-on way to learn. Kids who want to do more around climate action can join Fridays for FutureYOUNGO, and other kid climate action groups.

Earle likes to drive lessons home with children’s books that bring environmental responsibility to life. Stories about nature and mindfulness help reinforce conversations she has with her kids about composting, reducing single-serve packaging, reusing, buying secondhand, and fixing items when possible.

“It’s really important for kids to feel that their existence has an impact, and that they can choose to be mindful of that impact when they make choices about how they move through the world,” Earle says.


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