The other morning when I was listening to CBC radio, the interviewee remarked that back-to-school shopping was the second biggest shopping season of the year. I decided that if that is true, then we have some serious work to do in “greening” this process!

At the very least, I wanted to look into the numbers and perhaps get people to think about a more sustainable approach to beginning the new school year.

In Canada, it is estimated that each household will spend about $500 this year on back-to-school spending. An Angus Reid poll suggested that this spending surpassed that of holiday gifts!

I believe that this is not only an unnecessary financial burden, but it is also an unnecessary environmental burden. We all want to give our kids every advantage possible, and I know how important a good education is, but it is certainly not the ‘stuff’ that provides those opportunities.

Here are some of my ideas on how we can be more sustainable when preparing for a new school year.

Buy used

Since my boys were babies, I regularly looked in local secondhand shops and picked up things as I found them so that we were always prepared for growth spurts and never needed to do a big shop. I also found that they need much less than you might imagine. As they get older, they may be nervous about the new year, so you could take them with you to choose one special outfit for the occasion but generally there isn’t a sudden need for a large assortment of new clothes.

Need a new backpack or lunch bag? I have noticed quite a number of them at local thrift shops. They often also have a wide assortment of binders and other office supplies that could be useful.

When shopping at thrift stores, it is worthwhile to try to plan ahead. By the end of August, they may have fewer of these types of supplies. If you can’t find something, you can probably make do for another month while you wait to look again.

Hold off on buying supplies

I can’t count how many times I have been told that my child has needed an extensive list of supplies, only to use half of them. It may make sense to wait until they have a couple of classes with their new teacher(s) to evaluate the real need. Sometimes items are only needed once or twice and may be borrowed or shared.

Think outside the box

There are some things that are hard to avoid, such as getting indoor shoes. However, in Canada, outdoor shoes don’t get worn very often after the beginning of November (between rain boots and winter boots), so for kids that are growing quickly, I have sometimes used their closed-toed sandals with socks for indoor shoes to bridge the two months where an extra pair of shoes are needed. When they start wearing boots, their outdoor shoes can be cleaned and used inside. Why buy an extra pair just to have one set sit in the cupboard all winter long?

So there are a number of ways that you can limit your environmental impact while preparing for the new school year. Perhaps it may be a bit late to take these actions this year, but I hope this can be helpful as you move forward. I imagine we could all think of many more enjoyable ways of spending $500.

Stacey Danckert is co-director of Waterloo Region Environment Network (WREN).