top of page
  • HDT Team

Back to School Shopping: Big vs. Small

I don’t know if you readers know this, but I have six kids, aged 19 years all the way down to 6 years. Five of them are going to be in school this year. Along with the transition from summer to school bedtimes, my wife and I are trying to find creative ways to get our (younger) children ready for school. We even thought of back to school essays, (What I’m looking forward to most this upcoming school year), but we think there may be a small riot.

We are lucky, however, that every grade sends each student’s family a handy-dandy supply list. One thing that stood out was the need for not only single subject notebooks, but also composition notebooks and loose leaf paper. I thought we were going to a paperless society. (Not soon enough, it would seem!)


You’ll probably find exactly what you need in the big box stores, but do you REALLY need it?

Looking at these lists, they don’t say to go directly to Target/Walmart/BigBoxStore. No, they leave where you get these supplies up to you and you have to make decisions based on what your goals are. Do you want to get your list checked off as inexpensively as possible, or do you shop with sustainability in mind?

According to a survey from Deloitte, the average household will be spending $500 per student this year on school supplies. You don’t have to do the math to know that that’s a lot of dough being spent on markers, glue sticks, and erasers. And, on top of that, as schools are forcing parents to bear more of the costs associated with school, that average number spent is only going to keep increasing.

And, these are just for the “regular” supplies. Look up the products created to fill the sustainable demand, and notice that they are more expensive.

Now, aside from going into an essay on the changes of national priorities vis a vis educational budgeting versus, oh, I don’t know, let’s say defense spending, I thought it would be fun to highlight ways to do your school shopping while still maintaining a bit of sustainability in your life.

We went to Target thinking they would offer the most sustainable options for us in the


A “loss leader” strategy is to sell products at a loss to encourage customers to visit the store.

area. We went to their seasonal section and found stacks of notebooks, folders, trapper keepers, plastic molded lunch boxes, pens, pencils, and much more. And the prices! Wow, they were very inexpensive. (You can send my check directly to my bank, Target PR.) But, Target isn’t the only store that will show you extremely inexpensive prices. Stores that can be titled “loss-leaders” will use this tactic of baiting in shoppers with very low prices (usually at a minus profit) in the hopes that these shoppers will grab something else in the store while they are there.

But, after a closer look, it became clear that the least expensive options, while bravely priced, do not follow our goals of sustainability. These “loss-leader” tactics very rarely will include items that can be considered developed sustainably. From my experience you can not get both easily. I’m sure that Target carries 100% post-consumer recycled notebooks and reusable cloth lunchboxes. But, you’re NOT going to get them at the double-take prices that you’d find for traditionally-sourced school supplies.

So, where do you go if you want sustainable choices?

Here’s my take on it:

Shop at a business that isn’t a “big box” store. Go to the mom & pop shop in your wilting downtown. They’re the business that will truly make the most out of your dollar. Money spent locally is one of the best ways to make sure your dollar goes further, so to speak. 75% of every dollar spent locally will stay locally. This adds to the sustainability of your local community; its ability to bounce back when times become difficult.

And this is the conundrum. Do we place our dollars in the inexpensive costs of a big-box store or do we place a few more of our dollars into the locally-owned stores? I know it’s a big ask to spend locally just to keep the lights on at local businesses, but what kind of community do you want to be a part of? That’s the big question. Do you want a strip mall city or do you want a vibrant downtown?

We vote with our pocketbook. We choose with our dollars.

There should be no shame for spending as little as possible on school supplies. Heaven knows kids are expensive, and fitting them out for school and staying as far away from the forecasted $500 as possible is, indeed, an admirable goal. If that is your goal this school supply season, go get ’em! Deals can be found at most big box stores, as we discussed.

If you want more selection, there is always the internet to turn to. More deals. More sales. Get your children set up as inexpensively as possible so they can learn and be set for the year.

However, if you can make the decision to keep your community in mind, you can make a big difference. Here are a few ways to check-off the boxes on your supply list while enriching your local & global community.

Buy Locally

You local businesses are owned by your neighbors. When you spend money in their shops, they will have more money to spend in other businesses, preferably local as well. This has a compounding effect. With more money staying in the community this adds to the probability of more jobs, lower taxes, and, eventually, a more diverse display of businesses. But, it all starts with YOU choosing to spend at your local businesses.

Use Thrift Stores

One of my favorite memories with my children is hitting up the thrift shops. My wife and I gave them a set amount (something like $20), gave them the instructions to find at least two “new” outfits, and then let them loose. This is a great way to teach your kids about budgets AND get them to actually buy clothes that they’ll wear. You’ll also shorten the loop!

Reuse Supplies From Last Year


Using a notebook from last year is a way to save money and help the environment.

If you were able to plan ahead, grabbing your child’s backpack at the end of school last year will give you a great start for this year’s shopping spree. Before you head out to the local big box retailer, see what you already have in your house. Make sure to reuse supplies that you already own. Every year, 1.6 billion pens are thrown away that still work — so make sure you don’t have any functioning supplies lying around before you buy new ones.

Think Twice When Buying New Clothes

Before you go to either thrift store, online site, or your “low-price leader”, make sure you have a need to buy clothes. Are you children’s clothes fitting them still? Do you have a fresh supply of hand-me-downs? How much longer will they hold up to growth spurts or games of tackle football? Once you take stock, you’ll be in a much better position to purchase more responsibly. Remember, it takes thousands of litres of water to create a shirt and jeans combo.


bottom of page