The Green Back to School Shopping List

by - Wednesday, August 02, 2017

It is that "Back to School Shopping" time of year again, and honestly, I remember loving it as a kid. When else could I get my Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper with awesome Lisa Frank folders, none of which would get much use during the year (organization has never been my game).

I still love the feeling of a fresh start that comes with this time of year. It's new goals, new missions, new ideas, and new stuff?

On the other hand, businesses like to create a panic that your students NEEDS about 100 things. Of course you need 75 glue sticks- you don't want to raise the pariah with only 74! These stores (and schools) push these epic lists, but everything we buy comes at an environmental cost. How do you know what is worth it? What do your kids actually need?

My Dad wrote a blog over at Curmudgecation  from the teacher's perspective about what exactly needs bought for Back to School- his bottom line? Chill. You don't need as much as you think, and good communication with the teacher might surprise you about what can be helpful to send with your student to school. If you really want to help them out, a box of tissues (which you can get recycled!) might be a lot more help than buying yet another single glue stick to dry out by the end of the year.

So, I feel for all the students getting ready to shop for all the new possibilities and wonderfulness of a school year. It's exciting and fun and that lunchbox has the Paw Patrol on it for goodness sake!

I also feel for parents- how do you tackle this time of year without spending a bunch of cash on stuff they won't use and can't be recycled? What's more important- making your kid happy now or making their future healthy? So hard to find that balance. Still, there are some good options out there, so you can put money into things that use less energy, can be recycled, and create less waste.

You can still get what your kid needs and start them off with that feeling of fresh new day without spending tons of money or adding a bunch of plastic junk to landfills. You can check out this post for other fun ways to kick off the year without going shopping. Think of this list less as a prescriptive "YOU MUST HAVE" and more as a "If you want this, look here at a more Earth-friendly version!" The very first step in greening your household and shopping is to reject acquiring things you don't want or need (no matter how many lists tell you it's necessary- if you find your student does need it, you can always buy it then!).

As always, this blog uses Amazon affiliate links (we know that can be the easiest to find what you want), but the best thing you can do for your kid and community is to buy local instead. So click away and get ideas, but check your locally-owned stores as well!

The trick to making sure your bubs have what they need while minimizing your environmental impact (and their buy in to hyper-consumerism) takes three steps:

Three Steps to an Earth-Friendly School Year

1. Use what you already have

 Do this first so you can cross things off your list. Yes, it's time to tackle your giant collection of pens and pencils and see what still works. You may have more than you think (and retire all the ones that are just done). Same for notebooks- if only the first few pages are full, rip them off and reuse it! Think about getting a few fun stickers or decorations to make them feel fresh, but making use of what you already have can do the most good.

Also, shop so that next year you can do this more. Buy a backpack to last you through elementary school, not just the next 9 months. Shop with a long view wherever you can, and every year the "need to buy" list can get a little shorter. Yes, they will lose things, but they won't lose everything.

2. Shop Secondhand

Children's clothes are hard to get Made in the US and environmentally friendly. Companies don't want to splurge on ethical labor for kids clothes, because parents generally know better than to shell much out for things that may not make it all that long.

 If your kids are still little, kids consignment stores may still carry clothes in their sizes. Goodwill also has a huge collection of clothes. Buy Nothing Groups circulate kids clothes daily. Thred Up has a great selection and their stuff is generally in good shape. You can probably still go big on some new stuff, but lessen the blow by trying to fill out their wardrobe with used clothes (and while you're at it, donate what your bub has grown out of- someone else can use that!).  Bigger Goodwills may have craft supplies, notebooks, shoes, or even backpacks your kids will love.

 I feel like when we were kids, stigma surrounded doing this, but really, we all wore hand me downs. Our parents' generation was wrong to turn up their nose at secondhand stuff. So much of what your kid needs already exists in the world in good condition. Buying new is frankly wasteful (and it wastes your money too).

We as a generation of parents can do things differently to show our children the true value of things and to make a better world for them to inherit from us. Plus, we save money.

3. Buy Things that are Recycled, Recyclable, or Made Local to You

You can find a lot of these in local shops (just check the labels!) or make a big Amazon purchase (I only use Amazon to show the product I am talking about- shop where you want to!). It limits your choices, but maybe not as much as you think, and teaching our kids to consider how what they have was made will help them be critical thinkers in the future! I started a list, but I am sure there is more, so let me know what I am forgetting!

paper goods

decomposition book with a lightbulb cover
Decomposition books from Amazon


Our Pick-  Decomposition Books are absolutely genius (100% post-consumer paper, soy ink, even eco-friendly manufacturing in the US!), and they come in so many cool and fun designs that they should be a blast to choose with your student, no matter their age. Kittens in Space really speaks to my Lisa Frank heart, and it looks like you can color it in! 9 bucks is a little steep for a notebook, but it isn't ridiculous, and the price varies dependent on the design. Good job Michael Rogers.

 Other Options- New Leaf makes a basic composition book out of 95% post-consumer waste that is cheaper, though it is made in Taiwan.

TOPS Second Nature notebooks are also around 4 dollars- they are made in the US, but have a lower percentage (only 40%) of post-consumer recycled content.

 Mead even makes a recycled paper notebook now (this is the dream- all mainstream companies see the value in taking care of the Earth instead of taking advantage of it). Nothing too spectacular, but they were my favorite books growing up, and these are about 7 dollars a piece.

Onyx and Blue makes a notebook of bamboo paper, which stands as another option if you are looking for an all sustainable option.

Northbooks makes small Moleskine-style notebooks in the US with recycled covers (you can find other alternatives here, but Moleskine is crappy).

Binder Paper

 If you would rather go loose leaf (a good argument for that is you can always take the paper out at the end of the year and hopefully cut down on the binders you have to buy), and it can be better for high schoolers, especially in math classes. There are plenty of options for you too!

Our PickEcology also has a 100/ 40% recycled loose leaf paper set.

Other Options- Ampad and Pacon

100% recycled binder
Aurora from Amazon


Our Pick- Look used! They are in tons of secondhand stores and someone in your Buy Nothing Group has one to unload. If you have to get one new, think recycled paper, NEVER plastic. The best option for this is Terracycle's chipboard binders- even the metal rings are recycled!

Other Options- Another favorite are from Aurora- 100% recycled with 70% post-consumer waste content. I think they look cute, and I really like the fabric binding (way to avoid that plastic). Guided Products are recycled chipboard and made in the US too.  Wilson Jones has an awesome set of binders that are made of recycled cardboard and plastic.
recycled paper post it notes
Post-its from Amazon

Post-it Notes

One of those things we all have at home (check with your buy nothing group if someone has some to give), but now they have ones made of recycled paper and plant adhesive, so we can all have too many of these from now on (there are multi-colored pads too, for the younger post-it noters). Never buy virgin paper post its again.

Paper folders

Our Pick- Things are getting better and better on this front, so many better picks than last year! Again, used is always best, and steer away from anything plastic. These Oxford Earthwise folders are 100% post-consumer recycled materials. They are apparently not the stiffest, so it depends on your purpose, but I think these would work for kids.

Other Options- Jam Paper has recycled kraft folders. Smead's effort is underwhelming, but not nothing.
from minnebites

Pencil Case

 I don't think anyone really uses these, but maybe I am wrong! If you or a young person you love prove me wrong, check out Etsy's selection "Pencil Case" with the United States filter pulled up 13000 options, so you can certainly find something American-made and awesome.


 I love a planner. Love it. As an adult, I still relish the new one coming in the mail every August. I am not an organized person, but I like feeling like my time is somewhat managed and that my goals for the day are clearly set out. I don't understand how people live without them! Because planners make life more wonderful, lots of people make wonderful planners. Here are a few:

recycled at a glance weekly planner
At a Glance on Amazon
At A Glance- YES!!! Isn't it awesome when you can get something almost anywhere AND have it be made in America? The At a Glance company even has an eco-friendly option that I love (why they don't JUST do it this way is beyond me). They have 100% post-consumer paper, 50% post-consumer covers, and 90% post-consumer wire. If you see these in stores, please send me a picture so I can be psyched.

Belle Rousseur- They are a planner-making staple on Etsy (over a thousand reviews!) and their planners are comparable to anything you would get anywhere else. They are also consistently very pretty. I like this rainbow leaf one.

Favorite Story- My favorite find from this year. A recycled kraft cover and a lot of style. I would absolutely get this. Perfect for a stylish middle or high schooler?

House of Doolittle Planners- They make planners in lots of bright colors, weekly and monthly, out of 100% recycled materials, soy ink, and made in the USA. That beats any I bought at Staples when I was in high school, and these might even be cheaper. If you aren't sure how much your student will use their planner, start here!

Gallery Leather- I get a planner every year, and this is the one I got this year. Smart and well-organized (that's important). I do find the faux leather cover and sepia maps inside pretty funny, since most of my plans in the coming year will be poop and puke-related.

Green Chair Press- Another cool source of planners, including this pencil-covered one. I love the designs and they have a pretty wide selection.

Nude and Loitering Tees- They make upcycled planners. They have one of Ron Swanson. My brain just exploded with happiness. Treat Yo Self.

SHP Planners- More pretty feminine options. You can also pick which month to start on, so no waste months.

Ruskerville sells a planner for the Hogwarts-headed mini-wizard in your midst. I love this idea, and they have all sorts of goods for geeky type A's at this store.

Printer Paper

Another one of those ones I wonder why I ever printed things on non-recycled paper. Here's the list (2 cents unnecessary)- Printworks (Made in the US, Food containers, 100%),  Aspen (100% post-consumer), Staples Recycled (100% post-consumer), and Hammermill Great White Recycled (100% Post-consumer paper).

other class supplies


 Someone will have to tell me if you can get graphing calculators made of recycled materials, but if you are looking for a simple option, this Sharp one is a good one.This Onyx and Green one is made of bamboo, is solar powered, and has recycled packaging.
recycled crayons
Crazy Crayons from Amazon


 Crayolas don't use any recycled material as far as I can see, but their crayons (not everything) are still made in the US, so they beat all other mainstream brands. If you want some recycled crayons, try Crazy Crayons. Etsy has so many amazingly fun options for crayons reusing those crayon nubbins- transformers, legos, and hearts, among many others. do a search if you want something fun.

Dry-Erase Markers

Our Pick- Pilot Be Green's V Board line has dry erase markers made of 90% recycled materials AND they are refillable, so they are the big winner.

Other Options- Expo makes all of their markers in the US, so that is a pretty awesome mainstream choice.


Our Pick- Westcott makes a fun tie-dye set out of 80% post-consumer waste.

Other Options- Onyx and Green and Made by Humans

zebra eco recycled highlighters
Zebra Eco from Amazon


Check with neighbors and friends- who doesn't have a bunch of highlighters they don't use? Zebra has a set of double-ended highlighters (I love that trick) made of 74% post-consumer material.Office Depot and Skilcraft have recycled lines as well. There are now refillable options too!


 This map of the US from House of Doolittle is printed with Soy Ink on recycled paper. I am not sure if you need this, but it was on one of those lists.


Our Pick- Crayola is awesomely USA-made, and this set of markers is also made with recycled plastic! Plus, you can clean them off the walls easily, so making the world a happier place as well. You can read about their Colorcycle program here. Crayola manufactures their crayons and watercolors in the US as well, though none of the materials are recycled.
pilot bottle 2 pens plastic pen recycled amazingness
Bottle 2 Pen from Amazon


Plenty of choices here! If you have to buy more pens (but really, do you?), there must be a good recycled option for you. Never buy brand new plastic pens again.

My Pick (x 1000)- Pilot's Plastic Bottle Pens- I am obsessed with this Bottle to Pens idea. Even as a bougie pseudo environmentalist, I can see plastic water bottles are the absolute worst: they create more waste to sell you something you can get for free (not to mention gross companies like Nestle taking so much water from the suffering California reservoirs). If we all made this switch, maybe companies could get the hint, and recycled plastic could become a regular part of products like these.

Other Options- Pen Company of America makes their pens, you guessed it, in America. They also say the tubes are reusable, so I am wondering if you can switch out the ink when it runs out. I will let you know when they write me back. If you are a gel pen kind of person (or the parent of one), try these Onyx and Green gel pens.

tree smart recycled paper pencils
Tree Smart from Amazon


Our Pick- I did not know about these until I started researching this list, but recycled newspaper pencils are a thing and they are all kinds of awesome. Tree Smart sells a set of 24, where no trees were harmed in its making (all out of "yesterday's news)- they have a set of 12 also, and I think both are Made in the US. Fox and Wit on Etsy has pretty color-dipped options.

Other Options- You can also find tons of tree free options in colored pencils (even more than last year, if you want to feel good about the direction of the universe). Ashleigh Nicole Arts sell my favorites, and I think the containers might be very elementary-school friendly. Tombow doesn't make their stuff in the US, but they make beautiful pencils out of recycled materials, so might be worth checking out. Farber Castell has an option for colored pencils, but honestly, it's pretty lame in comparison to these newspaper material pencils.

I hate mechanical pencils, but someone must love pointless plastic  . If so, these Zebra pencils seem great. But seriously, why does anyone like mechanical pencils?

Pencil Sharpener- Simple, but it gets the job done, and is made out of mostly recycled plastic. Good for pencils and crayons.


If you can get a wood version, this Woodrow one, 100% made in America, I would lean that way. But look for these used! I think they make their way to secondhand stores pretty often,
Westcott's mostly recycled scissors
Westcott from Amazon


Our Pick- Are you really out or are they hiding somewhere? I know in my Dad's house, they just loved to live in my room.  Westcott's Kleen Earth Line has a set made out of mostly recycled plastic.They also have 8 inch ones for kids.

Other Options- Fiskars has a (super high-rated) pair with 100% post-consumer handles.


Our Pick- If you only need a little try paper tape or washi tape instead of scotch tape. Even if you use it half the time, that is half the plastic!

Other Options- Scotch is making efforts to make "Greener" tape with a 100% recycled core, recycled packaging, and plant-based tape. The larger packs could be awesome around Christmastime as well, and it again raises the question why anyone would use regular non-recycled tape.

White Out- They even have white out with recycled packaging now. I feel like this is a thing you are supposed to buy, but never use, but if that doesn't apply to you, you have a better choice now!

packing lunch

This may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of greening your school shopping, but changing your approach can make a big difference! This is also a perfect opportunity to save money shopping secondhand- we got a super popular planetbox on eBay for a fraction of the price. You can see more about this here.

Food Containers

wean green bento boxes
Wean Green on Amazon
Our Pick- Replay makes Snack Stacks out of recycled milk jugs in the US. I love the bright colors and that they are light and recycled. Not going to break the bank either, so you can live with a little less of the fear they get lost.

Metal boxes are currently really popular, and I like this option from Eco-Lunchbox.

Other Options- Wean Green makes all sorts of glass Bento Boxes for lunches out of glass with great lids in bright fun colors. Even if one gets lost now and then, it will be better long term environmentally to do these over anything else. Kids Konserve also makes steel storage containers.

Lunch Sacks

I wrote a whole separate blog about amazing Etsy lunch sacks aimed primarily at adults, but the simple lunch sacks on there could last a kid their whole school career.

A little lark robot canvas lunch sack
from A Little Lark
Our Pick- WAAMIndustries make really chic and simple lunch sacks out of waxed canvas, so they are sturdy and durable without being too intense. Very simple, but you can dress up the contents or even add a fun patch or two every year! They also have snack bags that are pretty cute.

Other Options- Not only do they make nice storage containers for lunches, Kids Konserve also has an amazing "waste-free" lunch pack for kids with everything you need to cut the trash out of your kids lunch.

A Little Lark sells simple cotton bags with all sorts of hilarious and/or adorable designs silkscreened onto them- check out the horses if you are the mom of that girl. Cool and different, but also really affordable.

Aah Haa Simple Bag. 100% Post-consumer content Plastic bottles. Perfect, but listed as currently unavailable, so I hope they are holding up.

round little fox backpack made of recycled bottles
Apple Park from Amazon
These Apple Park lunch boxes are pretty much the cutest lunch boxes ever, and they are made of recycled plastic bottles. Perfect for an elementary aged student and their lunches!

Reusable Sandwich Bags

You may not have ever thought about this before, but if you pack lunches with reusable containers and bags for 180 days, that's 180 ziploc bags saved from the landfill. Pretty powerful change and you can find tons of fun prints by just searching Etsy!

bright color and polka dotted sandwich bags
from Bag it Conscious

Our Pick- Bagitconscious makes all sorts of reusable sacks for lunch bags and sandwich bags-I love the bright colors and variety so you can find what works for you!

Other Options- If you are looking for something that looks conventional but is infinitely reusable, check out Blue Avocado. Chico Bag is made out of recycled water bottles. UKonserve makes food cozies. But I think the real gems are on Etsy- check out GreenCityLiving, GrowingGreenMinds, North Forty Textiles, and EcoHipCustomDesigns.


The best approach to backpacks is to pick something that you can use for years. I don't think LLBean bags are that well made anymore, but an investment in a Jansport backpack might get you through many years of school. Shop with the hope your little one can just keep coming back to the same bag. And the fewer bags you buy, the less waste you make.

Honestly, your best bet for a cool back pack that was made in America is on Etsy, so be sure to poke around there, but I will point you to some other options I like as well. 

For Little Ones

Check eBay! You can find tons of options on eBay and facebook marketplace. And don't let the silly monograms scare you- get a cool patch on Etsy to cover it up!

bright red holiday backpacks
from Oliday
Our Pick- Oliday is one of my favorite Etsy stores, and they have adorable kid backpacks for only 37 dollars! Would totally go for this, and with a little love it could last through those little years of Kindergarten- third grade.
robot starting to fly backpack for kids
from Beatrix NY
Other Options-  Beatrix Packs are made of recycled plastic bottles and pure sweetness. Might be a great first backpack!

Apple Park makes bags for the tiny age groups. They say each bag saves 24 water bottles from being in the land, which makes you wonder why all bags aren't made of recycled plastic bottles. Also, why can't grown-ups carry monkey back packs? I would enjoy that a whole lot.

cute hedgehog backpack sitting on a chair

Cat Bird Creatures makes simple bags for anyone who is awesome, though they look a little less substantial, so a smaller carrier might be better. And come on. Disgruntled Hedgehog Backpack? Sign me up. This gem of an etsy store is based out of Pennsylvania too!

For Teens and Teachers

I wrote a whole post on the Etsy bags I like best- you can also find backpacks used if you are looking!Try to pick something neutral!

woman wearing simple modern foldover backpack from Intericon
from Intercon
Our Pick- Intericon sells simple, but beautiful bags, and they are handmade in Hawaii! Most are between 70 and 100 dollars, and they also make super affordable lunch bags (you may just see them again on that list!). You were just thinking your bags needed to remind you of summer right? They look like high school/ college age bags to me. Also check Oliday

bauhaus logo on a backpack made by medium contol.
from Medium Control
Other Options- Medium Control sells messenger bags  and backpacks out of simple cotton with a pretty cool looking monogram on them. This all cotton recipe means there are no plastic fibers involved. They mostly come in kind of masculine cuts and colors, but I think they could work for a variety of things even after class is over.

givbags buy one get one so all kids have a backpack
from Givbag Backpacks
 These really sharp backpacks from Givbag Backpacks are made by small seasonal staffs in the United States (they don't sell enough to keep a staff all year), but the best part about them is they are buy one give one, so you can help a kid not as fortunate as yours by buying your high schooler this bag. So cool!

This Targus Spruce laptop backpack is made of recycled plastic bottles (and you already know that I think that's the business if you have to use plastic). I have carried a Targus laptop backpack for many years, and it has survived international trips and about a thousand security lines. I bet they can handle a high school.

getting snazzy for the first day

Toothbrushes- These kid-sized Preserve toothbrushes are made of recycled plastic, so you can start your day with Earth-friendly styles (they have adult sizes too)!

city threads green dress
from City Threads on Amazon
Clothes- Oy, as I said before, this an area of slim pickings unless you are willing to shell out some major cash. Buy Used. Buy as much as you can used before you get anything new (no good kids consignment where you live, check out Thred Up). If you are at a school with uniforms, check around with older parents to see what they do with outgrown uniform pieces- hand-me-downs can save you major money!

If you are looking for something brand new, there are some Made in America and natural fiber clothing brands worth checking out. These are my favorites:

City Threads- This is my current favorite brand for kids. The cotton is soft and the clothes have stood up really well to my toddler. Bright and colorful without trying to be overly kiddish or trendy. Just nice basics to fill the gaps you can't fill from Goodwill or kids consignment stores.

Winter Water Factory- Their clothes are more expensive, but the prints are adorable and they LAST. We have one of their hoodies for our toddler, and it has stood up to all of his craziness. If you are looking for more Made in America brands, check out this online store.

Of course, you can find some great stuff on Etsy too. My favorite stores for kids are UrbanEarthCo, StrangewaysStudios, The Typo Tees, MochiKids, SweetpeaandBoy, and StrawberryMoth.

first day of school sign chalkboard
from Rustiq Charm
First Day of School Sign- Please, dear friend, I love you- you do not need a new sign for every year. Buy one small chalkboard (which you can probably get used), and you are set for the rest of your children's school career.

The Green Back to School Shopping List

the green and zero-waste back to school shopping list

eco-friendly back to school shopping and made in america

Whooo! We made it through, and you can absolutely rock your back to school shopping this year. What are you buying for school shopping this year? Want more shopping inspiration? Check out the Giant List of Shopping Lists!

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  1. Such great reminders for back to school! Cute ideas & it is always a good reminder that they don't need EVERYTHING.

  2. Interesting, looking at these beautiful shopping items, I felt that I myself need to go back to those school days with new things when schools reopen:)

  3. I always prefer buying green products, so thanks for putting this list together so I don't have to search for them! :)



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