September 2, 2008 at 8:17AM
by Alexandra Zissu
For the first time in a long time, this summer-to-fall shift is a back to school moment for real in my household -- my two and a half year old begins a (very minimal) preschool program (in October). We're going with her, as it's a cooperative school, and generally anticipating a tremendous amount of cuteness and hilarity. We're also anticipating an onslaught of stuff.
I am by nature and by profession anti-stuff -- how much junk does one kid need? I wasn't brought up this way and I used to be a big consumer. But the greener I get, the less stuff I can tolerate. Every person who asks me advice on how to stock a nursery pre-baby, for example, gets the same answer: all a baby actually needs is a boob, a diaper, and a swaddling blanket. How much does any of us really need? But there are certain times of the year, just as there are certain times in life (like the arrival of a newborn), that come with a stuff-alanche. For the beginning of the school year, I'm talking new clothes, new shoes, new book bags, new lunchboxes, pencils, pens, highlighters, white out, art supplies, pencil cases, stickers, notebooks, calculators, staplers, glue sticks, and so, so much more. I cannot begin to stress how much of this is totally, completely extraneous. What happened to the last school year's items? Did they suddenly lose their capacity to work over the course of a summer vacation? Even if something did break in the short and sunny interim, what ever happened to mending items, then continuing to use them? Yes, I'm well aware that kids grow out of shoes. But ever hear of hand-me-downs? Perhaps these won't cut it with older kids who feel pressured to be outfitted in the latest, coolest kicks. Try referring to them as vintage? And for young kids, they're a no-brainer.
My disdain for the new is many-fold. First, it's categorically and quite obviously un-environmental. What's reduce/reuse/recycle about yet another pair of new jeans made from sprayed conventional cotton, processed and dyed with harsh chemicals, then hopefully not put together in a sweatshop, and flown across the globe? Especially when we have more hand-me-downs than our girl could ever use. And if she somehow did tear unmendable holes in all pant-knees, we also have some excellent second hand stores nearby. Why does she "need" three new notebooks when she's still working on filling up several we already have? I know spending money is good for the economy, but I'd prefer to mark her passage into school with a special family meal, or a back-to-school trip to a kids' museum or the Coney Island aquarium. Second, with every new thing parents bring into the home, we also bring in potential harm. Everything from lunchboxes to permanent markers contain chemicals not good for young children (or adults for that matter) to be exposed to. I'm not saying my daughter doesn't get a box of crayons from time to time. But they're not the 1,000 colors in a box type; they're made from beeswax and safer dyes. Third, and this is neither an environmental nor an environmental health-related point: I cannot stand clutter. We live in a very small, very efficient space. There's no room for extraneous stuff. I certainly have fantasies about what life would be like with more space. But, in a way, our small apartment keeps any consumerism at bay. It keeps us in line.
So, when you're out there navigating stores in the scary name of back to school shopping, really think about what the kids need versus what they (or you) want. Even better, make lists before you shop and stick to them. And set out to buy the eco-friendliest versions of everything on your list. This includes recycled paper (notebooks and the like), safer art supplies, reusable water bottles, and more. Look into anything you might be able to buy used (ice skates or other big athletic equipment, for example) or even rent for the year (like instruments)?
Certain wonderful grandparents in my life who shall remain nameless are all about buying new for new events. And although I find it touching they're so excited about our new venture into the big girl world of school, I'm deflecting and declining all school-related purchases. Well, unless they offer to pay tuition!