Consumerism in the Back-to-School season

School supplies for sale at Target (Photo: Ella Chong, The Puma Prensa)

By Ella Chong, staff writer

The back-to-school season has just passed, and with it the annual mall extravaganza in which millions of teenagers and their parents make their way to every store, both online and in-person, to purchase entirely new libraries, wardrobes, and school supplies. The estimated market size for this event is $34.4 Billion for K-12 students and $28.3 Billion for college students, highlighting our societal problem of overconsumption. Consumerism is one of the leading causes of climate change, as the fossil fuels used to mass produce consumer goods at such high rates are destroying both Earth’s atmosphere and habitats.

Being a large event for teachers as well, back-to-school is not just about students. Natasha Deakins, an English teacher at Maria Carrillo, explained nowadays, especially post-pandemic, there is more online information about teachers and curriculum provided, allowing for less back-to-school printing of informational handouts and flyers. She stated, “Google Classroom saves me a ton of paper. I’ve significantly reduced the amount of paper I give to students, and I think students appreciate the lighter load.” When asked about how much she generally spends on back-to-school as a teacher she said “I spend a ton of time at school, so I am okay with spending some of my own money on making my classroom feel comfortable. I can’t tell you the exact amount I spend because Mr. Deakins also reads the Prensa.” Deakins calls herself a “master re-user,” saying, “I love repurposing. Currently, I’m taking old cardboard boxes and turning them into skyscrapers for the Homecoming Dance.” She talked about spending less and less each year due to accumulating many supplies over her twenty-three years of teaching.

Additionally, Cindy Lui, a math teacher at Carrillo, said she doesn’t buy many new supplies each year, saying, “For consumable supplies such as graph paper, post-it notes, staples, and paper clips, our math department budget covers those costs.” She added, “For reusable supplies that shouldn’t need replenishing every year such as rulers, compasses, and protractors, students are requested to bring their own, but I like to keep a class set available for students to borrow in class. At the end of the school year, I always end up with less of these than I started with in August.” Lui says the main thing she spends her personal money on every year are her prizes – used for her Number of the Day game in which students guess the correct value for a given prompt. She states those are “worth it” in her opinion and “add to the class”. Donations are something many teachers rely on and Lui adds “Sonoma Water has donated a large supply of rulers, pencils, and pencil sharpeners to us in the past, so we make good use of those materials for students who don’t have their own.” Along with donations, new technology is also saving the pockets of teachers. Lui says, “One of the items I used to purchase often was dry erase markers which I would go through quicker than our department supply would cover.  Now that I use normal pen and paper projected through the ELMO [document camera] for daily notes, the more expensive dry erase markers do not need to be replenished as quickly so that saves money.” Similarly to Deakins, Lui reports that her back-to-school preparation is different post-pandemic, saying, “After over a year teaching online, it’s been wonderful being back on campus in person. I did get used to the more casual atmosphere of teaching from home, which has made me less concerned about having to dress as formally at school as I used to. I hardly ever used to wear jeans to school in my earlier years of teaching, but now I tend to prefer comfort over appearance.” She states she doesn’t purchase new clothes specifically for the start of the school year and is “just happy to be here,” a point many of us would benefit from focusing our energy on. 

As Lui and Deakins pointed out, the advancement of online services such as Google Classroom and technology such as Elmos and Smart Boards aid in teachers buying less supplies and printing less paper. This tool is environmentally beneficial, and brings a positive trend that will only increase as tech advances in the future. The pandemic altered schooling along with consumerism.

Many students say they feel there is a certain stigma around back-to-school in which it feels necessary to have a completely new first day of school outfit or shoes. “I do feel pressure to buy new clothes…but also it’s a good excuse to buy clothes”, said Lily Cuniberti, a junior at Carrillo. “I wouldn’t necessarily feel embarrassed [about not arriving in new clothes] but I might just feel more pressure to get new clothes.” However, there shouldn’t be a pressure around this event. Students should purchase new clothes at their leisure, not just to fit in.

Now, post-quarantine, many people are flocking back into the stores they avoided the previous couple of years. The multidisciplinary organization Deloitte Insights recently conducted a 2022 back-to-school survey in which the fiscal and statistical trends of what is called the “second largest spending event for parents” were analyzed. During the pandemic parents invested more money into technology rather than clothing for their children’s schooling, but with the return to in-person schooling almost nation-wide, the purchasing of new apparel is on the rise and Deloitte’s analysis showed in-person shopping for back-to-school was up to 49% in 2022 versus the 43% in 2021. Many students buy entirely new wardrobes and accessories in preparation to see their peers in August and Deloitte reports the average back-to-school monetary amount parents spend on their children is $661. I will admit that I feel the pressure every year to return to school with new clothes and new supplies and get slightly anxious thinking about not having a new pair of shoes by the first day. This is extreme privilege speaking and I am embarrassed to admit it, but it does showcase that there is a culture of consumerism that students feel is necessary for August. 

Back-to-school is a ridiculously large spending event precipitated in these past two years by the return to in-person schooling. While teachers can cut back on their seasonal purchases with helpful donations and useful technology, we students still have the pressure of showing up looking fresh for the new year. While I am not one to shy away from an opportunity to go shopping, I am going to practice what I preach a bit more. Being that what I am preaching is to become a bit more like Deakins – a “master reuser”, or Lui – “just happy to be here” and less concerned about new clothes. So let us reuse those old school supplies and that old backpack, and try second-hand shopping for that new wardrobe we feel we must have. The back-to-school season is just the tip of the constantly melting iceberg. Overconsumerism by Americans at all times of the year is contributing to the death of our ecosystems, so attempt to do your part and shop a little less. I promise it is not the end of the world to do so. To continue in these ways, however, will be the end of Earth’s environment.

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