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Future Generations and School Supplies

By Nancy Myers I will write occasionally about what happens to our psyches and our behavior when we take our obligations to future generations seriously. About why it may be hard and how we might do it anyhow.

Today two emails arrived in my inbox almost simultaneously. One, from my congregation’s listserv, was an appeal to gather supplies for school kits,  which a service organization will distribute to refugee and displaced kids around the world. Another was an appeal from the Green Schools Initiative urging parents, teachers, and students to buy eco-friendly back-to-school supplies.

Aha. Putting two and two together, I dashed off a response to the church appeal. Wouldn’t it be great if we could buy green supplies for the school kits? And I provided the Green Schools link.

Then I thought I should practice before I preach and so I decided to do some research.

I’ve observed that two huge obstacles to acting for the good of future generations are cost and convenience. So my question was, how costly and how difficult is it to be charitable, in this case, to both present and future generations?

The shopping list for the school kit was short and it included 4 standard-size 70-sheet spiral notebooks. I decided to concentrate on finding recycled paper notebooks.

I started online, because that’s easiest. Green Schools has a buying guide.  It’s mostly geared to the bulk supplies that schools buy, but you can find your way to information on things like notebooks and pencils.

Online suppliers I found through the guide displayed reasonable prices for 100% recycled paper notebooks (with 40% or more post-consumer waste). But shipping and handling costs drove most into the $5.00 range, even for bulk quantities.

Next step down the convenience ladder: I dragged my husband out to the mall to shop for school supplies the way parents do. We started at WalMart.

Ah, there it was, the new eco-friendly face of WalMart. At the end of one of the back-to-school aisles was a whole section, “Sustainability 101,” filled with attractive green and brown notebooks, folders, and binders of the Sasquatch brand. Although the display seemed to be aimed at college students (and the notebooks were college ruled), notebook covers featured a “Where’s Waldo” type design. And there’s a “find Sasquatch” website full of feel-good eco-education for elementary kids.

These “100% recycled” products (no information on post-consumer waste) were the same price as similar notebooks in WalMart. $2.47 each.

Except for the notebooks that were on sale, displayed in the huge cube standing right in the middle of the back-to-school section. Those were 5 cents.

Parents do not go to WalMart for the $2.47 notebooks. They go for the 5-cent ones. And who can blame them? I sighed and bought a Sasquatch, which hadn’t seemed expensive until I saw the 5-cent ones. Those even bore a seal of approval from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, though I thought that might be a bit suspect.

We found the Sasquatch brand at the big-box Meijer across from WalMart, too. It seems to have saturated the big-box market. The notebook I bought doesn’t display any certification. It was made in Vietnam.

Vic and I made one more stop, at Office Depot, in search of a brand included on the Green Schools guide. After considerable looking—way past the gaudy on-sale notebooks up front--we found a small stack of brightly colored New Leaf notebooks, 100% recycled, 40% post-consumer waste. $3.29 each. I sighed again and bought three, to fill out my quota for the school kit.

And two more for my husband, who was about to grab a store brand notebook for himself because it was cheaper (cost) and the eco-friendly ones didn’t have enough pages (convenience). But really, he was still wistful about having to pass up the 5-cent ones at WalMart. Even though he thoroughly hates WalMart.

After we got home I looked up the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.  It’s an industry group, which, according to Credible Forestry Certification,  “condones environmentally harmful practices including large-scale clearcutting and chemical use, logging of old growth and endangered forests, and replacement of forests by ecologically degraded tree plantations.”

That would raise the true cost of the 5-cent notebooks—in trees, water, and the earth itself--well above the cost of recycled-paper ones. The difference is, future generations will pay it.

Green Schools says to look for certification by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Conclusion: Green school supplies are getting cheaper and easier to find but they will probably never be the cheapest ones on the rack, and that makes them a luxury in most people’s minds (and in actuality, for many people). And it is really, really hard to get over the habit of buying cheap. Even when we know that the true cost of all that cheap stuff may be the future of the planet.

I will share my research with my friends but I will not tell them which notebooks to buy for the school kits. I am going to try some recycled-newspaper pencils I found online. At nearly 30 cents each, they are not cheap either. But what is 30 2009 cents to the seventh generation?

Full disclosure: our shopping-research trip consumed a gallon of fossil fuel.

We have so far to go.