Providing tools and support to families, citizens, and activists to counter our consumerist culture and to create new social norms about how to have a high quality of life and a reduced ecological footprint.

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Back-to-College Reality Check: To Buy or Not To Buy?

Let’s face it. A lot of guides to buying environmentally friendly products focus on convenient, pre-packaged products that inevitably cost more money. Supporting these smaller, responsible companies that put green products in the marketplace is a great idea, but when you're on a tight budget you can still choose green. Most of the time, the greenest options are by far the cheapest ones—they just take a little more work. Put some of these strategies to use, or focus on just a few things that will make the biggest difference based on your personal buying habits.


You could spend a lot of money to buy a new rubber or hemp bag for your books, but odds are you don’t need to buy anything at all to meet your classroom needs. Do you have an oversized beach bag that will accommodate several textbooks and notebooks at a time? What about a roomy canvas tote bag or reusable grocery bag? You can often find these kinds of items very cheaply at thrift stores and yard sales—or free in your parents’ closet. And what about your old backpack? Did you know that some companies, such as Jansport, offer lifetime warranties on their products and will repair or replace it?

If you do need to buy new and can’t spring for rubber or hemp, look for a conventional bag that is well-made and durable from a reputable company—preferably one with a warranty. Buying fewer products over the course of your lifetime is one important way to buy green, and a good pack should last you for years and years.


Thrift stores and yard sales are the best places for one-stop shopping on a budget, and this is probably most apparent when it comes to clothes. Though prices and selection vary widely from store to store, you can usually find good-quality jeans in the same styles your classmates are wearing for much less. Shirts, shoes, belts, and even suits for that first business interview can all be had at a steal.

If that’s not cheap enough for you—or if you really like having a lot of changing styles in your wardrobe—organize a clothing swap with a few friends. After all, most of us buy new clothes not because we’ve worn out what’s already in our closets, but because we’re sick of whatever we’ve recently been wearing. If you have friends with similar taste who are about your size, trade your old things for free new ones and extend the life of resources that have already been manufactured.


Truly green computers are hard to come by, but one way a student on a budget can be green and thrity is to focus on used or refurbished models. To find used computers in your area, you might also try Craigslist. But perhaps the cheapest strategy is to determine what it is you really need your own computer for. After all, at most universities, shared computers are readily available in campus computer labs for free (or for a small fee that’s probably already been lumped in with your tuition payments), and on-campus labs usually have very flexible hours.

If you do buy your own, don’t forget to take your machine to an electronics recycling center when you are finally done with it. Try your local recycling facility or search Earth 911 for a location.


Buy used books from sites like eBay or Amazon. Set up a book exchange at your school, or seek out online options through your library or Google Reader. Don't restrict your search for textbooks to your own school's library; many colleges and universities belong to a school library network that can order books on loan from other schools. Swapbooks and Bookholders are also a great way to sell and buy used books for a reasonable price, for your benefit and others—so return the books you won't use again to the system for others' benefit and your own.

Personal Care

You could spend a lot of money replacing everything on your bathroom shelves with greener alternatives, but most of us already have way more products than we really need. Cutting down on the types of products or amount of product you use can actually help clear up your skin.

If you’re really gung-ho about using quality creams, masks, and even cosmetics, you can try making your own—you’d be surprised at how easy it can be. Check out Annie Berthold-Bond's excellent book on home recipes for personal care products as well as other home products, Better Basics for the Home. You can also find many of her recipes for free on the Care2 website.


If there’s one thing most of us have too much of in our lives, it’s paper. The catch is that most of it—indeed, most of the paper that goes into recycling bins and trash cans all around the country—has already been used. But just on one side.

Get a few looseleaf binders and a three-hole punch (odds are you already have these items). Then go through your mail, handouts from old classes, flyers and sheets from the office recycling bin. All of this paper is 100% post-consumer recycled paper—the greenest you can get—and it won’t cost you a dime.

For recycled paper notebooks, punch holes in your paper and put them in your handy reusable binder. For recycled copy paper... don’t punch holes in it. Don’t like looseleaf notebooks? Check out these instructions for making cool recycled cereal box notebooks.


How often do you actually use up the ink in your pens or wear your pencil down so far it no longer fits in the sharpener? Most of us buy this stuff all the time because we can’t keep track what we have. Buy a reusable pencil case and keep your writing utensils handy.

Bedroom & Decorating

If you want a cool, eclectic-looking room on the cheap, read the section on clothes, and replace the words “shirts,” “shoes,” “jeans,” “belts,” and “suits” with “bedding,” “towels,” “picture frames,” “desks,” and “bookshelves.” Odds are you won’t find everything you need at the thrift, but you can find a lot of second-hand furniture at good prices there. Another excellent way to find more specific items is to search for them in the city nearest you at Craigslist (used, for sale) or Freecycle (used, yours for the taking).

Food & Snacks

Living in a dorm room, you may not have a kitchen at your disposal, but here’s a tip that can last beyond college: Cook it yourself rather than buying it pre-packaged and pre-prepared. It’s much, much cheaper, even when you splurge a little on ingredients.

Cleaning Products

You can basically survive with two cleaning products: glass cleaner and a scouring powder. How do you choose which brand to buy?

  1. All purpose glass cleaner: cheap, but not environmentally friendly
  2. Packaged "eco" cleaner: green, but costs three times as much.
  3. OR, a bottle of store-brand plain white vinegar mixed half-and-half with water for a great all purpose cleaner: green, and a fraction of the cost.

For scouring powder

  1. Chemical scouring powder: obnoxious scent, unknown chemicals
  2. OR, baking soda, straight out of the box: does just as good a job, costs much less money.

For more tips see great home recipes check out the links on our green cleaning page and on the Care2 website.

For laundry, instead of detergent you can use make your own using washing soda (sodium carbonate, no phosphates, biodegradable), baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), and castille soap (mix equal parts of all three, use ¼ C per load… much cheaper than commercial brands). If you buy commercial brands, look for the brand with the lowest percentage phosphates. (Also, the “recommended amount lines” on the measuring cups is almost always too much. You can cut it by half or more and still get the same results.)

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