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Aug 112010

By Melissa Segrest
Green Right Now

How green is your big box store when it comes to school supplies?

Not very — at least for some of the most popular big back-to-school retailers. Some carry green products, but not in the back-to-school category. Others carry green products, but they’re online and not necessarily available on store shelves. And one store’s definition of “eco-friendly” may be a far cry from what you’re looking for.

Let’s face it, even eager eco-conscious shoppers may throw up their hands and succumb to the ease of one-stop shopping at a major retailer.

We shopped around at five big-box retailers’ websites and spoke to some of their representatives in a search for environmentally friendly, sustainable or recycled supplies. Five chains — Target, Walmart, Office Max, Office Depot and Staples — have significant environmental and sustainability plans at the corporate level.

But when it comes to the store shelves, where you live is probably a factor in how many eco-friendly products you’ll find. Most of these retailers base a part of their stocking decision on what customers have purchased in the past, and how much of it they’ve bought. If you’re in a greener city such as San Francisco, you’ll probably have more to pick from. Not so if you live in a part of the country that hasn’t placed a high priority on eco-friendly products.


Target’s website has “Make Change. Save Green,”a page with links to numerous products tagged as eco-friendly. Finding the page was a bit of a challenge – there was no reference to it on the website’s home page.

A general search under the word “recycled” on produces 182 products, but most are household or personal items.

Target's 'Make Change, Save Green' page is the portal into the retailer's eco-friendly products.

Under the “recycled paper” lineup, 15 items surface, primarily an assortment of Elephant Poo Poo paper (made from elephant dung) and stationary. A search for recycled printer paper, notepads or binders produced no correct products.

Target does offer Smencils scented pencils, which are made of recycled newspaper, and a selection of totes and bags made of recycled materials.

Target has more than 2,000 items labeled “eco-friendly,” again primarily household and personal use items, but the company’s definition of “eco-friendly” is broad, so read product information closely to see if the item meets your green standards.

Jenine Anderson, a representative for Target, said that the company takes a variety of factors into consideration when it plans product choices – including consumer demand, industry trends, availability, geography and more.

“We continue to edit our assortment of environmentally friendly offerings, including school supplies, in stores and at as guest demand dictates,” she said.

Target did not provide numbers or percentages of the products they sell that they consider “green.”

At the corporate level, Target outlines a multi-pronged environmental program that extends beyond products to include sustainable building, recycling/reducing,  impact on the climate and more.


Walmart is loaded with back-to-school supplies, but except for recycled Post-it notes, some manila folders and a binder, few classroom requisites online appeared to be green. There were virtually no green school supply offerings in two Walmart stores sampled in Austin and Dallas.

A website search produced 23 “recycled” items. A search for “eco-friendly” returned 381 items, which included messenger and tote bags, laptop sleeves and one style of folder.

We didn’t find any green “pages” or programs on Walmart’s website, but its corporate site outlines a commitment focused on sustainability, including a goal of only selling sustainable wood products by 2013 and an even more stringent goal: to eventually be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy and create zero waste.  Walmart’s other eco-friendly product priorities, according to the website are food,  jewelry and textiles.

Walmart representatives declined to comment on its selection of eco-school supplies.


Office Depot has a Greener Office subsite although there’s nothing on its website front page to direct you there. That may be just as well, because clicking on any of the links from the Greener Office page produces confusing results that require you to continue drilling down in the page navigation on the left to eventually get to green products.

Office Depot has paper made of 90 percent recycled post-consumer fibers and banana tree products.

There is a page on the site — again, not easy to find — that touches on some of Office Depot’s best back-to-school supplies, including recycled paper products; products made of alternative fibers; non-toxic pencils, crayons and paints; and solar-powered calculators. Unfortunately, a button at the bottom of the page labelled “View products in this category” takes you to a defunct page.

Some of the product links from the Greener Office site take you essentially nowhere – a page with four products, none of which have anything to do with what you were looking for and none of which are green.

However, a search of the entire site using the word “recycled” turns up more than 2,300 results. “Recycled paper” generates more than 400 results and “recycled pencil” provides three options. There are numerous folders, files and recycled containers that bear a logo indicating the product has recycled material.

In stores, Office Depot’s top-selling green products are its own brand of 30 percent post-consumer recycled copy paper, and  re-manufactured ink and toner cartridges, said Owen Torres, the company’s manager of public relations.

Do shoppers in some parts of the country have more green goods to choose from than others? “The majority of our products are the same at all our store locations; however, there are some variances and micro-sorting based on the size of the store, location and demographics,” Torres said.

Green items can be pricey. “Some products are slightly higher in cost, such as copy paper,” Torres acknowledges. “But other items are less expensive, such as re-manufactured ink and toner cartridges. They average 10 percent less.”

Torres said some of the store’s best back-to-school green items are the New Leaf recycled composition book, which it contains 100 percent recycled content (30 percent is post-consumer content). The Think & Smile recycled notebooks, also from New Leaf, have top quality stock paper processed without chlorine and made from recycled post-consumer and assorted “fashion” covers.

Also, as with all of these retailers, shoppers should study the sustainability details. All items are not equally green.

The Greener Office page explains Office Depot’s green policies, links to advice for a greener office and details its environmental efforts, though a link to the company’s “environmental programs” leads to a dead page.

Torres says the company is aware of these glitches to green goods. “This clean-up effort is scheduled for September, 2010,” he said.


Office Max stocks its stores based on demand from previous shopping seasons. That means that West Coast stores will have more green products because shoppers there have purchased more recycled products in the past, says spokeswoman Jennifer Rook.

The Aurora Ecovue binder at Office Max contains one of the highest recycled contents of any binder available, the company says.

There are more eco-friendly options available online than you’re probably going to find in the store, she added.

OfficeMax doesn’t tout a “green” grouping of products or environmental efforts on the front of its website, but a search for “recycled” on its website returns more than 770 results.

The site offers 43 “recycled” paper products, and you can search based on the percentage of recycled content or the paper’s sustainability certification. The post-consumer recycled content of paper ranges from 30 to 100 percent.

Other green back-to-school goods include pencils, pens, staplers, binders and calculators. Office Max does make a significant effort in the printer supply section. All of  its ink and toner cartridges are re-manufactured. “We carry a large assortment of printers, particularly under the H-P brand, that have the EnergyStar rating, Rook said.

“Kids have a strong interest in buying items that are environmentally preferable,” Rook said, and that interest extends beyond paper.

On its environmental policy web page, OfficeMax says it was the first to  nationally distribute 100 percent post-consumer recycled color copier paper that is manufactured by wind power.

Finding the eco-friendly items on OfficeMax’s website, however, can be a little tricky. A search for “recycled binders” produces all binders, requiring you to click on the “environmentally preferable” subcategory on the page. The same is true of a “recycled paper” search – first you see all Office Max paper options, then you have to click again on the recycled paper subcategory.

The company increased the percentage of recycled content in its paper products from about 30 percent two years ago to about 50 percent today, Rook said. Pens and pencils from Sanford, Pilot, Zebra and Papermate with recycled content are available.

Price-wise, recycled paper products are probably going to cost more than their non-green counterparts because of what is takes to recycle material, though recycled cartridges for ink and toner can cost less than other brands, Rook said.

Again, study the details – one company’s “green” may or may not be “not green enough” for you.


Staples has a detailed environmental commitment outlined in its Staples’ Soul page. A link from the bottom of takes you to its Eco Easy subsite. On that page, Staples offers information about, and links to, green and environmentally sensitive products.

Staples has its own Sustainable Earth product line, including paper and notepads.

Searching for the complete lineup of eco-friendly products is more efficient if you start from the Eco Easy page, rather than through the main search box.

Staples has its own Sustainable Earth product line (although the assortment of items is limited). A variety of symbols indicate the environmental qualities of products online, from sustainable paper to toxin-safe crayons. Staples larger efforts are spelled out on its corporate commitment pages.

Staples shoppers will find more Earth-friendly products online than in stores. “Among eco-conscious products, we have nearly 3,000 in store, but about 4,500 available online,” said spokeswoman Amy Shandler. Green products make up about 15 percent of their entire product line, she said.

Staples won’t share sales particulars, but Shandler said some of their favorites for back-to-school shopping include eco-conscious Crayolas and Ticonderoga pencils made of recycled tires.

The retailer, like many other office-supply stores, has surge protectors that allow you to manage the power drain of PCs and peripherals when they’re not buzzing with homework (or other important teen tasks).

Staples also points shoppers to information online about its best-selling green school supplies.

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