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Back-to-School Shopping with Impact

By Taylor Gray, Ph.D. on August, 2 2021

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Taylor Gray, Ph.D.

The world is a better place when companies are good corporate citizens. I remain focused on developing meaningful and actionable insights from empirical data in pursuit of a better world.

With the turn into the new month we have entered Back-to-School territory! Students and families are in the market for clothing, personal electronics, and a wide variety of supplies including notebooks, pencils, art supplies, and so on.

The U.S. National Retail Federation (NRF) anticipates record-breaking Back-To-School spending this year, reaching upwards of $37 Billion for U.S. families of elementary and high school students and $71 Billion for college students and families.

This is a lot of spending...and also a great opportunity to be intentional in the impacts of our spending!

Where to Shop?

One of the easiest, yet also most impactful, ways to align our purchases with the issues we care about is to be intentional in our choice of retailer. With Back-to-School shopping including what seems like a little bit of everything it is natural for us to head to department stores--digital or brick-and-mortar--hoping for as close to one-stop shopping as we can get.

Some of the more widely recognized department stores include Walmart, Costco, Target, Kohl’s, JC Penney, Amazon, and Marshalls/T.J. Maxx (two brands owned by the same company). These are all brands that expect to see a significant bump in sales as Back-to-School shopping takes off, but which one is the best choice if we want to be intentional in the impacts of our shopping? 

The RealScores we provide for brands on take into consideration each brand's measurable performance on issues relating to Climate Action, Water Management, Impact on Nature, Community Engagement, Employment Standards, Business Ethics, and Human Rights. All RealScores are scaled from -100 to +100, with positive scores representing more positive impacts and responsibility. 

So let’s see how each of these flagship brands score and how they rank among the many thousands of brands we cover at

Brand Total RealScore Ranking
Marshalls/T.J. Maxx +22 Better than 78% of all rated brands
Target +15 Better than 65% of all rated brands
Kohl's +12 Better than 60% of all rated brands
Costco +5 Better than 50% of all rated brands
Walmart -1 Lower than 58% of all rated brands
Amazon -7 Lower than 64% of all rated brands
JC Penney -16 Lower than 74% of all rated brands


Marshalls/T.J. Maxx, Target, and Kohl’s clearly lead within this pack and I will plan on directing my Back-to-School shopping here. Costco seems to be holding the middle ground here while JC Penney, Amazon, and Walmart are trailing in how they manage their impacts on the issues that matter and I truly encourage them to enhance their efforts. The technology and services exist for every brand to minimize their impacts on people and the planet should they so dedicate themselves--it's a question of will and not opportunity.


Impact as You Define It

Now, these RealScores are aggregated across all the issues that matter. If you are more concerned with one, or only a few, issues above all others, then I recommend you take a closer look at the thematic scores on

Digging a little deeper, we can see that Target outperforms Kohl’s in total RealScore, but Kohl’s outperforms Target in the issues of Community Engagement and Employment Standards. Walmart trails far behind Marshall’s/T.J. Maxx, but actually outperforms in the issue of Impact on Nature.

As shoppers we have plenty of options in just about everything we buy and every brand we buy from--and some brands are giving us pretty clear reasons to take our spending elsewhere. We are the most important stakeholders of any company, and being intentional in where we shop can make a difference in the world.


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