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For this fall, green is in

Stores hope new products will lure crowds of eco-conscious teens headed back to school

Stores are hoping that parents and students will add one more item to this year's back-to-school shopping list: saving the planet.

Merchants are trying to capitalize on the growing eco-conscious movement by promoting green products this season, from $70 solar backpacks that power iPods and cellphones to pens made of recycled materials including car headlights and plastic shopping bags.

The latest twist on school supplies offers consumers a feel-good option but also enables retailers to charge a premium for environmentally friendly products. One sleek bulletin board made from 100 percent recycled rubber costs about $88 at Staples, while a more traditional bulletin board with aluminum frame carries a price tag of $42.

"This is the next frontier in the green movement," said Madison Riley, an analyst for retail consultancy Kurt Salmon Associates. "Retailers during back-to-school season can cater to customer desires and capture a higher price, and higher margin, from those who are willing to spend more on products sensitive to the environment."

Whether consumers are willing to pay more remains to be seen. A survey done by market research firm NPD Group indicated that 76 percent of respondents said they planned to spend $500 or less on back-to-school shopping, down 5 percent from last year.

Discount behemoth Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is sticking to its low prices as it appeals to a green crowd.

In recent weeks, Wal-Mart began hawking a $350 eco-friendly computer, the Everex Impact, which consumes fewer watts on average than traditional computers. Its manufacturer says the computer can save about $10 a month in electricity costs.

Wal-Mart also recently created a back-to-college group on the social networking site Facebook, where students can download a shopping list and link to Wal-Mart's website promoting "earth-friendly" products, such as compact fluorescent light bulbs and "Eco Recycled Shag" rugs, made from recycled cotton.

According to a recent JupiterResearch "Green Teens" report, 38 percent of online teens are "concerned" about the environment, and 15 percent are "hard core" that is, they are serious about green living. The survey suggested marketers should aim for this 15 percent because they are popular, influential, and engaged with online media and communications: about 45 percent of these green teens said they like to be the first to know about new products and they have about $100 of discretionary spending on average a month.

Office Depot Inc., meanwhile, is pushing its Solar Backpacks as one of the top picks for back to school, and featuring them on displays near the entrance of stores. The bags sport a charger powered by a panel built into the outside of the backpack that converts solar energy into electrical energy. The charger can plug into cellphones, MP3 players, and Blackberrys. But you'll have to spend a lot of time in the sun -- about four hours -- to yield about 20 minutes of talk time on a cellphone, for example. Office Depot markets the bag as good for "on-the-go students."

At an Office Depot in Woburn this week, Debbie Rodenhiser looked skeptically at the backpack along with her daughter as they shopped for school supplies. Rodenhiser said she'd buy green products if the recycled and traditional supplies were side by side on the shelves. But otherwise, she's not going to seek them out.

Some merchants, at the very least, are making it easier for consumers to figure out which products are eco-friendly. Yesterday Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) unveiled an initiative for select brands to carry an eco-sensitive label for clothes and other merchandise manufactured with a high percentage of recycled, rapidly renewable or organic fibers.

Meanwhile, Staples Inc. of Framingham is trying to make the choice clear with a new EcoEasy label in coming months, helping customers identify environmentally friendly products in stores, catalogs, and online. Top green school products include a $13 pack of 12 Zebra Jimnie Clip Retractable Ballpoint pens made of 75 percent recycled content, and a $5 ream of acid-free EarthChoice copy paper, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and endorsed by the Rainforest Alliance.

"Back to school gives us even more opportunity to green up, and we're trying to focus on products that are really credible," said Mark Buckley, Staples vice president of environmental affairs.

Merchants, he said, need to work harder to change consumers perception that recycled products don't perform as well as traditional supplies -- concerns expressed by customers like Rodenhiser: "If I sharpen a pencil made out of recycled newspaper, is it going to last as long as a regular one?"

For Staples and other office supply companies, expanding green products isn't just an attempt to cater to consumer tastes. It's also a matter, to some extent, of survival.

"We obviously rely on forestry resources and if they're not around, we're not going to be in business," Buckley said.

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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