I love the double dopamine hit that comes from buying something new—the rush when you click “purchase,” and the second one when it arrives at your door and you tear open the box. And there are plenty of real benefits to our incredibly efficient online shopping network: grocery shipping is shrinking food deserts, rural communities with few store options can quickly and easily get items they otherwise couldn’t have, and the time we used to spend driving to stores and searching for things that may have been out of stock we can now spend more productively.
But over the last few years, I’ve had a front-row seat to all the problems created by Americans’ obsession with shopping. I’ve seen cargo ships idling off the coast of Long Beach because the ports are so backlogged, containers stacked high as apartment buildings, the horizon a smoggy cloud of emissions. I’ve talked to truckers who spend weeks living out of their vehicles, prohibited from using the bathrooms at the warehouses where they’re waiting for hours to unload goods, all to get paid barely minimum wage. I’ve interviewed Amazon workers about the physical demands of packing goods in the fast-moving warehouses that provide much of the stuff we buy, and I’ve even undertaken the stressful toll of delivering Amazon packages myself. I’ve tried to look away as we devour resources like trees, water, and rare earth minerals in the pursuit of making more, more, more.
It was too guilt-inducing to purchase holiday gifts for my family from Amazon this year. COP26 reminded me that nearly half—45%—of greenhouse gas emissions come from the way we make and use products and food, meaning that this consumption that drives our economy is also choking the planet. And even as scientists try to capture our attention about the urgency of reducing emissions, we’re consuming more and more. U.S. consumers spent $638 billion at shops and restaurants in October, a 22% increase over October 2019. Forecasters expect even greater spending during the holiday season, when some families might be seeing each others for the second time in two decades.
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There was a way to continue getting the nice feeling that I get from buying something, without destroying the environment. The Circular Economy is a system where instead of purchasing things and then throwing them away we reuse and reduce our consumption. Apple last week announced it will allow users to repair their iPhones. This is an important shift in the approach companies take to devices. ThredUp, an internet resale platform, was valued at $1.3B in its March IPO. It was founded after GlobalData estimated that the online market for used goods will double to $64B by 2024. ThredUp says that if everyone bought one used item instead of a new one this holiday season, we’d save 4.5 billion pounds of carbon, the equivalent of planting 66 million trees, and 25 billion gallons of water.
I’ve long tried to buy used clothes and acquire toys and other household items from sites like NextDoor, Craigslist, and Buy Nothing, a Facebook group where members of your community post things they no longer need and anyone can claim them. The app has also been launched recently by “Buy Nothing”. However, gifting to someone else is quite a different thing. Still, the U.S. drives the world’s largest share of consumption-related emissions, and many of the things we buy are purchased for the sake of giving a gift and will sit languishing in a closet, unused. It was perhaps time to extend the circular economy beyond gifting.
Pre-owned is on the rise
I’m not the only person thinking this way. From 2019 to 2020, TheRealReal saw a 60% rise in gift box orders. Poshmark, a secondhand clothing site, has seen a 31% increase in vintage sales in men’s clothing from last year. ThredUp orders have increased 28% in the last quarter 2020 compared to this year’s same period. eBay also reported $19.5 billion sales for the quarter ended March 2019, up 9% from the previous period.
This is all happening at the same time that younger generations are embracing “vintage” and “pre-owned” and buying clothes on online resale sites like Depop, which was acquired by Etsy for $1.6 billon earlier this year. There are now 4.3 million Buy Nothing participants in the United States, up by 2 million during the pandemic.
Stress about the supply chain has also contributed to this turn toward used stuff, says Jordan Sweetnam, eBay’s general manager of the North Americas market. “People who may have been on the fence about shopping pre-owned are going to go to a traditional retailer and just see empty shelves,” he says. According to him, eBay already has a 25 percent increase in sales of certified-refurbished products since June. Baby Boomers may still balk at the idea of using someone’s old blender, he says, but Generation Z has no qualms buying used goods, whether it be clothes or electronics.
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Maria Patterson decided to increase her commitment not to buy anything for Christmas because she was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the rampant consumption. Patterson, a mom of 29 in Austin (Texas), makes various crafts and gifts to people she loves. She used to buy some new items around the holidays, but this year, she’s trying to not buy anything at all. It’s easy to bake treats or give a friend a sweater of yours they’ve always admired, she says, or just give less stuff overall. “The world cannot continue with the level of consumption that it currently has,” she says.
I don’t mind receiving used gifts: for my November birthday, I asked my parents to gift me a used hiking Deuter backpack in mint condition from Craigslist, saving hundreds of dollars in the process. I’m always scouring the “finds” section of NextDoor for free kid stuff that’s being given away so I don’t have to buy clothes that my son will outgrow in a matter of months; I got a giant Fisher Price Jumperoo on Buy Nothing that my son loved until we couldn’t tolerate the space it took up, and we gave it to the next family.
Giving used items to others seems different. It can feel like you are giving less value to someone by spending less on used gifts. This is obviously not what the intention was. People who grew up wearing used clothes for financial reasons say they don’t want to revisit the stigma of having old stuff. Plus I’ve gotten accustomed to the ease of buying something on Amazon, not having to pay for shipping, and knowing it will arrive in time for a birthday or special event.
Some gifts are easy to locate and use. My brother loved playing games on the board and loves to collect Red Sox Monopoly sets. I purchased it from eBay. A used balance board made from bamboo was available on Facebook Marketplace. This will be a great addition to my husband’s standing desk. I found a toy wooden dinosaur at a neighbor’s “free store”—they put out stuff to give away daily—and resolved to wrap it for my son in an old Amazon box, which he would probably enjoy as much as the toy.
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However, I found it harder to shop for certain items when I began looking. My dad’s sweaters are always getting holes, but buying a used sweater would probably just mean they’d get holes even more quickly. Although my husband required new sleepwear, I was uncomfortable giving him his old pajamas. My mom likes painting, but I didn’t think there was such a thing as used paint. My son needed some shoes because he had outgrown the old ones, but kids’ shoes take such a beating I wondered if I’d be able to find any used that weren’t falling apart.
I was also a bit cold after shopping years on Amazon where products are presented with many pictures from different angles and sometimes even videos. On ThredUp, sweaters are poised on white headless mannequin torsos, and bizarrely, the site doesn’t seem to have a Men’s section. I know free shipping is bad for the environment, since it incentivizes people to buy, buy, buy, but I couldn’t help but balk at the shipping rates on some items. I was asked by an eBay seller to pay $21.15 shipping, which may accurately reflect the environmental cost but it is more than what the item actually costs.
I settled with what seemed to me like a compromise—I found some RockDove Memory Foam slippers for my husband, whose old ones came from Amazon and are currently in shreds—on eBay, but they were in new condition, according to the seller, with the tags still on. They were cheaper than what they cost at Amazon and I paid only $2.99 shipping.
What is the future of America’s economy?
Of course, if Americans stop buying so much new stuff, the economy could crater, which is exactly what happened at the beginning of the pandemic when people hunkered down and didn’t go out. The second quarter of 2020 saw GDP decline by 31% as Americans cut their spending. As economists wondered what the future might hold, millions lost their jobs.
William Emmons, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis lead economist, said that if Americans stopped buying new items, an almost identical situation might occur. Nearly 70% of the U.S. economy’s growth is driven by consumer spending. While most of this is spent on services such as massages or meals out, much of it also includes all of the things we purchase for our families and friends.
Consumer spending would reduce employment. Amazon, for example, employed nearly 1.3 million people by 2020. The economy would have less money, as many government programs such as the recently passed infrastructure bill, which are funded through taxing earnings. This could also mean that there may be less money available for these programs.
There’s a reason that federal policy in recessions has often been to give people stimulus money to spend—the government knows that increasing consumer spending will jumpstart the economy.
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“The big rise in consumer spending we’re talking about may not be the best from its environmental consequences, and it is exacerbating distributional questions,” says William Emmons, the lead economist in the division of Supervision, Credit, and Learning at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “But it may be the most feasible way to keep the motor running.”
Sweetnam from eBay claims that more people will buy used goods and other businesses will follow suit to increase the value of the economy. New businesses could sell old goods and refurbish them to create new products. There are already companies that have succeeded in embracing the circular economy—Lehigh Technologies in Atlanta takes old tires and rubber waste and turns it into a type of rubber powder that can be used in construction.
However, economists caution that the switch to a circular economy could have a catastrophic effect on economic growth in the near future because much of it is dependent upon people purchasing lots of new goods. A carbon tax would be the most effective way to convince people to buy less wasteful goods.
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Right now, says Mark Zandi, an economist at Moody’s Analytics, we’re not paying the true cost of the products we’re consuming. Since it is often cheaper to buy a new toy made from virgin materials in China and then shipped across the ocean than it is to buy a high-quality used toy from a stranger, that’s become the default way to shop, he says. The carbon tax would change this equation by making everyone pay for not only the price of the item but also the impact on the environment from its manufacture. If flights cost $300 instead of $600, people might reconsider buying them. And the earth will reap the benefits if it is used to invest in technology.
A carbon tax will also spare shoppers the trouble of finding eco-friendly gifts. Because older cars emit more carbon than newer ones, buying your child a used vehicle might prove to be more damaging for the earth.
“We just have to price carbon and if you do, the cost of things we spend money on that have a high carbon footprint will cost more, we will buy less of it,” Zandi says.. “That’s the magic of our system: prices work.”
We are changing the way that we shop
Apple may be changing its approach by allowing customers to reuse and repair its devices, but there still isn’t a huge economy for buying high-quality used stuff. I felt guilty that I couldn’t find much used stuff that I felt comfortable gifting, but a nanny named Sarah Urquhart helped me realize that until companies fully embrace the circular economy, I would have to change how I bought gifts.
Urquhart wasn’t always a nanny. Her former job was at Amazon’s customer service department. Saddened by the amount of waste she saw—of people endlessly buying things and returning them—she decided to change the way she shops. American wealth has made it so that most people start to think about the Christmas season and what their family wants. It’s always been easy to make a list, and then tick the items off one by one, and online shopping has made it even easier. “It was just a culture I didn’t want to be a part of anymore,” Urquhart says.
This year, she’s holding what she calls “Merry Thriftmas.” Buying used, she says, won’t work if you start shopping with specific gifts in mind. “If you’re only looking for that thing, you’re not going to be successful,” she says. She instead keeps an open mind year round for any used items that may be of interest to friends or family members, then sets them aside until the holidays. She doesn’t shop with a list of things her family members need; she keeps an open mind for things that might make her family laugh, or smile, or might make their life easier.
She’s found some good gifts recently. She found a mug that looked just like her father-in law and a Buzz Lightyear toy for her children. She sanitized the doll, she says, “and it was the happiest kid I’d ever seen.” Her mother-in-law plays the piano, so she found some old sheet music to wrap her gift in—Urquhart hasn’t yet thrifted the right gift, though.
Urquhart also participates in her local Buy Nothing groups. Urquhart says giving old gifts is more fulfilling than purchasing new. Her connection with the people she picks up from Buy Nothing is stronger than that to any random package that comes to her house. She can now point to the houses where she’s picked something up or dropped something off.
She claims that buying a unique gift is more rewarding than shopping for something new because she can find the perfect used present. It’s also a good idea to give away something you don’t need and find that your recipient loves it.
Urquhart was the first person I spoke to. I had given away an agility ladder that my husband purchased to help him get fit before his wedding. It had been in storage for over a year. When I was driving to my son’s daycare, I dropped the agility ladder through a gate. The recipient contacted me to tell me that she works in a nursing facility and wanted to use it for falling prevention. Now, every time I pick up my son from daycare, I imagine elderly people gingerly stepping through my old bright yellow agility ladder—improving their fitness and unknowingly reducing carbon emissions all at once.
You could say it still makes you smile.