Sarah Urquhart browses the aisles at CommunityWorx Thrift Shop. Sarah tries to avoid buying new items and typically shops for herself and friends at thrift stores throughout the area. Credit - Jeremy M. Lange for TIME
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.
This year, I was feeling too guilty to buy my family new holiday gifts from Amazon. 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. shoppers spent a record $638 billion in October at stores and restaurants, up 22% from October 2019. Forecasters are predicting even more spending in a holiday season where some families may be seeing each other for the first time in two years.
Read More: How American Shoppers Broke the Supply Chain
Was there a way, I wondered, to keep getting that nice little feeling I get when I buy something without also ruining the planet? Advocates talk of a Circular Economy where, instead of buying things, using them, and throwing them away, we reduce what we buy and reuse a lot more stuff. Even big companies are eyeing the practice; Apple announced last week that it would allow customers to repair their own iPhones, a giant shift in how they approach devices. ThredUp, an online resale company was valued at $1.3 billion in its IPO in March, after GlobalData projected the market for secondhand goods would double to $64 billion 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. (Buy Nothing recently launched an app, too.) But gifting used is a whole new arena. 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. Maybe it was time to expand the circular economy to gifting, too.
The rise of pre-owned
I’m not the only person thinking this way. TheRealReal, a luxury resale site, saw a 60% increase in orders with gift boxes from 2019 to 2020. Poshmark, a secondhand clothing site, has seen a 31% increase in vintage sales in men’s clothing from last year. ThredUp has seen orders increase 28% from the third quarter in 2020 to the same period this year. And eBay reported $19.5 billion in sales in the last quarter, up 9% compared to the same period in 2019.
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. Buy Nothing groups now have 4.3 million participants across the country, having grown by about 2 million people 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. Already, on eBay, sales of certified refurbished products are up 25% since June, he says. 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.
Supply chain bottlenecks coupled with a growing disgust with rampant consumerism motivated Maria Patterson to accelerate her practice of not buying anything new for the holidays. Patterson, a 29-year-old mom in Austin, Tex., usually makes a craft like hot sauce or recipe books or beeswax wraps and gives them to many of the people on her gift list. 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.
But giving used stuff to other people seems different. Spending less money on a used gift somehow feels like indicating the receiver is less valuable to you, which of course is not the intent. 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.
A few gifts were easy to find used. I got my brother a Red Sox collectible Monopoly set from eBay because he loves sports and playing board games. From Facebook Marketplace, I found a used bamboo balance board for a standing desk for my husband, who has been half-jokingly asking for a treadmill under his home 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.
But when I started looking for specific items, shopping used started to get a lot harder. My dad’s sweaters are always getting holes, but buying a used sweater would probably just mean they’d get holes even more quickly. My husband needed new sleepwear, but even I felt a little weird about getting him used 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.
Besides, after years of shopping on Amazon, where items are listed with multiple pictures, from many angles, and now even include videos, the presentation on sites like ThredUp and eBay left me feeling a little cold. 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. One eBay seller wanted me to pay $21.15 for shipping alone, which probably accurately reflects the environmental cost, but was more than the item itself.
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. I bought them for less than they cost on Amazon, paid $2.99 for shipping, and tried not to think about whether they had fallen off the back of a truck.
What will happen to the U.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. GDP growth fell 31% in the second quarter of 2020, as Americans stopped spending. Millions of people lost their jobs as economists wondered how bad things could get.
If Americans stopped buying so much new stuff, a very similar situation could unfold, says William Emmons, the lead economist in the division of Supervision, Credit, and Learning at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Consumer spending drives nearly 70% of economic growth in the U.S., and while much of that is spending on services like meals out or massages, a big chunk of it is also all the stuff we buy for our homes and loved ones.
With less consumer spending, there would be fewer jobs; Amazon alone employed 1.3 million people at the end of 2020. There would be less money created in the economy, and since so many government programs like the recent infrastructure bill are funded by taxing earnings, there might be less money for those programs, too.
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.
“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 Emmons. “But it may be the most feasible way to keep the motor running.”
Sweetnam, of eBay, argues that if people started buying more used goods, other businesses would spring up to create value for the economy. There could be new businesses that sell used goods, that refurbish old clothes, that collect old products to make them new again. 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.
But economists say that just switching to a circular economy outright could be catastrophic in the short term because so much of economic growth right now depends on people buying lots and lots of new stuff. They say the best way to get people to stop buying so much wasteful stuff is to levy a carbon tax, which would make goods that have larger carbon footprints more expensive.
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. A carbon tax could change that equation, by making people pay not just for the cost of the toy, but for the environmental cost of all the carbon its production generated. People will think twice about buying flights if they cost $600 instead of $300, he says, and the planet will benefit if the money raised is invested in new technology.
A carbon tax would also save shoppers like me the headache of trying to figure out what gifts are more and less environmentally friendly. Buying your kid a used car might be worse for the planet than buying a new one, because older cars tend to have higher carbon emissions.
“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.”
Changing the way 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. She used to work at an Amazon call center. 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 affluence has meant most of us go into the holiday season in November and start thinking about what specific things our family members want and how to acquire them. 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. Instead, she keeps an eye out year-round for used stuff that might appeal to a friend or family member, and then she sets it 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. There was a mug that looks exactly like her father-in-law, and a like-new Buzz Lightyear doll for the kids she nannies. 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, who is also a member of her local Buy Nothing groups, says that giving used gifts can be much more satisfying than buying new. When she gives away and picks up things from Buy Nothing, she makes a connection to her neighbors that has much more longevity than her connection to a random box that arrives at her doorstep. She can now point to the houses where she’s picked something up or dropped something off.
Finding the just the right unique used gift gives her even more of a dopamine hit than buying something new, she says. So does giving away something on Buy Nothing and learning that the person you gave it to really loves it.
The day I talked to Urquhart, I gave away an agility ladder on my local Buy Nothing group that my husband bought to get in shape before our wedding, but had been sitting in our closet for a year. I dropped it through a gate on the way to pick up my son from daycare, and I got a message from the recipient telling me she works at a nursing home and was going to use it to help residents relearn how to step over things for fall 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.
It still makes me smile, which, you could argue, is the point of the holiday season.