As we emerge from the pandemic, what spending habits do we want to change? What patterns should we not return to? One simple habit we should all try to break is our tendency to buy a lot of new stuff. Pre-pandemic consumption patterns account for as much as 45% of global greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention overstuffed landfills – and closets. As consumer spending ticks back up, here is one simple way to reduce your impact: Buy used goods.
In Fixation: How to Have Stuff without Breaking the Planet, I outline five easy steps to address the impact of consumption by considering the full life cycle of stuff in your life, from what you buy to how you care for it to what happens at the end. Lovingly adapted from Michael Pollan’s food wisdom, the steps are: Have good stuff, not too much, mostly reclaimed. Care for it. Pass it on.
Step three in this plan, “mostly reclaimed,” corresponds to Pollan’s advice to eat “mostly plants.” And, as with eating plants, buying used can be a stretch for some people. We privilege new stuff over used stuff, just as we prefer fats, meat, and carbs to plants, despite the fact that in study after study, plant-based diets have been proven to be healthier. But, of course, meat, sugar, and carbs are yummy and, in the United States, cheap and plentiful besides. We need to work hard to eat “mostly plants.” Like eating our vegetables, buying “mostly reclaimed” is something we must consciously prioritize. And, as with a healthy diet, we might come to realize that we actually prefer it in the long run.
Used goods are a critical part of our “stuff diet” because reducing the manufacture of new goods is the single most impactful way to both reduce waste and reduce emissions from consumption of material goods. Let’s look at just one item: a shirt. The estimated emissions saved from buying a used shirt instead of a new one is 2.5 kg CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), which amounts to the carbon absorbed by 127 trees in one day. So, not insignificant numbers, but still relatively small potatoes for one shirt. However, if you consider all the shirts purchased in America in one year, which is somewhere around 880 million garments, we are looking at a potential savings that exceeds 2.2 million tons of carbon annually in shirts alone.
And there is plenty of used stuff to go around. Again, taking clothing as an example, thrift stores are flooded with donations—Goodwill stores in New York and New Jersey (one of 164 regional Goodwill areas) collected more than eighty-five million pounds of textiles in 2015. The EPA reports that more than fourteen million tons of clothing are incinerated or landfilled every year, while eight percent of our total landfill tonnage is clothing. Donating can often feel “green” or virtuous, but the fact of the matter is, donating alone is not enough. If we’re not buying used ourselves, then we’re just outsourcing the responsibility of “closing the loop,” rather than accepting ownership of that responsibility along with ownership of our stuff.
Luckily, there are many businesses, old and new, making it easier for us to buy used goods as easily as we purchase new. The resale sector of the apparel industry is growing 21X faster than traditional retail.
All we have to overcome, at this point, is our old unhealthy habits: like resolving to eat your veggies, it can be hard to rebalance your “stuff diet,” and tempting to splurge too often. But if you start small and stick with it, your efforts will pay off. Finally, once you’ve transitioned your consumption habits to the “mostly reclaimed” step, don’t forget the next one: “care for it.” Prioritizing reuse and care can very quickly help us zoom out and see the impact that our stuff can have, not only on our own lives, but on the wider world. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about care for your stuff, or care for your community, or care for your planet.
Simple steps (adapted from Michael Pollan’s food wisdom) to help you rethink your relationship with stuff and prioritize care (more resources here!):
- Have good stuff: Buy things that are ethically made, high-quality, and repairable in the first place. You may have to spend a little more, but it’s worth it. Pause before you buy something new, knowing that this should be a long-term relationship!
- Not too much: Clutter leads to overwhelm, and waste. It’s hard to care for your stuff if you are drowning in it.
- Mostly reclaimed: Used goods are more sustainable, usually local, and often allow access to a higher quality product.
- Care for it: Build repair, alterations, and maintenance into your time and money budget. You’ve just spent less on those used slacks – now maybe you can afford to have them altered to look even better.
- Pass it on: When you are done with an item, pass it on. Care extends all the way to the end.
Last but not least, fight for it. Let manufacturers and retailers know that you want service for your stuff. And let your representatives know that you support legislation that promotes a sustainable and equitable care economy.