The rise of the global fashion and consumer goods industries has devastating environmental and social consequences. Excessive consumption by some contributes to resource depletion, carbon emissions and waste generation that affects us all — even while others can’t purchase or access basic necessities.
Climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution are being driven in part by people’s ever-growing use of materials. More than half of all greenhouse gas emissions are embodied in the things we consume. That’s why secondhand represents an essential tool for shifting our use of materials and building a world where humans and wildlife can thrive. Secondhand items have a unique value in extending the lifespan of products, changing the way we consume, and contributing to a sustainable economy.
Instead of letting pre-loved items end up in landfills or incinerators — where they can release harmful greenhouse gases, heavy metals and other pollutants — purchasing secondhand puts those things back into circulation, reducing their overall environmental footprint. Plus, when you choose secondhand, you’re avoiding the destructive extraction and production of raw materials that would have gone into making a new product.
The improper disposal of old technology as electronic waste, which is often shipped overseas, can have detrimental effects on the environment and human health. High-risk informal recycling techniques, such as wire-burning, are particularly dangerous and can lead to heavy-metal contamination. The risks are highest in countries that lack resources and infrastructure to manage the growing waste burden.
The quick turnover of new devices also contributes to unsustainable demand for mined rare-earth minerals, often through practices that harm wild plants and animals, cause pollution, and violate human rights. While electronics recycling and corporate trade-in programs have become more accessible and convenient in the past few years, buying secondhand and refurbished devices is still best for protecting people and the environment (and saving money).
Shopping secondhand isn’t just for electronics, of course. You can buy used clothing, furniture, home décor and just about everything else. And shopping at neighborhood brick-and-mortar secondhand stores is a great way to support small businesses and invest in your own local economy.
Shop Secondhand From Home
If you can’t find what you need at your local thrift store or you don’t have time to shop in person, you’re in luck: The rise of reselling and social e-commerce platforms like GoodwillFinds, thredUP, The RealReal, Poshmark, AptDeco, Kaiyo and Depop — as well as long-standing platforms such as Facebook Marketplace, eBay and Craigslist — have made conscious consumption extra easy and more widely accepted. You can even score affordable, thoroughly tested secondhand and refurbished electronic devices from tech stores like BackMarket.
Of course, reusing items was a way of life long before the Internet. For practical and economic reasons, people have long had the mindset that clothing, furniture and other things can and should have a long life and many different uses. With the rise of fast fashion, consumer goods industries, and the marketing of excessive consumption, it’s a philosophy we need to relearn.
Secondhand Stats and Facts
A recent thredUP resale report found that secondhand shopping will likely keep rapidly increasing over the next decade as more people express a willingness to buy secondhand — because it’s affordable, has major environmental benefits, and can be an enjoyable social experience.
The thredUP report also found that secondhand apparel purchases prevent the purchase of 1 billion new items from fast fashion brands.
A 2020 Goodwill report found that the nonprofit recovered more than 3 billion pounds of used goods and 15 million pounds of electronics in that year alone, diverting all that stuff from the landfill and recirculating it into local economies. That shows a growing enthusiasm for secondhand items that could keep millions of used products out of landfills and extend their lifespans, creating a shift toward a circular economy.
Secondhand Shopping Tips
1. Less is still more: Just because secondhand shopping is cheaper and more eco-friendly than buying new, there’s still a cost to purchasing things you don’t really need. Overbuying and dumping secondhand items will continue to perpetuate harm, pricing out families who don’t have as much choice in where they shop and increasing the waste headed to landfills. Choose items you know will be loved, and think about the long-term usefulness of all products you buy.
2. How we donate matters, too: Although buying secondhand helps keep used products out of landfills, some things that secondhand shops can’t sell still end up there, so it’s important to only donate good reusable items.
The popularity of fast fashion means that lower-quality apparel and other items — like cheap, harmful plastic products — are increasingly ending up at secondhand stores, and that has very real negative impacts for families who thrift out of necessity and the stores that sell the goods. Some donation centers even ship excess products overseas, competing with local businesses in emerging markets.
These global issues demand larger transformations in consumption and production, but as individuals we can help by considering the durability of an item — whether it’s new or secondhand — before purchasing or donating it.