The holiday season can be stressful for lots of reasons: too much spending, too much eating, travel delays and family tensions. For the eco-conscious, another stress is also part of the mix: the stress that comes from trying to buy green gifts. We do our best: giving experiences or services, buying second hand, or giving homemade. But at some point almost all of us step foot (literally or virtually) into the marketplace of the new. And when we do we come face to face with the fact that consumer culture and sustainability are antithetical. I know it’s discomfiting, but, yes, “buying green” is a contradiction in terms.
In my experience, there are a few different ways to deal with this stress: you can repress the knowledge that consumption is unsustainable, you can try to minimize or offset the damage, you can try to assuage your guilt, or you can do some combination of all three. Around the holidays, I tend to do some combination, especially as–with each passing year–I am confronted with ever more brand-conscious wishlists from my kids.
Consider if you will my son’s Hanukkah wishlist this year. Is there anything on this list that I can give without shopping? Anything that I can buy secondhand or make myself? Unfortunately, no. But also consider what’s not on his list: the kindle, the iphone, the Xbox. These are all things he has asked for but has been told he isn’t getting (at least for now). See, here I am, employing one of the strategies of the eco-conscious shopper: assuaging my guilt! I’ve also relied a lot on the repression method, in which I simply take off my green hat and hand over my credit card.
And what about minimizing or offsetting the damage? Well, this year I decided to tie gift purchases, as much as possible, to sales and donations of unused or underused stuff. So, for example, in order to put the FIFA 12 wii game on his wishlist, my son had to clean out his existing video game collection. The result? A $64 credit at Gamestop, which was more than enough to cover the cost of his new video game. The Judy Moody books on my daughter’s gift list? The shelf space and money for those will come from the Rainbow Fairy books she has outgrown.
Recommerce–a fancy name for trading-in–has long been a staple of the car market but has recently caught on much more broadly. Perhaps the hottest recommerce market right now is electronics, in which companies like Boston-based Gazelle are offering consumers, who are ever-voracious for the fastest, hippest, and most-tricked out gadget, the opportunity to resell their “old” devices. Gazelle also commits to responsible recycle any devices it cannot resell.
There are, of course, lots of reasons to resell our unused stuff (not least of which is the money). The question for me is: is environmental responsibility one of these reasons? In other words, if I resell some of my old stuff before I buy new stuff, am I undoing some of the environmental damage caused by my consumption?
Without question, it’s better for the environment from an end-of-life perspective when we resell our goods rather than trash them. To the extent that recommerce helps keep goods out of the landfill or the incinerator, it’s an environmental plus. But what about at the other end of the lifecycle? Does recommerce minimize the environmental impacts associated with harvesting natural resources, and manufacturing and distributing the goods we make from them? I think that the unfortunate answer to these questions is no. And even more unfortunately, I suspect that recommerce actually reinforces our consumption of new products, and in so doing may in fact undermine its waste-reduction benefits. For no matter how much waste recommerce may reduce, its financial success depends on our continual consumption of the new. Otherwise there would be nothing to resell.
Which isn’t to say that I won’t keep reselling my stuff. But it is to say that when I buy new–whether I resell something old first or not–I’ll have to lean heavily on another of my eco-conscious shopping strategies: repression.