Combat Consumer Culture with Second-Hand Shopping

Thrift store clothing rack with the words "Thift your way to a more sustainable consumerism"

,Somewhere along the line, I was socialized to see second-hand items in a negative way. I know, my privilege is showing. I was fortunate enough that I experienced many new things in my life– new clothes for school, new toys to play with, new briefcase for work– new, new, new.  And somewhere along the way, I absorbed the idea that the new things were sources of pride. And the things that I had that were second-hand, like hand-me-down clothes or thrift shop books, were things to be ashamed of.  How I developed that mentality is a little unclear since I have an avid thrift store shopper for a grandmother and had plenty of second-hand items growing up. But it happened, none-the-less.  

But I have seen the error in that mentality. Not only is it completely arrogant, it’s also wasteful. NEW doesn’t equate to better.  And it certainly doesn’t help combat the climate crisis. 

So as I have traveled along my imperfect journey toward a more sustainable life, I have come to more fully recognize the importance of shopping for second-hand items as a way to reduce waste and minimize my impact on the environment. So let’s take a further look at the negative impact of our consumer culture and what we can do to normalize buying second-hand.

Negative Impact of Consumerism


Consumerism & Human Interactions

Peer Pressure 

Mean Girls in silver convertible when the dialogue is "Get in loser. We're going shopping."

“Get in, loser. We’re going shopping.”

You are all familiar to some degree with Mean Girls, right? The “mean girls” in the movie certainly drive a consumer culture, and unfortunately, “mean girls” aren’t simply characters in a fictional movie. Most of us know mean girls (and guys) who have judged us or made us feel that we have to play the keep-up-with-Joneses game.  Very often, that game comes with a heavy price tag and a lot of heart ache.  And it doesn’t end when you get out of school, either.  You just enter a much more sophisticated game.

Loss of Family Time

As if that wasn’t bad enough, consumer culture impacts family relationships, too. With increasing demands for products and sales, many businesses have longer hours or are open on holidays. This takes away from family time– in many cases for both the employee and the consumer.   And for anyone who has been shopping during Black Friday sales, you know that the way people interact with one another on that day is often less-than-generous.  People have gotten into physical altercations in fights over the last sale item. Funny how it’s often their intent to be generous with a loved one that drives them to be so vicious with complete strangers.  

Transactional Relationships

One of the most impactful statements on consumerism and relationships that I read recently was from an article from The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University.  The article suggested that in the culture of consumerism, we have shifted our view of relationships with others away from mentorship and care to transactional relationships where we see ourselves as consumers and we’re looking to get what we paid for or deserve (Bryan, 2003).  As a former staff member in higher education, I can totally relate to this sentiment.  Students very much viewed themselves as consumers– not just of an education, but in every aspect of their college life and often treated staff with a certain degree of entitlement because of it.

 

 

Consumerism & Equity 

When we look at world resources, most of them are being consumed by the wealthy.  The US, as one of the wealthiest nations, consumes a large percentage of the natural resources.  Just check this article to read about the use of paper in the US! The elite in the US are responsible for significant resource consumption in comparison to the rest of the population. 

Rows of women wearing matching shirts and hair nets working in a textile sweatshop

Sweatshop
Photo Credit: Marissa Orton via Flickr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0

While the consumption of goods has a very clear disparity, the relationship between consumerism and equity grows even darker when we consider the conditions in which many of our products are produced.  For example, most of the world’s clothes are made in sweatshops where people are overworked and extremely under-compensated (Global Challenges, n.d.).  Others are not paid at all. In the US, we may like to think that slavery has long been over, but there are 27 million slaves who are currently working to provide us with our favorite cup of coffee or chocolate bar (Global Challenges, n.d). 

There seems to be a lot of celebration that comes with advancement of lesser-developed countries– as their should be for many reasons.  However, as their consumption increases, we put further strain on our resources.  If we, instead, focus on reducing consumption amongst the rich, there could be some economic instability or hardship during the awkward transition period until we can grow accustomed to this more sustainable practice. (Nayyar, 2020).  Sorting out consumer an equity is no easy feat, but it’s one that we need to be ever conscious of as we consider what we need in our daily lives. 

 

 

Consumerism & Debt

Middle segment of a male with his hands pulling his pockets inside out to demonstrate they are empty.Conversations around the consumer culture and personal debt are not new.  In a quick search for research on consumer culture and debt, I found an article from 1965 that talks about the prevalence of the “Buy Now, Pay Later” culture in America (Dickinson).  Different historians put the rise of consumerism at different points, including post WWII and the roaring twenties; either way you slice it, it’s been developing for a long time (Higgs, 2021). Personal debt,  particularly stemming from credit cards and personal loans, has potential from serious side effects, including personal bankruptcy. The amount of debt in America is increasing at an alarming speed (Lupica, 2008).  Marketing has a lot to do with consumer culture at the rise of personal debt, as businesses know that the only way to maintain their mass productions in a profitable way is to drum up more and more demand for the product (Higgs,  2021). So much so that retail business analysts recognize that items need to be consumed and discarded so that they’re replaced once more.  Not a very sustainable vision, if you ask me– both for a person’s finances and for the climate.

 

 

Consumerism & Pollution

Everything  that we consume has a carbon impact on the climate.  The food industry, our vehicles, our clothing, our decor– all of it results in approximately 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (Jacobs, 2016).  And not surprisingly, the wealthier countries are consuming much more; in some cases, as much as 5.5 times the world average. 

With all that consumption, we’ve given ourselves another problem.  Our consumer habits result in a large amount of waste (Negatives of Consumerism, n.d.).  To combat our problems with waste, we’ve used landfills– which pollutes our ground and water.  We’ve used incinerators to burn trash, which pollutes the air.  And we’ve even shipped our waste to other countries– which not only pollutes their land, water, or air, but also results in garbage from giant ships end up in the ocean.  

Individual lifting the ocean along the shoreline to reveal plastic pollution, much like lifting a blanket.As we’re talking about oceans, I’ll add that up to 12 million TONS of plastic enters the ocean EVERY YEAR, which is creating little floating masses of plastic throughout the oceans in around the globe (The Negative Effects of Consumerism, 2016).  Not all of this is flying off of ships of garbage, but it is a result of the significant amount of waste that we’re producing.

While the general spirit of consumerism significantly contributes to our waste problem, one major problem is our use of single-use plastic. Our use of plastic shopping bags, plastic water bottles, plastic utensils, straws, etc. makes up more than half of the plastic produce each year– what a scary statistic (The Negative Effects of Consumerism, 2016)!

 

 

Consumerism & Resources

Not only is our consumerism polluting our earth, but it’s depleting her of her resources, too.  I read a startling statement this week on The World Counts website: “If Earth’s history is compared to a calendar year, modern human life has existed for 37 minutes and we have used one third of Earth’s natural resources in the last 0.2 seconds.” (Global Challenges, n.d.).

Yikes! 

That’s not a pace we can continue.  

According to Jacobs (2016), somewhere between fifty to eighty percent of total land, material, and water use is tied to our consumption.  Now, there are things we have to consume.  We need food to sustain us. We need clothing and shelter.  And there is nothing wrong with a moderate amount of entertainment, beauty, and pleasure. But we do need to start rethinking our consumption patterns.

If we continue on the path we’re on, we’re going to lose our rainforests due to deforestation. We’ll have no more fish due to overfishing.  And we’ll be out of water.  (Global Challenges, n.d.) How do we survive without water?! And according to some scientists, this could happen as early as the middle of THIS century– as in thirty years from now (Negatives of Consumerism, n.d).  I don’t know about you, but that’s in MY lifetime. And certainly paints a bleak picture of what life could be like for my children.

“If Earth’s history is compared to a calendar year, modern human life has existed for 37 minutes and we have used one third of Earth’s natural resources in the last 0.2 seconds.” 

 

 

Buying Second-Hand


Benefits of Buying Second-Hand

When you choose to buy second-hand items instead of brand new ones, there are several benefits. Buying second-hand items: 

  • Reduces resource consumption.  There are no new materials used to create your product.
  • Reduces pollution. There are no emissions from production  and often less emissions from other sources, as well.
  • Reduces spending.  My bank account appreciates it! 
  • Supports local economy, in many cases.
  • Supports community members, in the case of non-profits.

Where to Look for Second-Hand Items

Boxes of random items like home decor, kitchen items, books, etc. at a flea marketLook for items in thrift stores, consignment shops, and flea markets. There are lots of different options (and debates about which are the best), but look for one that demonstrates ethical practices.  There are even online thrift stores available today, like thredUP and Kidizen.

You can also utilize Facebook Marketplace, Ebay, Etsy, and other similar options that allow you to buy directly from another individual.

And don’t forget about the yard sale. It might be a little old school, but you can find some real gems this way. And for some reason, it seems that the prices of a yard sale remain low despite the higher demand for second-hand items on some of the digital platforms.

Great Items to Buy Second-Hand

  • Vehicles
  • Houses
  • Clothes, especially kids clothing.
  • Seasonal decor
  • Kitchen appliances
  • Books
  • Bicycles
  • Sporting Goods
  • All the baby things

Our Second-Hand Success Stories

We’ve made a real commitment to looking for second hand items in the past year.  We’ve had some real successes, too! I could go on for a long time about the amazing second-hand finds, but here are a few highlights:

Clothing

We are looking at thrift stores, ebay, Marketplace, etc. for clothing before buying new. 

  • I got a great deal on five footie pajamas for my two year old from ebay. They were adorable and in great condition. Even with shipping, they were half the price of most of big box and children’s clothing stores.
  • When it came time for holiday attire, I bought dresses for the girls and for myself from Facebook Marketplace.
  • Even a last-minute need for a pair of tap toes was satisfied by an online reseller site, where I was able to buy tap shoes that look brand new for half the price (including shipping).
  • I’ve been checking the local thrift store for jeans for my toddlers; I haven’t found them yet. But since we still have time before I enroll them in school again (after this whole Covid thing), I’ll keep looking.

Toys & Books

Seriously, I cannot understand why it took me until my older daughter’s fourth Christmas to realize that I should be looking for second-hand toys for their gifts. That’s my new go-to plan for toys. But I reallymade out well for Christmas, when I found: 

  • A used, unboxed Hungry Hungry Hippo game for $5.  I couldn’t find it for cheaper than $20 new. And boxes don’t hold up well with toddlers, anyway! 
  • A used v-tech drum set off marketplace. It didn’t come with the drum sticks, but since it was only 25% of the cost of a new version, I just ordered some drum sticks and STILL saved over 50%.  It was a steal. And my kids LOVE the drum set.
  • I have been homeschooling my pre-school toddlers the past year. I try to do a wide variety of activities, but I haven’t entirely abandoned all worksheets. It’s helpful for them to be able to see, find, trace, color, etc. the letters on paper.  But that means I have to buy or print worksheets. But I feel a lot less guilty about buying worksheets when I can find them at the thrift store! I made out like a bandit the last time I went. I paid 10 cents a book an came home with amazing letter and number workbooks.

Household Items

You can get some pretty inexpensive household items these days, if you don’t mind cheap plastic. But since I am avoiding cheap plastic and trying to go second-hand, I’ve been finding some useful household items at the local thrift store.

  • As my plastic bowls wear out, I’ve been replacing them with glass bowls. And recently, I went one better by getting a Pyrex bowl in a perfect size for $3. Win! 
  • A used v-tech drum set off marketplace. It didn’t come with the drum sticks, but since it was only 25% of the cost of a new version, I just ordered some drum sticks and STILL paid half the price. 

Making Second-Hand Mainstream

Buying second-hand definitely has a stigma.  It used to be worse than it is today, but the stigma remains– especially if you’re not wealthy and thrifting just for fun. But the reality is that if we want everyone to consider a more conscious consumerism that extends the life of products through reusing, repurposing, refurnishing, and repairing second-hand items, we need to normalize the behavior.  Luckily, we don’t need to convince everyone. According to Psychology Today, we only need to get about 25% of the population to start making an effort to shop more sustainably and the social norms around consumerism will begin changing (Centola, 2019).  But how do we change the mindset of 25%?  That number can still seem overwhelming. However, if each of us focuses on changing our own behaviors and influencing those in our own immediate sphere of influence, we CAN mainstream a more sustainable way of consuming goods.  Don’t worry about reaching 25%.  Worry about doing the best you can do.  And model the way for others by sharing the choices you’re making.  You’re not bragging; you are showing people that second-hand shopping is nothing to be ashamed of.  So, share your thrift store finds.  Post about your trip to the flea market.  Talk about going yard sale hopping.  Be the spark that sets this movement aflame! 

References:

Bryan, B. J. (2003). Relationships in the Age of Consumerism [PDF]. The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University. https://www.baylor.edu/ifl/christianreflection/ConsumerismarticleBryan.pdf

Centola, D. (2019, May 28). The 25 Percent tipping point for social change. Retrieved March 05, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/how-behavior-spreads/201905/the-25-percent-tipping-point-social-change

Dickinson Jr., W. B. (1965). Personal debt in a consumer economy. Editorial research reports 1965 (Vol. II). http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre1965111000

Global Challenges. (n.d.). Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/planet-earth/state-of-the-planet/number-of-consumers/story

Higgs, K. (2021, January 23). The making of our consumer culture. Retrieved March 05, 2021, from https://qz.com/1955595/consumer-culture-a-brief-history/

 Lupica, L. R. (2008). The consumer debt crisis and the reinforcement of class position. Loy. U. Chi. LJ40, 557. https://lawecommons.luc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1099&context=luclj

Negatives of Consumerism. (n.d.). Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://www.historycrunch.com/consumerism-negatives.html#/

Jacobs, S. (2016, February 24). Consumerism plays a huge role in climate change. Retrieved March 02, 2021, from https://grist.org/living/consumerism-plays-a-huge-role-in-climate-change/

Sarita, N. (2020, February 14). Why it’s time to start talking about consumption equality. Retrieved March 04, 2021, from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/02/consumption-equality-wealth-equality-fair-society/

The negative effects of consumerism. (2020, December 29). Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://greentumble.com/the-negative-effects-of-consumerism/

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