This Gift-Giving Season, Think Circular

Thanks to the holidays, this tends to be the “buy more stuff” time of year. And not just any stuff, but mainly new stuff. The production, packaging and shipping of that new stuff produces carbon emissions that are contributing to the climate crisis. And the new stuff turns to old stuff, a lot of which ends up in landfills.

Let’s take textiles as one example. According to the EPA, 17 million tons of textiles were produced in the US in 2017. That same year, 2.6 million tons were recycled and landfills received 11 million tons, which accounted for 8% of all the municipal solid waste that was sent to landfills. 

But what about used stuff? It turns out it’s kind of trendy right now. The great thing about resale is that you’re 1) diverting things from landfills and 2) not “spending” more emissions by creating something new.

Will buying second-hand things solve the climate crisis? Sadly, no. But not adding carbon emissions is better than adding them, so I believe that breaking our cycle of over-consumption IS one part of solving the problem. 

How can large-scale change happen?

If you’re not familiar with the term “circular economy,” then get comfy and read on because it’s super-cool. What I love about it is that it lays out a new normal where economic progress and protecting the environment can not just coexist, but thrive together.

The concept is pretty simple. The circular economy eliminates the idea of waste and says everything has value. Our existing system of consumption is linear, rather than circular, and it creates a massive disconnect between consumption and its consequences. The Macarthur Foundation has a good explainer if you want to dive in. 

There are investment firms that are funding startups focused on the circular economy, big consulting firms are pitching companies on why they need circular economy strategies, and Google published a manifesto earlier this year on how they will become a “Circular Google.” 

So is all of this investment and focus by companies actually changing anything? Are buying habits changing?

Signs are the answer is yes.

REI cemented themselves as a leader in the sustainability world with its successful #OptOutside campaign in 2015. It aimed to get people outside the day after Thanksgiving instead of chasing Black Friday deals. This year REI took another big step by announcing a major expansion of rentals and used gear

Peter Whitcomb, REI’s Director of New Business Development, told the Sierra Club, “We envision a model 10 to 20 years from now where the majority of transactions will be circular. It matches a consumer shift we’re seeing, particularly in younger generations—they’re seeking access over ownership.”

Other brands leading the way with “upcycled” clothing are Eileen Fisher, which has been taking back clothes for 10 years and has added a new, high-end “Resewn Collection,” where it makes entirely new pieces from old clothes that can’t be resold. And Patagonia has something similar. 

Interestingly, a single company called Yerdle — a “re-commerce” platform — powers the used goods sections of REI, Eileen Fisher and Patagonia.

ThredUp, a resale marketplace for all brands, has a great in-depth (but admittedly self-serving) look at the business of resale, and it predicts that the secondhand apparel market will reach $51 billion in 2023. Resale is finally reaching into the luxury market too. In fact, TheRealReal, a high-end online marketplace, now has a store on Madison Ave. 

The rental business is also expanding. Rent the Runway made it normal to wear used things, and IKEA is testing furniture rental in 30 countries.

All of this adds up to more than just empty marketing messages. It’s a real shift, and it seems to be driven by millennials and Gen Z, which gives me hope that real change can happen.

What can you do this week to have an impact?

I don’t recommend cancelling Christmas or Hanukkah because you’re trying to save the planet and humanity. Instead, my suggestion is that you do two things:

  1. Feel OK about giving less stuff. That could mean making donations in people’s honor, making them things, or buying them experiences (hopefully ones without a huge carbon footprint!) or classes instead of things.

  2. When you do buy something, look for a second-hand option. My daughter is getting a new bike, for example, and we decided to only look at used ones. Everyone knows about eBay, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, but here are some other places to look for used gifts:

Other interesting things I’ve read recently relating to the climate crisis:

Please pass along your feedback on this week’s newsletter and ask your friends to sign up.  Has anything inspired you to make changes in your daily routine? What future topics would you like to see broken down?