The extent to which my community embraces secondhand goods may be unusual, but according to Goodwill International, which has more than 3,300 stores across the United States and Canada, sales for the period from March through August of 2021 were up more than 11 percent from the same period in 2019. The online reseller ThredUp cites research projecting that the market for secondhand clothing in the United States will double over the next five years, hitting $77 billion.
All of this is good news for the planet: It reduces somewhat the movement of stuff from one side of the world to the other and the extraction of natural resources required to produce new earrings and toy cars and jigsaw puzzles. It also saves some items from landfills while they can still offer some utility or joy. But I know it won’t solve our environmental crises — we need much more sweeping changes led by large companies and governments.
Nor does it get at the root of what drives consumer culture. Swapping new for used doesn’t actually reduce the drive to consume, J.B. MacKinnon, the author of “The Day the World Stops Shopping: How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves,” told me. “If we maintain the consumer mind-set, we will always eventually be coming back to the same problem of just consuming too much energy and too many resources, through whatever form of consumption we do, even if it’s circular or sharing,” Mr. MacKinnon said.
I love Mr. MacKinnon’s suggestion that time spent together in conversation, on a walk or preparing a meal is far more meaningful than anything you can unwrap. And I agree that the ritual handing over of purchased stuff while posing in matching family pajamas can actually get in the way of the human connection most of us are seeking over the holidays.
But realistically, I’m not sure my family will ever forgo holiday gift-giving entirely. My mom’s annual Yankee swap exchange — you might know it as a “white elephant” gift party — is a real highlight of the season. We can, however, make some changes. In his book, Mr. MacKinnon suggests that even gradually reducing our household consumption could help the environment, without bringing the global economy to a screeching halt.
For me, finding ways to replace new with used feels more like a treasure hunt than an obligation. Seeking out and sharing things reminds me that I live in a place of abundance and makes me feel connected to others. Last year in December, a local mom set up two long tables on her front porch and invited other parents to drop off small toys, books, hats, mittens — anything that might make a good stocking stuffer. I came with a bag full of toy cars, plastic animals, board books and stickers, things that my kids had lost interest in or ignored. I left with a bag that, frankly, wasn’t that different, but it was new to us and better reflected their current interests.
It saved me probably $50, but it was a useful reminder that our stuff isn’t our identity. The plastic snakes and wooden blocks I’ve been sweeping out from under the couch don’t have to be mine to deal with forever. I have a community to share them with, one that I’m incredibly grateful to be part of.
This year, maybe I’ll offer to set up the swap table myself.