Second-hand Retail for the Green Economy

Last week I presented my research and ideas on second-hand retail at the Annual Green Economics Conference in Oxford. I have always looked at second-hand consumption from a sustainability perspective, but until Ben Armstrong-Haworth suggested I speak at the conference, I had not thought about my research on the wider scale of green economics.

Throughout history, reusing and making-do has been the primary way of life. Second-hand trade was the primary form of trade for material things, and much of what was consumed in the home was also produced in the home. It was at the time of the Industrial Revolution that a binary way of thinking emerged between production and consumption; suddenly mass production allowed society to move into a material culture and ‘new’ things became the norm.

As consumers we receive many conflicting messages – spend money and consume to help us out of the recession, consume ethically and recycle for the good of the planet. Recycling has been pushed forward as one of the ways towards a sustainable economy, but the argument I made during my talk was that direct reuse should be prioritised as the primary form of consumption. Although recycling is beneficial, direct reuse sees more benefits gleaned as the process of recycling requires further input of energy and materials, whilst direct reuse, apart from the transportation footprint, does not. Reuse should be the primary consumption method for a greener economy with the aim of minimizing the number of transformations, reducing the speed of resource flow through the economy. Of course trade of second-hand products may or may not involve exchange of money, but in the case of charity shops, eBay, car boot sales and nearly new sales it does involve exchange of money and is therefore adding to our economy.

For optimum reuse value, consumers need to prioritise quality over quantity, and manufacturers need to make things to last. There is growing awareness of the built in obsolescence of products, a manufacturing trait which is simply unacceptable. We all know the scenario – cheaper to buy new than to replace small parts. Understandably, companies want to make money, and due to such strong competition on the market, they need to make money. The only way to change things is either enforced regulation from government, or increased consumer pressure – I would suggest both.

With this in mind, these are some of my recommendations and key arguments, based on the literature.
• Reuse should be prioritised over recycle
• Manufacturers must be more responsible regarding long-life product design. Enforced regulation (difficult on global scale)
• Encourage loan rather than purchase of large electrical items
• Encourage continuation of fashion for vintage and antique pieces
• Regulate advertising that depicts pleasure gained from consumer culture (like that enforced for UK alcohol advertising)

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