A Second-Hand Christmas? The Etiquette of Giving Second-Hand Gifts

Where did you do most of your Christmas shopping? Online? In a department store? Out-of-town shopping centre? Whilst doing your weekly supermarket shop? . . . . You haven’t started? Well you’d better get to it!

The fact is there are many consumption avenues for buying your Christmas presents but how do you feel about buying second-hand presents? My PhD research is about second-hand things; second-hand baby and children’s clothes, toys and equipment to be precise. I am currently immersed in the data collection phase, carrying out interviews, and have spoken to a number of parents who happily buy second-hand toys for their kids for Christmas. The feeling is that you don’t need to spend a lot to keep children happy and furthermore, many children get plenty of expensive gifts from extended family and friends. I myself have bought second-hand things as gifts before. It got me thinking then, what is the etiquette of second-hand gift giving?

Virtually any resource can be turned into a gift, as we have seen with the rise of gift day experiences, gift subscriptions and give a child the gift of reading with a camel library (check it out). When I talk about second-hand gifts I don’t mean recycling gifts, that’s something your own conscience will have to wrestle with. I’m talking about finding something in a charity shop, a church bric-a-brac stall, or on eBay and gifting it to a recipient. The interesting thing is, doing this no doubt says much more about the giver than the receiver.

There is a body of academic work on gift giving in the social sciences, indeed gift giving is a fundamental social system. Every single gift is tied up with expectations; we are expected to give, to receive and to reciprocate. Gifts can reflect social roles, reinforce or weaken social bonds, and be heavily inscribed with a signifier. As suggested by Sherry et al. (1983:159) ‘We give, receive and reject gifts strategically, thereby symbolically predicating identity’.

We often hear that it is better to give than to receive and we can all relate to the warm fuzzy feeling you get inside from making others happy, but gift giving can equally generate feelings of anxiety for the giver. This sense of anxiety comes not just from the thought of traipsing around the shopping mall on a Saturday in December, but from the worry that the recipient won’t like our gift or that it won’t elicit the desired reaction (Wooten 2000). In a sense, giving something that you have sourced second-hand can heighten this risk and anxiety, and is probably something we would only do if we knew the recipient well (or planned to palm off the present as bought new).

So why might I give or not give someone a second-hand present? You could say that giving a second-hand gift requires more of a time commitment and more thought. Half the fun of second-hand shopping is that you never know exactly what you’ll find where, and you have to search to find the treasure. Some people will never appreciate being given something second-hand, however much thought that goes into it, and there’s the risk of being considered ‘cheap’ although, of course, vintage and antique things can easily be particularly expensive but that it not really what I’m describing here. I could give a second-hand gift as a political, moral statement, and thinking about it maybe, just maybe, that is what I have done before. “I will force you to accept this second-hand present because it is morally right and see how ethical I am to not buy you something from a mass-marketed corporate store”.

Interesting don’t you think? In a consumer era when it is increasingly common to worry what to get the person who has everything, a second-hand book, jewellery or ornament could really be the most thoughtful gift of all.

Sherry, J. F., Jr. (1983). “Gift Giving in Anthropological Perspective.” Journal of Consumer Research 10(2): 157-168.
Wooten, D. B. (2000). “Qualitative Steps toward an Expanded Model of Anxiety in Gift‐Giving.” Journal of Consumer Research 27(1): 84-95.

Post to Twitter

Greenpeace and Textile Industry Pollution: The Dirty Laundry Case

Last week I ventured from the cosy walls of Geography and Environment over to the Management School at the University of Southampton. There, Dr Doris Merkl-Davis from Bangor University, presented a seminar on ‘Rhetoric and Argument in Corporate Social Responsibility Communications: The Dirty Laundry Case’. Merkl-Davis’ paper explored the use of rhetoric and argument between CSR communications using, as a case study, an existing conflict between Greenpeace and six textile organizations in the sportswear/fashion industry over wastewater discharge of hazardous chemicals.

The research is based on the ‘Dirty Laundry’ report published by Greenpeace in 2011. The report profiles the problem of toxic water pollution that results from the release of hazardous chemicals by the textile industry in China. This water pollution poses serious and immediate threats to both our ecosystems and to human health. Honing in on two manufacturing facilities in China, the scientific analysis of the samples found that both facilities were discharging a range of hazardous chemicals into the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas. These facilities, Greenpeace found, supplied a range of major brands, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Bauer Hockey, Calvin Klein, Converse, Cortefiel, H&M, Lacoste, Li Ning, Meters/bonwe, Nike, Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation (PVH Corp), Puma and Youngor.

Armed with their evidence, Greenpeace called on these brands to ensure that they do not continue to have commercial relationships with these suppliers. They said, “Brand owners are therefore the best placed to bring about change in the production of textiles and clothing – through their choices of suppliers, the design of their products and the control they can exert over the use of chemicals in the production process and the final product”. Six brands responded publically and all 14 eventually agreed to commit to the cause; Puma were the first to commit to eliminating hazardous chemicals by 2020, followed by Nike, G-Star Raw, Adidas, whilst H&M were last.

What interested me initially to the seminar was the Greenpeace/CSR/fashion story, but Merkl-Davis’ account of communications between the corporations and Greenpeace were equally fascinating. The speaker defined CSR not as ethical trade awareness or ethical engagement but simply as a form of persuasive communication. Using press releases from Greenpeace and six fashion/sportswear brands, Merkl-Davis’ concluded that Greenpeace were the winners, at least for now because they had succeeded in singing up all 14 brands to the cause. Is 2020 a target to be proud of however? And will the brands actually do what they say they will, after all signing up doesn’t necessarily lead to continued participation.

Greenpeace won, according to Merkl-Davis’, because they effectively mobilised their capital, adopted a clever use of language and knew how to mobilise their supporters and the media to the cause. The brands could do nothing less than sign the commitment, or they would look like the ‘bad guys’. Had then, Greenpeace won from the start? And did they only pick a battle they knew they could win? These were the questions we were left to ponder.

What can you do to help?

Legitimacy and accountability became a key topic of discussion in the seminar. The corporate brands, Merkl-Davis believes, are responsible for ethical sourcing. But what about the suppliers? And the Consumers? Even the Government?

Whatever demons you struggle with (or don’t) as a consumer, one simple thing you can do is to sign the Greenpeace Detox Fashion Manifesto
Click here to read the Dirty Laundry Report yourself.

Post to Twitter

Shopping Ethically on the High Street, is it Possible?

Speaking with one of my PhD peers the other day (she is studying labour standards in the clothing industry) we realised that although there are many ethical and sustainable fashion brands springing up, the main way to purchase them is online. Personally, I don’t have a problem with buying clothes online, but I understand that many people do. It doesn’t help that a lot of ethical items simply are more expensive than lower end High Street prices, making it a big commitment on the customer’s side, even if they can send it back (who has the time to faff with returns?) and with less well known fibres such as hemp, bamboo or organic cotton, how do they know what it is really going to feel like against their skin?

Discussing how to coax customers to take a risk, to buy online and buy from a brand they don’t know very well is a whole other essay. Niche, ethical, brick-and-mortar shops do exist; places like Eco Age in Chiswick and FAIR in Brighton, but I passionately believe that there should be a place on every High Street where you can be reassured all of the products sold are ethical. However, that will take some time so the best we can do is compromise.

There are lots of ways you can shop with a conscience on the High Street, in fact, as these big brands are unlikely to disappear in the near future (not collectively anyway, individual chains it seems are never safe) we need to support their ethical initiatives to encourage more of it. ‘Ethical Consumer’ compiled a list of their top 5 ethical High Street stores, these being Lush, Monsoon, M&S, The Co-operative and John Lewis. Now, none of these are the cheapest options on the High Street, nor are they the most expensive.

Lush tries to only use natural ingredients in its beauty products, doesn’t test on animals and supports various charitable campaigns. The Co-op provides allsorts from bank accounts to coffee. They were the first major retailer to champion Fairtrade in their grocery stores. M&S is worth supporting as much for their ‘Britishness’ as for their commitment to Plan A. They have taken considerable steps to help tackle climate change, to reduce waste, to support fair trade and to encourage healthy living. Monsoon sell beautiful clothes and came top of Ethical Consumer’s Clothes Shop Buyers Guide and Supply Chain rankings. They set up the Monsoon Accessorize Trust in 1994 to help improve the lives of disadvantaged women and children in Asia and they worked with Oxfam on an organic cotton project. John Lewis made the list for their partnership scheme as they are an employee owned business.

Many of the High Street chains offer organic or Fairtrade cotton at some time or another. H&M’s Conscience Collection, for instance, was a success with large stores featuring the organic cotton range in a feature window display. If you want to shop ethically on the High Street, you need to compromise and you need to work out what your priorities are. Is it fair trade or sustainable materials? Maybe you want to support independent boutiques; they might not stock ethical brands but it is a great way to support local business and avoid the huge chains.

I would really recommend Lucy Siegle’s book ‘To die for: Is fashion wearing out the world?’ for a comprehensive overview of the contemporary fast fashion dilemma. Drawing on her wealth of experience and people she has spoken to, I assure you it will make you think about the High Street in a different way.

Post to Twitter