The Importance of a Holiday: New Ideas, New Semester

In the last couple of years I’ve come to understand what my dad meant when he correlated holiday days to a specific loss of income. He’s self-employed and works 7 days a week (my work ethic looks positively lax next to him), so to him, time off costs. This feeling has been passed onto me since I’ve started doing freelance work and initiates a sense of panic if I foresee more than a couple of days when I won’t be able to blog. Last September was the last time I took a full week off and it was beautiful although I forgot how amazing it actually was until last week when I also took time off and went away. I’ll put my hands up, I still did a couple of blogs and tended to emails once or twice, but from my PhD at least, I took time off and had a whole 11 days out of the office.

I went home to Sussex for a couple of days, travelled up to Norfolk to see family for five days, came back down to London to rave at South West Four over the bank holiday weekend and took a day trip to Ipswich on Tuesday. Apart from the fact that I bought an Anthology of Human Geography in Norwich’s Oxfam bookshop, I didn’t think about PhD work at all. I did however think about fashion stuff a lot. My Norfolk reading, travelling up in the back of a 1987 camper van, was the September issue of Elle so I had much time to consider my perennial dilemma of fashion and ethics and I reformulated plans in my head for new projects – how I think we should be shopping. I found a great second-hand clothes shop specialising in kid’s clothes in Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast called Once Upon a Time. Interestingly they made a point about marketing with the slogan ‘choose to recycle’. A little chat with them all fed into my plans . . .

Anyway, I have a PhD to do first! The weeks prior to my holiday were if not stressful, then at least busy; writing my final proposal and trying to get my ethics cleared before people went on holiday in August so that I can start the field work. I’m now 14 months into the PhD and on track for data collection in second year, analysis and write up in third year. Literature review is written up, methodology chapter is coming along nicely; I’m where I want to be. Now I’m back it feels like the start of a new year and everyone is indeed gearing up for the new semester with the new intake of PhD candidates arriving in three weeks’ time. My data collection should start next month, if my ethics is cleared in time. September to January will involve ethnographic observation and interviewing – finally I can get out and start talking to people.

For the new academic year, I want to work consistently and efficiently (who doesn’t). Looking back to last winter there were many days when I just didn’t stop, and my eyes ached for days on end. Eye-whitening drops became my friend. I don’t want to work at weekends, you need that time to switch off. I’m blogging half as much now as I was six months ago, so I should be able to do it in the evenings and still not disrupt PhD time. This is the plan.

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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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Green Economics Institute (GEI) Conference 2012

The 7th annual Green Economics Institute Conference took place in Oxford last week and I went along having been roped into presenting a paper by my cousin, and Cass Business School PhD candidate, Ben Armstrong-Haworth. Green Economics is one of the fastest growing global movements for change which has been taken up by many governments and NGOs. Although the term environmental economics has been used in academic writings since the seventies, green economics as a more holistic principle is far more recent and really owes its existence to Miriam Kennet and the GEI.

Now I would certainly never have considered myself an economist; I’m barely a geographer, but I do love a bit of ‘green’ debate and I do believe there is a better way of doing things if we are to thrive in the future. Far from feeling out of my depth, as I feared I would, the conference was stimulating, positive and progressive. More than 60 international speakers from a wealth of backgrounds including academic and non-academic careers, presented over three days.

Green economics is pushing mainstream economics to become more interdisciplinary, reclaiming economics from the purely quantitative mood of measurement that it is traditionally known for. It builds on insights from environmental and ecological economics, feminist theory, welfare economics, development economics, post-structuralism and post-Keynesian ideas to produce a more holistic way of looking at development and prosperity. Presentations and workshops included ‘Textiles and Sweatshops, Taming the Corporations’, ‘Global and Ethical Investment Advice’, ‘Greening the Rhetoric of Economics’ and ‘Renewable Energy Policies’. They even had the deputy director of the ESRC speaking about funding opportunities, proof that major research organisations are prepared to support research with a sustainable agenda.

Compared to some sustainability based conferences I have been to, the focus was more on pragmatic solutions rather than abstract philosophical calls for change. I presented my work on second-hand retail as ‘Second-hand Cultures: Trade, Economy and Environment’ and had a great response from the audience. I ended up with an hour to fill, and fill it we did with helpful comment and discussion. I’m lucky in that sense that my research is something everyone can relate to and regularly attracts anecdotes – “my sister has a second-hand shop”, “I make my own clothes”. We are all consumers after all.

I would fully recommend attending the conference next year if you are interested in any element of sustainability and economics. The one thing it lacked were young people, which is a shame seeing as we’re the ones who really need to jump on board and take these ideas forward.

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Culture of Online Trading of Used Goods: Study of eBay Germany

One of the sessions at the Sustainable Consumption Conference was focused on the culture of second hand trading and in particular a study on the buyers and sellers using eBay Germany. This was particularly relevant for me considering that my PhD is based on second-hand retail culture. Online trading of second-hand goods on auction sites and online marketplaces can significantly increase the life span of a product, thus acting as a key means of sustainable consumption.

In the selected study the environmental impact of private online trading of used goods is quantified by a social-ecological approach with three core elements (some of which I will discuss here):

1. analysis of primary, secondary and tertiary environmental impacts on the layer of single products and society,

2. interviews with eBay users to broach the issue of trading of used goods, and

3. undertaking an environmental life cycle assessment (LCA).

Overall, it was found that buying and selling used goods online is rarely linked to ecological motives, but there are more pragmatic reasons for taking part in this type of exchange such as making space and generating income. To date, the positive environmental effects caused by online marketplaces are unintended side effects.  

‘Auction culture’, described by the researchers is a relatively new phenomenon which emerged from the year 2000 onwards. It (arguably) has begun to replace the dominant ‘throwaway society’ of the 1980s-90s and the ‘culture of accumulation’ 1950s-60s. Sales on eBay are approximately half new products and half used. The researchers conducted two online surveys of private sellers and interviews with different demographics.

They found a highly positive attitude towards conserving the environment but a low awareness of the positive relationship between online trading of used goods and environmental health. Women showed a higher level of environmentally friendly behaviour but there was no statistical difference in motives or attitudes in relation to age, education or income.

Five modes of consumption were identified:

  1. Price orientated used goods buyers (20%)
  2. Used goods sceptics (20%)
  3. Environmentally orientated buyers (22%)
  4. Online buyers (15%)
  5. Prosumers (23%)

You can read more about each type in the paper referenced at the end. ‘Prosumer’ is a term coined by Alvin W. Toffler in 1980 to describe consumers that have a strong orientation towards reselling. Prosumers will buy and sell regularly on eBay but not be professional traders.

I imagine that the results of this study are very typical to eBay users across the Western world and not confined just to eBay Germany. It is of no surprise that environmental motives are low on the list for eBay users however, if they are using eBay to trade used goods anyway, does it matter what their motives for such practice are? I think future studies are best focused on the consumers who are not currently trading in their used goods, because prolonging the lifecycle of all objects has to be a priority.

Further reading:

Blättel-Mink , B. et al. 2010. Contribution of Online Trading of Used Goods to Resource Efficiency: An Empirical Study of eBay Users. Sustainability, 2

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