Let’s Make Secondhand Giving the New Norm

Reader Contribution by Carrie Williams Howe
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Did you know that American’s spend over $1 trillion dollars on holiday gifts every year?  According to the World Economic Forum, over $150 billion of that spending will be spent at large online retail stores.

And here’s the thing – while some of those gifts will be exactly what the recipient wants and needs, many of them will languish in a closet or be “re-gifted” or even worse – thrown out. Even if that gift was exactly what the recipient wanted or needed, there is a pretty good chance someone else had that item in fairly good condition and wasn’t using it anymore.

Instead of continually demanding NEW items from huge retailers, why not shift our focus for the holidays to reducing, reusing, and re-purposing? In other words, let’s make secondhand gift giving the new norm!

And before you ask – I also LOVE homemade and handmade gifts from small local artisans and craftspeople. Keep that on your gift-giving list, too!

Secondhand Gifts Save you Money

Let us start with the most obvious reason to buy secondhand gifts – saving money. The same article cited above from the World Economic Forum found that people are willing to go into debt to find the perfect gift for someone. Parents spend more than they can afford on their children, wanting them to have the perfect Christmas. Individuals who are under-employed and can barely make ends meet feel pressure to choose between gifts and groceries. Rampant consumerism reigns and most people are not better off.

This doesn’t have to be the case. There are so many options for giving that do not include spending more money than is reasonable for you to afford. Homemade gifts, gifts of time, and – yes – secondhand gifts all fit in that category.

This Christmas I spent less than $20 on gifts for my parents – but the gifts themselves were “like new” items from well-known brands that would have cost about $200 if purchased new. It took more of my time to find the perfect second-hand gift, for sure, but that is part of the gift. We combined those items with homemade ornaments from the kids and homemade beeswax lip balm for a package that is decidedly personal and cost less than $25.

Secondhand Gifts Require Fewer Resources

From a sustainability standpoint the production of new STUFF (whether it be electronics, clothes, or items for the household) has a negative impact on the environment. The production of those goods uses natural resources, materials, and fossil fuels that could be saved if we kept an item in circulation instead of demanding a new one.

Have you heard the statistic that it takes 1,800 gallons of water to make just one pair of jeans?  And ye, there are thousands of jeans at your local thrift store or online that have already been made and worn (maybe) and are in perfectly good if not new shape. Why use another 1,800 gallons of water if you can re-use a pair that was already made?  This same example can be extended to millions of other products – the paper needed to make new books vs. shopping at a used bookstore; the metal fabricated and the factory time used to make a new video game when perfectly good used ones line the shelve at every gaming store. I get that there are times you want to buy something new (I tend to prefer new computers with service warantees because I use mine all day), but most of the came new is not necessary. 

Secondhand Gifts Decreases Waste

Keeping items in circulation rather than demanding new ones saves precious resources and lessens your negative impact on the environment, but buying secondhand can also be part of an effective Zero Waste strategy. If we stick with the example of clothing, the EPA estimates that 11.3 million tons of textiles ended up in landfills in 2018. If we could keep just half of those items in circulation rather than throwing them away, we would decrease the total amount of trash by 4 or 5% a year.

Decreasing waste is a complicated and complex science, but every time we buy a used item instead of a new one we are increasing demand for recycled items and decreasing demand for new items. Why shouldn’t gift-buying be part of that equation?

If the recipient of your gift cares about the environment, you can include a note in your gift about how their gift helped reduce waste!

Buying Secondhand Gifts Supports Small, Local, and Independent Sellers (More Often)

The re-use industry in the US has been booming lately – there are 50 million active users of Poshmark, an online forum for buying and selling used clothing, home goods, and toys. Likewise, sites like Facebook Marketplace have begun to outpace Craigslist as more and more people look to buy goods from each other instead of purchasing new. When you buy items on these platforms, you may see a portion of your payment go to a large umbrella company, but a significant portion also goes to an individual who is re-selling that item. You might be helping that person to pay off their student loans, build up an emergency account, or fill in the gap when they are underemployed – or you may be helping them to afford gifts for their family and friends!

Secondhand stores are also doing strong business in many communities, and many of those stores benefit good causes. In my town alone we have one re-use store that benefits Habitat for Humanity, one that focuses on job creation for at-risk youth (a local nonprofit), and multiple church and hospital thrift shops. We also have multiple locally-owned secondhand stores in my community. These shops are small businesses owned by our neighbors and friends. When we shop at these locally-owned or nonprofit stores, we are making a financial investment in our community. Our funds circulate within our community to help keep us vibrant and take care of each other.

Granted, not all second-hand stores are owned by local neighbors, but buying high quality second-hand is still a better choice than buying from a large discount store that doesn’t treat employees well and likely sells cheaper quality items that you’ll need to replace sooner (see my previous point about waste).

Because New-to-You is Just as Good as New (Especially for Kids!)

Ok, so here’s the bottom line. People often get rid of things before they have lived a full life of use. If you are already a thrift shopper you know what I mean. For many different reasons, people donate or sell items that look just like new or have a ton of life left. Maybe they gained or lost weight, a child grew out of a toy, or they realized they just don’t use that ice cream maker anymore. But that old saying, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure” is true. In fact, I’m in the market for an ice cream maker right now and I’d be CRAZY to buy a new one with the number available from resellers!

This is especially true when it comes to kids. All that matters is that the toy works and it is NEW TO THEM. This year, we traded a building set for a dollhouse and – voila – each kid had an awesome new toy. And we’ll be putting that dollhouse under the tree. Because it is beautiful, vintage, and our daughter will love it. Who cares if it has likely been through 3 families – that’s the joy of it. We’ll be making a table for her to display it in her room, and various family members have purchased little treats to furnish it. The thought put into the gift, and how much the recipient will love it, is the whole point.

Will you join us in adding secondhand gift giving to your routine?  Do you already do it?  We’d love to hear about some of your favorite secondhand gifts!  Let’s inspire each other to waste less, spend less, and focus more on thoughtful gifts that keep on giving.


Carrie Williams Howe is a blogger aThe Happy Hive Homestead and Founder of Homestead How-To.  She works at a nonprofit by day, and is a parent and aspiring homesteader on nights and weekends. She lives in Williston, Vt., with her husband, two young children, and a rambunctious border collie. Carrie has a PhD in educational leadership and is passionate about lifelong learning. Connect with Carrie on The Happy Hive Facebook page. Read all of Carrie’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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