Culture  Do thrift stores actually reduce waste?

Holly Dressel puts second-hand shopping doubts to rest

A question’s been bothering me lately: does second-hand shopping, at used-book and thrift stores, really reduce production and waste? So I called Holly Dressel, the environmental author and activist, to discuss the issue, figuring that since she sits on the board of Sierra Club Canada and has worked extensively with David Suzuki, she might be able to give me a straight answer. And she did: “Of course it does.”

She then went on to destroy my hypothesis that the recuperation of second-hand style by such stores, for example, as Urban Outfitters, means that thrift-store fashion only increases waste. She told me that it all goes back to the tripartite mantra of the environmentalist movement: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

The Suzuki-friend explained that we should reduce on two fronts: we should use what we have as much as possible, which means buying second-hand, and we should get used to living with less (clothes, possessions, travel, etc.), which will reduce production. The Earth, she told me, can’t take this anymore – we need to make fewer products and fewer babies, because our mineral resources aren’t going to grow back and our planet can’t sustain such reckless population growth.

As for recycling clothes, Dressel had some reassuring words for anyone anxious about their fashion being co-opted by manufacturers: “It’s not your fault if some capitalist fat-cat takes your style.” (Dressel did admit, however, that she has trouble getting good finds at thrift stores.) She was rather optimistic about clothing manufacturing, saying that the current financial crisis will strike that sector of the economy first, because people can more easily stop buying new clothes than they can stop buying food.

She was also enthusiastic about used-book stores; she told me she usually brings in as many books as she takes out when she shops at them. Book manufacturing, like other industries, will simply need to produce less – even if that means a certain number of jobs lost.

Dressel pointed out that a good way to make our society waste less is to waste less ourselves, thereby decreasing demand for overproduction. She told me that it practically makes her ill to throw away anything nowadays, and that she’d rather find a new use for an old thing than put it in the trash.

The underlying message of our conversation was that we need a steady-state economy, a situation where population growth and consumption have reached a sustainable plateau. To attain the steady state, we need to learn to live with less, she said. Other societies have done it before. We just can’t keep going like this.