I’m Not As Cool As I Thought I Was Last Week

It’s true - my coolness has been completely botched.

I’ve always loved shopping at thrift stores. I’ve purchased a few new things in my life, however the main focus has always been on second-hand. I love finding that diamond in the rough, and you can’t beat the price. Most importantly though, I’ve always seen it as an under-acknowledged form of recycling and I feel good knowing I’m not contributing to new clothes being made.

Unfortunately, the cloud of perfection I was floating on regarding my shopping habits took a fall from grace the other day when I realized that I may be recycling clothes, but I am just passing along the burden of buying new ones to someone else. Someone else is buying new so that I can score his old clothes, and as long as I am buying clothes at all I am contributing to the production of new ones.

I thought I was so much cooler - an elitist recycler to the max - and there I was, again, with my proverbial foot in my mouth (something I should probably get used to as a new parent).

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out Trevor Zink and Roland Geyer’s feature article in Stanford Social Innovation Review this spring. They introduce the concept of Net Green, or total environmental impact of business activities, and conclude what my dad has known for years running around in his flappy old speedo with zero elasticity - that the greenest product is the one that isn’t made.

As Zink and Geyer astutely point out, even activities perceived as green, such as purchasing fuel-efficient cars, often have unintended side effects like more total miles being driven. The good news is that, thanks to close observers like the Norwegians, who banned the words “green”, “clean” and “environmentally-friendly” from describing cars in 2007 (and will also ban all cars from the country’s capital by 2019), myths about green products are beginning to be publicly debunked.

Advertising is incredibly powerful. In its modern form it began in the 18th century, though we know that its core idea - spreading a tailored message to influence an action - far predates the industrial revolution. People have been capitalizing on our deepest fears - rejection, abandonment, death - to garner support since biblical times. It’s really quite a grand theft that happens under our very noses, at a subconscious level.

Today we are all set up to learn, from birth, that we “need” a whole host of manufactured products that really live far, far away from the realm of real need.

In order to regain my coolness I’ve decided I must regain my (self-appointed) elitist status. To do that I have to change my title. From now on, I’m going to be Elitist Reducer.

Yeah - remember that old Reduce, Reuse, Recycle campaign? Well it turns out they were really onto something. Notice how recycling is the last action on the list. That means if all else fails and you have to buy something, at least do your best to recycle it. But the focus needs to remain on reducing what we buy and reusing what we have.

This of course drives product manufacturers nuts, especially the ones who make “green” or “environmentally-friendly” products. They don’t actually want us to reduce what we buy or reuse what we have at all. They want us to stay invested in updating our style and refreshing our wardrobe.

If you’ve ever traveled to a developing country or cruised by a homeless camp you’ll see a whole different style going on, and its not the boyfriend pant or a baggy sweater over yoga tights. It’s the t-shirts from the losing superbowl team and defective mass retail clothing. Unfortunately, millions of new, unsold clothes don’t even make it to a person - instead they hit industrial-sized shredders and box-cutters in a cruel and ugly act to control market demand.

The truth is that as long as we buy into the idea that we need new clothes (second-hand clothes are still “new” to the buyer) we’re not changing the American product manufacturing landscape an inch. And for all of us shopping at thrift stores, we’re just shifting the responsibility - and therefore the awareness - to another buyer.

How many times have you actually worn through your shoes before buying new ones? How many clothes do you have that are from >20 years ago?

Instead of buying organic cotton or the latest shoe with a sole made from bonsai trees and basketballs, ask yourself if you really need the thing. Or even better, trade with a friend.


I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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