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There is an environmental impact each time you hit 'buy now.' Here's an alternative

The holiday shopping season doesn't have to be unsustainable.
Sean Gallup
Getty Images
The holiday shopping season doesn't have to be unsustainable.

Buying stuff is a part of America's DNA.

It's a tradition that really took off near the end of World War II, when the economy was thriving and the market exploded with products Americans didn't even know they wanted.

And even in an economy rocked by a pandemic, buying is on track to exceed 2020 levels this holiday season. The result of all that spending means consumption drives 70% of our country's GDP, but it's also driving very real environmental issues.

Let's break down what the environmental cost can be, and whether it's possible to limit the damage.

Counting the cost beyond our bank accounts

The true environmental cost of a product can't be summed up just by looking at the physical material.

You have to take into account the entire system in place that brings that product to you, from manufacturing to packaging to shipping and transportation.

"You name [an environmental problem], consumerism drives it," says journalist J.B. MacKinnon, who wrote The Day the World Stops Shopping, How Ending Consumerism Saves the Environment and Ourselves.

Mackinnon cites deforestation, toxic pollution, climate change, and the extinction of species as just a few of the myriad problems tied to our consumption.

Cargo ships can cause major disruptions for sea life and threaten endangered species.
David McNew / Getty Images
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Cargo ships can cause major disruptions for sea life and threaten endangered species.

And, he adds, the environmental impact of consumer culture can take shape in surprising ways. Mackinnon gives the example of how endangered North Atlantic right whales are killed after being struck by cargo ships carrying consumer goods.

"One whale conservationist said to me, every time you hit that 'buy now' button on Amazon, you're helping power up the ships that are running down endangered whales off the east coast of the United States," Mackinnon said.

Companies have a role to play too

The reality is that consumer goods are integral to the economy, but it is possible for companies to continue to sell products without exacerbating to the cycle of overproduction and overconsumption, Mackinnon says.

He says apparel brands like Levi's and Patagonia have adopted more sustainable business models.

"Both of those companies are moving towards models where they will be making the sale of new products a smaller part of their model and the sale of recouping and reselling secondhand their own products a larger part of their model, as well as the repair and maintenance and alteration of their products as part of their income stream as well."

By implementing a system to repair, refurbish, and resell products for customers, these companies are able to extend the longevity of their goods, while simultaneously drawing in revenue to keep the economy going.

The benefits of buying secondhand

Independent journalist Annaliese Griffin made it her personal mission to only to buy secondhand gifts, writing about the commitment in a recent New York Times op-ed titled How To Buy Nothing New This Holiday Season.

For Griffin, buying the hottest new thing for her family felt predictable and unsatisfying.

"To not have that sort of element of surprise and delight just felt like it was counter to the whole point of getting gifts," she said.

Thrift shops and online secondhand retailers offer a trove a special and sustainable gifts.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Getty Images
Thrift shops and online secondhand retailers offer a trove a special and sustainable gifts.

This does not mean Griffin intends to shortchange her family this holiday season. Rather, she says that the practice has resulted in more thoughtful and meaningful gifts for her family.

She and her husband regularly peruse the local thrift shop, keeping an eye out for something that resonates in some way as a special token of affection.

Griffin also recommends online resale sites, like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, as great places to find people's relinquished treasures.

Going the secondhand route can also greatly reduce the carbon footprint of your seasonal shopping haul, since these items typically don't need to travel far to get to you.

And if you need any more inspiration, Griffin also notes that buying secondhand gifts can help keep the holidays on budget.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Levitt