Introducing a Year of UnNew
When I first floated this idea by my husband—going a whole year without buying anything new—he was skeptical. What if this needs to be replaced, or what about that object we’ve been wanting to buy? The innumerable possible scenarios that might tempt (or require) us to veer from “a year of unnew” stormed Jordan’s brain and poured out his mouth. But, but, but…
...so what? I said. That’s the whole point. It’s an adventure. We’ll figure out how to navigate these uncharted waters as we go, and I’ll document our moves throughout the fray. I wasn’t even sure it would be possible. Going a whole year without buying anything new? What did that even mean? I told Jordan we’d approach this goal like we approached the rest of our life: taking each scenario as it comes, one at a time, and making the best decisions we can given the options at hand.
But where to start?
The idea for this journey into second-ownership—and for bringing Jordan along with me—wasn’t a sudden epiphany of our values, or a gimmicky new year’s goal. My conviction (and eventual commitment) was the product of a slow simmer. A distillation of information. After more than three years of interviewing environmental experts and facilitating conversations around sustainability as a newspaper reporter, I’d been absorbing the same message over and over again, just worded in different ways. Want to help “save” the planet? BUY. LESS. STUFF.
For some of us, buying goods second-hand is a necessity of circumstance. For others, it’s a lifestyle choice. The pandemic environment of 2020 made this distinction between necessity and choice starker than ever—and, as I looked through the lenses of my privilege, I saw my own ability to choose crystallize. There is power in choice, and becoming a full-on participant in the second-hand market started to feel like an opportunity to use this power for good. I love the wild spaces on our planet more than anything, and after a summer of severe drought and forest fires, a global pandemic, and measly start to the winter, I feel more motivated than ever to steward a better, brighter future. We vote with each dollar we spend, and with our actions we influence those around us. We need stuff, yes, but do we need new stuff? I didn’t think so—and I wanted to walk the walk, but first I had to convince the other member of my household, Jordan, to get on board.
So, I presented him with some facts.
- Landfills are… bad. Well, they’re as good as the shit we put in them. Prone to leaking toxic materials and emitting carbon dioxide from various decomposing materials, landfills are taking up an increasing amount of space, not only in the U.S. but across the planet. The science site HowStuffWorks predicts the amount of trash the U.S. will generate in the next 100 years and compares it to the Great Pyramid in Egypt, a structure 756 feet by 756 feet at the base and 481 feet tall. If we piled all the trash in the shape of the Great Pyramid, the mass “would be about 32 times bigger.” This trash pyramid would stretch 4.5 miles by 4.5 miles across the base, and rise almost 3 miles high! Where are we going to put all that trash? Outsource its storage to other countries? Zooming in on just the apparel industry, did you know 64% of the 32 billion garments a year end up in the trash? (According to a 2020 analysis by Green Story Inc.) In becoming second-hand owners, we’ll help keep things out of the landfill.
- The manufacturing process of most “things” emits carbon into the atmosphere and takes valuable water from the earth. We’re not big fashion people (team functional over here), but we do wear clothes every. single. day. And the amount of carbon the textile industry emits is staggering. For one pair of jeans? As many as 75 pounds of carbon dioxide are released into the air! The amount of water needed is similarly heartbreaking: a new t-shirt can take more than 675 gallons of water to produce. Buying products from previous owners, rather than buying new products, will reduce our personal carbon footprints and water use. I know taking two people out of the equation won’t change much on a global scale, but the truth stands: the more people buy second hand, the more demand will drop for manufactured virgin materials.
Jordan’s skepticism about a Year of Unnew was understandable. In the U.S. and must of the western hemisphere, from the moment we enter this world, we’re conditioned to embrace newness—to celebrate it, to crave it. As much as committing to an unnew lifestyle is a physical undertaking, it’s a mental one, too. I gave Jordan some space to think it over—all I wanted was a good-old promise to try—and as we counted down the days to 2021, he finally agreed. On Jan. 1 of the new year, we began our own year of unnew.
We decided on two basic rules to guide our year:
- Except for food and medical supplies, source everything we need in our life from a previous owner. Nothing new!
- Ideally, keep ownership local. Avoid shipping products when possible—an accessory motion to deepen the curb on our carbon footprint.
The fine print: If/when we have to buy something new, in the case of necessities/emergencies/etc. be cognizant of where and how we’re sourcing these items. Always strive to use our choices wisely.
I’m still not entirely sure how we’ll make it through the year, but armed with these guidelines and a growing, near-religious faith in the concept of unnew, I’m confident we’ll reach a place that’s better than where we’re at now, even if we don’t know exactly where, or how.
The idea is daunting, but now, more than ever before, I do think it’s possible. The secondhand market is rapidly expanding. Take Geartrade’s success as your first example, then look around to all the others: in the outdoor industry, more and more individual brands are creating opportunities for reselling previously owned goods. Ebay, a longtime resale powerhouse, keeps on growing. When the online clothing reseller Poshmark went public in January 2021, its stock more than doubled on its first day of trading. Says a pre-COVID article in Forbes, "Even as the retail industry has slumped, dragged down by disappointing earnings and an unending trade war, resale is exploding." A during-COVID article in Fortune reports the pandemic has likely accelerated the explosion: “The U.S. resale market for clothing—excluding what is sold at thrift stores like Goodwill—will go from $7 billion this year to $36 billion by 2024, the study drafted by research firm GlobalData for leading resale site ThredUp found. Its previous forecast had called for the market to hit $23 billion by 2023.”
In short, we might be standing at an inflection point. Stigmas are slowly eroding as more opportunities to buy and sell pre-loved things gain steam. It’s exciting, watching the seeds of a normalized second-hand economy firmly take root—this may be a game-changing moment in consumerist history, and I want a front row seat when it all blooms.
Have any questions about my Year of Unnew? Ask away in the comments below, or email us firstname.lastname@example.org I’d love to hear what you’d like to know about embarking on this journey.
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.