When we hold onto things, we’re basically keeping those items…from being useful to someone else.
Bea Johnson
 If you can’t fix it, you don’t really own it.
Annie Leonard
…if you truly want to save the planet, there’s another way that might prove more environmentally friendly. It’s surprisingly easy, it’s remarkably cost-effective, and it’s this: do nothing.
Alex Robbins


When my car was declared a total loss in November 2015, I had to make my first independent vehicle purchase. Naturally, I asked many friends and family members for advice about the whole process. Some good, some bad, some ridiculous, some confusing… I received one piece of advice from multiple people: buy new. The reason was logical enough. I wouldn’t have to worry about unknown variables such as previous damage or wear affecting its performance. No matter how many people told me the same thing, I did not even consider a new car an option.

My first car was a 1984 Ford E-150–you know, the conversion van with the ladder rack, two gas tanks, curtains, and a back bench that folded into a bed? That van was also three years older than me. Early on, I was introduced to the idea of buying used or, for the purpose of this post, buying secondhand. I was also taught to take care of my possessions, repair them when possible, and use them for the duration of their lives rather than upgrade for no other purpose but the ability to do so.

I was never really faced with the decision to buy new or used. My mind was made up before I even totaled my car. I knew that I would never feel comfortable with buying a new car even if my finances could support it. Buying a new car promotes the extraction of natural resources to produce materials necessary to build it. This process is entirely unnecessary when there are hundreds of thousands of older vehicles perfectly capable of getting me from A to B. I never worried about reliability in a vehicle because 1) I did ample research before purchasing, 2) I have a good relationship with my mechanic, and 3) I have enough basic knowledge about vehicle maintenance to ask the right questions.

(For lingering questions about carbon footprints and vehicle purchases, consider Alex Robbins’s article in The Telegraph where he breaks it down for you: “you’d have to be driving an incredibly unreliable car for it to incur a similar amount of carbon dioxide in repairs to the production of a brand-new car.”)

This decision was easy when purchasing a used car. For some reason, the idea of buying secondhand does not always transfer into other aspects of my life. Every time you check out in a store, you’re taking a vote. You’re telling companies what you want, whether it’s bottled water, organic produce, new clothes, used tires, or plastic packaging. When you purchase an item, you’re telling companies that you agree with their practices and products. Despite knowing this for quite some time, I am in a serious need of amending my habits.

Three Secondhand Habits to implement, maintain, or amplify

1. Refuse to reduce, repair to reuse. In the reduce, reuse, recycle model, there are actually two R’s missing: Refuse and Repair. In order to reduce, we must learn to refuse. And prior to recycling, we must attempt to repair. I’ve always mended shirts, repaired instruments, and taken care of my vehicle. I’d like to amplify this habit to respect the cost of extraction, production, and distribution–a process which simply satisfies my consumption. I highly recommend The Story of Stuff podcast episode, “Fix it, don’t nix it.” And if nothing else, keep in mind Annie Leonard’s statement from the podcast: “If you can’t fix it, you don’t really own it.”

2. Be thrifty; vote for what matters. I buy brand-new clothes, electronics, and household items. There is no inherent problem with this. But I’m buying new before considering a thrift store or secondhand site (craigslist, eBay). When I purchase a brand-new sweater, camera, or crock pot, I am voting for their continuous production even though many items I’m looking for could be found secondhand. I’d like to implement a new habit to check the secondhand market before buying new (with the exceptions of items like underwear and food).

3. Put back into the world what you expect to get out of it. In a recent interview with Brooke McAlary, Bea Johnson said, “When we hold onto things, we’re basically keeping those items…from being useful to someone else. And then we’re basically forcing these people that are trying to find items secondhand…we’re forcing them to buy new.” I cannot expect to find what I need or want secondhand if I am not contributing to it myself. This is a habit to maintain, and Bea Johnson really says it better than I ever could: “It’s extremely important to share the resources that we’re not using on a regular basis with the community. When we donate things that we’re not truly using, we put them back on the market, we boost the secondhand market…and make those items available to others so that they can find them.”

What secondhand habits do you employ? 


  1. This is a great post! I love shopping at thrift stores – two of our chairs are from one, half my wardrobe, our coffee pot, iced tea maker, and more :). I also think you can apply the same concept to bigger appliances. We have successfully repaired our almost 30 year-old gas dryer twice, but then we couldn't, and the repair guy said that he sells refurbished dryers for $50. Much better than a brand new one.

    That said, there are some things I find it better to buy new, depending on what I need to buy the item for. Finding high-quality used children's clothing on a consistent basis is hard where I live, and as our kids get older I find that there are fewer and fewer things people are donating. Given that I have 3 boys to clothe, I will sometimes get new clothing on sale that can be passed down to the next two brothers.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jenni! It's amazing how much you can find secondhand. I understand passing down clothes, too. I'm the youngest of five with two older sisters. I never minded wearing hand-me-downs. In fact, I got a little excited when I finally got to start certain pieces!

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