The story of (gently) used stuff.

Photo: Michael via Flickr  creative commons .

Photo: Michael via Flickr creative commons.

I recently moved from a spacious apartment in Hamilton, to a little shoebox of a condo in Toronto. To put the dimensions in perspective, ordering an extra large pizza makes my new apartment feel cramped. In the process of downsizing, I had to get rid of most of my carefully collected furniture - a handmade coffee table, a ratty old couch, and a (deeply beloved) set of wine glasses shaped like owls - were just some of the collectibles that were not deemed fit for the long trek to Toronto. While a lot of this furniture was given away, I discovered an exciting new tool during my move - used goods marketplaces. I had previously deemed online communities like Kijiji and Craigslist "sketchy" and "the perfect way to meet a serial killer." However, with a long list of items to dispose of and a rapidly expiring lease, I reevaluated my stance.

Craigslist was started in 1995, in the throes of the brand new Internet age, by Craig Newmark as an email chain with his friends to list new art and technology shows and local events in San Francisco. The idea became so popular that it eventually evolved into other classifieds categories and finally into one of the most visited websites in the world.

Today, Craigslist users can post and browse ads for thousands of used goods and services, and filter by area and pricing (amongst other constraints), an approach emulated by dozens of other websites such as Kijiji and Ebay. The online used goods community is well on its way to replacing more traditional second hand goods stores, yard sales, and the almost quaint Classifieds section in the Sunday paper.

Annie Leonard, in her popular Youtube short-film The Story of Stuff, which dives into the subject of ceaseless consumerism, warns us that “one cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely” without catastrophic consequences. Although Craig Newmark does not claim to have started the movement based on environmentally oriented convictions (and in fact said in an interview “I'd like to build a way for people doing good work to connect, to learn from each other, protect each other, and then I want to get out of their way.”),  buying used offers critical reprieve indisputably.

Buying used is a vastly better choice, environmentally speaking, than buying exclusively fair trade, or organic or even “green” labelled products. Used goods come with less packaging, travel shorter distances to get to your door, and don’t require new materials or energy to be processed.  Second hand items limit the amount of waste that is dumped into our rapidly swelling landfill sites, and minimize an item’s life cycle impact.

More recently, businesses have begun to take note of this vast untapped resource stream. Local companies such as Refficient work on the principle that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Using an online marketplace system, vendors can list surplus or redundant telecom, A/V or IT products from their own businesses for sale, while customers can browse for items that may be applicable for their business at a fraction of the price of ordering new or custom made equipment.

In addition to the monetary savings, sellers and buyers can calculate the environmental impact and CO2 savings resulting from diverting their equipments from a landfill. Refficient claims that one billion pounds of waste have been diverted through their services - no small feat for a pioneer company in the commercial-used-goods business!

As a recent small town transplant to Toronto, it is easy for me to feel isolated and overwhelmed. One of my New Year’s resolutions this year is to be more connected to my new city. I can think of no better way to commit to such a goal than to live, eat, shop, and volunteer locally - to really embed myself into this space until I can call it home. I will also buy used. In my mind, buying used items is a good way to force us to interact with our local communities and question how much of our material possessions are due to whims rather than true needs.

Admittedly, there are some things I may never do; I’m too much of a germophobe to ever buy clothing or furniture second hand, and too paranoid to venture to a stranger’s place to pick up items. However, this year, I want to at least make the effort to buy used and buy local when making a purchase. And if that’s not an option – well, perhaps it’s time to reconsider if my “pressing needs” are really so pressing after all.