Green shopping: Don't say 'eww,' to thrift stores

Current shopping: wasteful. The green alternative: repurposing.

The global energy crisis is overwhelming, but Americans are looking for ways to make small changes that add up. We install solar panels, buy hybrid cars, and turn down the thermostat. Yet when it comes to everyday shopping, we are conditioned to buy more than we need, new things made halfway around the world.

Sometime within the last 100 years, we lost the power to dialogue with shopkeepers to define our own needs. Now, retailers "inform" us. This exact scenario was foretold by the wise Dr. Seuss in his book "The Lorax." He said, "A Thneed's a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need! … I'm figgering on biggering and biggering … turning MORE Truffula Trees in to Thneeds which everyone … needs!"

Everyone loves the Lorax, but as we read it to our children we sometimes fail to realize that we've been buying those Thneeds; hoodwinked by retailers mixing a Thneed with a need.

Our passive attitude toward consumer goods is becoming a major obstacle in conserving energy and those precious Truffula trees. It's not doing much for a healthy economy either. But exactly what are we to do when we're told that shopping is a patriotic activity?

There is an alternative to this wasteful paradigm, and its infrastructure is in place: thrift shopping.

It's already making a small difference, but it has the potential for a much bigger impact. The new product retail market has conditioned us for years to believe "if it's not new, it's eww!" We bought this notion hook, line, and sinker; and now we're caught in a net of product surplus and waste on top of a mountain of debt.

This robust "repurposing" market – Goodwill, Salvation Army, and the many other charitable thrift stores, large and small, throughout our country – sell high-quality repurposed goods, many nearly new sold at fair prices. Unfortunately many Americans don't even consider them an option.

How does thrift shopping lower our carbon footprint? No additional energy is required to fill the consumer's need for a gently used product. The fuel of long-haul transport, often from the other side of the earth, has already been burned. The only fuel attached to the item is the car ride over to the donation site. Reused products do not have the weight and waste of excessive packaging new products do. Finally, thrift-store shopping diverts reusable items from landfills. That is a respectable energy savings.

Thrift shopping is also a poetic gesture: The profits from the sale of repurposed products in charity-run thrift stores directly promote the repurposing of lives in need. Not only do we avoid product waste, through our contributions we help to avoid the waste of another human's life. This, in turn helps our community.

I am amazed that most view thrift stores as the dregs of the market, the bottom feeders. I shop thrift and wear Jaeger, DKNY, Sundance, and Anthropologie. My children wear Oilily, Hannah Andersson, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Gap. My husband wears Kenneth Cole, JoS. A. Bank, and Christian Dior. Many of the items I buy are brand-new. It constantly amazes me, the things people keep and the stuff they toss.

Like the rebound in SUV sales when oil prices fell, these sales risk going back down when times improve. Thrift is viewed as a short-term solution.

But change is brewing down below where retail executives dare not go. People are turning to the old ways of bartering not just items but services. A new family-style economy is growing roots in neighborhoods and communities from complete necessity. Proud "frugalistas" are ready to strut. And, in come the "environistas," who shop with the intention of lowering their carbon footprint. Consumers are changing because we have no choice. We are out of jobs, out of money, and we see our environment in disrepair. We realize we can no longer demand "More!" from factories on the other side of the world. Besides, how could any other country take our demands for environmental progress seriously when we're steeped in piles of our own junk?

Why the new product executives have not figured this out is perplexing. They ought to listen to the wisdom of Dr. Suess: "The word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."

As more of us vote with our shopping dollars in the thrift stores, the Once-lers of the world may finally get the message.

Amy Hardin Turosak is Ms Shopping Golightly of The Thrifty Chicks blog.

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