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Back for Seconds: The Role of Second Hand in the Circular Economy

Back for Seconds: The Role of Second Hand in the Circular Economy

What are the drivers and barriers to sourcing second-hand, instead of new? What can consumers and businesses do to source second-hand more often?

We’ve all experienced the joy of inheriting a hand-me-down from an older sibling, or scoring a hidden gem at the second hand store. Beyond nostalgia, choosing second hand items play a vital role in promoting the circular economy and reducing Australia’s material footprint.

The Circular Consumption Roadmap, led by Jennifer Macklin, used a  behavioural systems map to pinpoint the most impactful circular behaviours. Jennifer leveraged this map as a prioritisation tool, to identify the core circular behaviours that have the greatest impact on reducing material footprint. These include buying built to last, borrowing or renting, and the focus of this blog: sourcing second hand. 

Unpacking Second Hand Sourcing: More Than Just a Bargain Hunt

Sourcing second hand items—that is, goods previously owned by another person or organisation— is a familiar behaviour that’s been a part of our culture for centuries. 

The choice to buy second hand can be driven by ethics, economic necessity, or current cultural trends such as sustainability. Second hand transactions can be peer-to-peer (think hand-me-downs) or intermediary-based which involves third parties (think op-shops).

But first, a quick history lesson…

Going to the op-shop isn't a new trend. Historically, passing down items or purchasing used goods was a social norm, especially in times of economic hardship or scarcity, like in the post-war eras. 

But as globalisation surged and mass production dominated, new items became both affordable and desirable, pushing second hand stores and items to the background. The question arose: Why buy second hand when a fresh t-shirt costs less than lunch? 

The resurgence of second hand

Thankfully - for the planet and our pockets - second hand is back in vogue. There are several motivations to source second hand. Economically, they are often at more affordable price points compared to new items of the same quality. From an environmental perspective, choosing second hand (instead of buying new) prolongs the life of a product, curtailing production demand and reducing material footprint. Plus, shoppers may be drawn to the allure of vintage and rare finds, or use it as a symbol of their values. In addition, thrift stores are dotted around major cities and the perception of a thrifted piece has shifted from a bargain hunt to something unique and desirable.

An article by Sádaba points to the shift toward minimalism, paired with more eco-conscious consumers. Younger generations, namely Gen Z, even use this as a form of entertainment and a way to cultivate a wardrobe that’s different from what’s on the high street. 

Jennifer Macklin elaborates on this positive shift, noting that the reduced demand for items translates to less new materials, which results in a tangible decrease in our material footprint. It’s a critical stepping stone in the much-needed cultural shift away from a linear economy and towards a circular economy. 

The Hesitations: Unravelling Misconceptions and Challenges

Despite this shift, there remain prevailing barriers that hinder the second hand movement. 

Some of the challenges include:

  • Diverse Product Representation: While clothes and cars rule the second hand market, other categories lag. This presents an opportunity for businesses to expand their offerings.
  • Hygiene Concerns: Not all products suit the second hand model due to health and hygiene factors.
    These barriers are explored in greater detail here.

It's also worth noting the 'rebound effect'. If people buy more second hand items thinking they're eco-friendlier, it might paradoxically increase the overall material footprint. Sourcing second-hand will only reduce our material footprint if it replaces buying something new.

So, how can we embrace second hand better?

To make second hand sourcing the go-to choice, we need broader product ranges and a shift in perception to debunk myths about product quality. 

While second hand isn’t the ultimate answer, coupling it with long-lasting product quality can create a sustainable solution and contributes to achieving the Sustainable Development (SDG) #12, Responsible Production and Consumption. The onus now is on both consumers and businesses to act.

Read more about the Behavioural Roadmap to Circular Consumption

Written by Milly Graham

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