New to you: The case for second-hand holiday gifting

You’ve likely noticed fewer items on store shelves this holiday season along with greater shipping delays that may hamper your ability to check off everyone on your gift list.

The pandemic has exacerbated supply-chain crunches, which means you may not be able to purchase the perfect present from one of your usual retailers.

A mini-movement online is encouraging second-hand and vintage gifts as alternatives that are not only readily available, but eco-friendly and sustainable as well.

Vintage businesses booming online

Jodi Lai of Moonshine Vintage and Marina Porter of Rainbows and Retro are among hundreds, if not thousands, of vintage resellers in Canada who launched their businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some were created as side-hustles, while others turned a long-standing hobby into a source of income due to layoffs and reduced hours.

Lai says the demand and appetite for vintage goods simultaneously saw a sharp increase.

“Vintage really boomed during COVID,” said Lai, as people spent more time at home and looked for ways to elevate their spaces. “It was a really nice way to decorate your home … and spark a little bit of joy.”

Lai, who launched her shop on Instagram in June 2020 says her love for all things vintage dates back to her childhood.

“Even when I was a little kid, I remember going to antique markets with my dad while he looked for records and me and my little sister would be looking for dinky cars and I have been obsessed ever since,” said Lai.

Porter says the idea for her shop, launched in June of this year, came about as a result of downsizing her mother-in-law’s estate. As they were going through items, they began listing them for sale on Facebook Marketplace.

“It was going super well and [my mother-in-law] suggested to start and Instagram account — and Rainbows and Retro was born,” she said, adding that it took about six-months of convincing before she took the plunge.

Porter feels part of the appeal of vintage items is the nostalgia, history and stories attached to them, coupled with a sense of familiarity during a highly uncertain time.

“It’s that memory — when you see something that your nonna had growing up on her shelf — it makes the item more special,” she said.

Second-hand, not second-rate

Both Lai and Porter say the stigma attached to giving and receiving second-hand gifts is undeserved, saying they’re neither less expensive nor less special.

“If you’re giving second-hand … what I love personally about it is that it’s something special and unique … most likely there aren’t very many pieces like that,” said Porter. “It’s reuniting the perfect person with the most special gift.”

In addition, she says that buying from vintage resellers supports a small local business which she feels is more important than ever during the pandemic.

“You’re supporting someone’s dream ultimately,” she said.

Lai adds that it takes a lot more time and effort to find just the right vintage or pre-loved gift for your loved ones.

“You can’t just walk into a big-box store and buy it,” she said. “You had to have thought of something special, it maybe reminded you of [that person] and you thought it would make them happy,” she said. “I think it’s a lot more thoughtful.”

University of British Columbia professor Emily Huddart Kennedy echoes Lai’s sentiments.

“When I get a second-hand gift, I think ‘wow, what a lot of time the person put into choosing this’,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to click online and have something shipped to someone than it is to carefully look through a wide variety of items and pick something.”

Huddart Kennedy says part of the reason why second-hand gift giving is frowned upon is because of the way society as a whole has framed the concept of gifting.

“When we’re buying a gift, we often want to show someone that we love them or we care about them or they mean something to us. And the way that we have created our social value around how to show that caring is often associated with buying something brand new,” she explained.

She says a shift in mindset in how we value objects and show we care is necessary to change that deep-rooted belief.

“I think that the stigma is something that we sustain if we refuse to go and start changing social norms,” she said.
“[Second-hand gifts can be] special and distinctive and something that can really show that you are really considering the person’s personality and unique tastes as you give that gift.

Second-hand gifts and sustainability

Shopping second-hand means buying something that wasn’t produced new, just for your consumption, explains Huddart Kennedy.

“Because we know that such a high volume of the material in second-hand stores ends up going to landfill, either in Canada or shipped overseas, [gifting] really is an opportunity to take something that’s at the end of its lifespan and give it a new life,” she said.

Kennedy served on a panel put together by the Council of Canadian Academies and was one of 16 experts who created a report entitled “Turning Point” for Environment and Climate Change Canada.

One of the issues the report focused on was “circularity” in the Canadian economy.

Turning point report - Canada circular economy
A page from the “Turning Point” report illustrates how circular Canada’s economy is. Credit: Council of Canadian Academies

“Looking at all of the resources that move through our economy, what percentage of those resources are recycled or recovered? Canada has a really low circularity rate — it’s 6.1 per cent. In contrast in France it’s about over 20 per cent,” she explained.

If that rate stays the same over the next 20 years, Canada will see a 40 per cent increase in the materials the country uses to sustain the economy and an equal increase in the amount of waste produced by 2040.

Kennedy says engaging meaningfully in circularity or the circular economy involves treating products differently than we’re used to — repairing something when it breaks, sharing things you don’t use often and buying second hand items.

“Anything that we’re doing to divert something from going to a landfill or being incinerated is something that is helping to improve the circularity rate for our country,” she explained.

Introducing sustainability into your gifting

While it may not be possible to shop second-hand or vintage for everyone on your list, there are ways to introduce sustainable practices into all gift giving.

Huddart Kennedy suggests the following tips:

  • Purchase quality items that will last a long time rather than disposables or items that are likely to break or be thrown away a few weeks after the holidays
  • Buy less or commit to spending less. Instead of several items, opt for a single, special or high quality gift
  • Wrap gifts in fabric purchased from a second-hand store rather than wrapping paper or gift bags and reuse packaging materials
  • Purchase services or experiences rather than objects

“When we’re purchasing gifts, it’s often hardest to live in line with our values,” said Huddart Kennedy. “[Sustainable giving] is one of those things that can mean different things to different people. We all have to start where we’re comfortable starting.”

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