Would you be willing to give your partner a thrifted sweater this holiday season? How about a used board game for your niece?
Over the past few years, a growing number of Americans, particularly the Gen Z set, have started giving secondhand gifts during the holidays, largely because it’s better for the planet. Research from the online thrift store ThredUp and GlobalData found more than half of consumers are considering alternatives to buying gifts at traditional retailers, including thrifting. And 66% of people (and 72% of Gen Z) are open to receiving secondhand gifts. But the vast majority haven’t been willing to give it a try. The National Retail Federation expects consumers to drop $859 billion this holiday season—the highest amount ever—and the vast majority will be on new merchandise.
It makes sense that many of us aren’t comfortable giving used presents. Holiday gift-giving in the United States is riddled with all kinds of unspoken rules, cultivated in part by the retail industry. But thanks to insatiable shopping habits like these, we’re gobbling up the earth’s resources 1.7 times faster than it can regenerate, while driving global warming and pollution. Giving people used gifts helps reduce some of this destruction, by keeping items out of landfill and reducing the extraction of natural resources.
If you’ve been thinking about taking the plunge, this might be the year to do it. Supply chain disruptions means that some brands have limited inventory. And inflation is resulting in higher prices in many stores.
Giving used gifts doesn’t need to be boring or unglamorous; those who do it regularly say it can be even more fun and satisfying both to the giver and the receiver. I spoke with three people who have been giving secondhand presents for years who shared their strategies for making it a meaningful experience.
Beating marketers at their own game
Liza Moiseeva, 33, is the co-founder of Brightly, an organization that promotes conscious consumerism, which often means not buying anything. As someone concerned about the environment, she wants to break the taboo of giving secondhand gifts. “When you think about it, this taboo really comes out of corporations and marketers who feel pressure to sell you new products every holiday season,” she says. “So it’s important to push back.”
On Instagram, Brightly encourages people to shop at thrift or vintage stores. Moiseeva admits that she herself took time to come around to thrifting, since it wasn’t something she did much growing up. But she’s come to understand—and subvert—some of the strategies that scare people away. For one thing, she’s realized that while big corporations have enormous budgets to display products to make them look delightful, thrift stores typically just pile their shelves with merchandise. Retailers also use tons of packaging to make mediocre products seem irresistible.
Shoppers need to have some imagination and think about what products will look like in a different context.”I’ve found really beautiful items like bowls or a brand-new spice rack sitting alongside other things that aren’t as nice,” she says. “The key is to package these gifts thoughtfully, so they look beautiful to the recipient.” Packaging something nicely doesn’t have to be resource-intensive, either. You can wrap things up in brown paper adorned with nice bows (ideally saved from previous presents you’ve received) or use a piece of fabric, taking inspiration from the Japanese art of furoshiki.
If you find big thrift stores overwhelming, Moiseeva suggests finding smaller consignment or vintage stores that focus on carefully curating their products and displaying them nicely. These stores can sometimes be more expensive, but you can find lovely products that are still cheaper than buying new.
Kathryn Gatewood, 18, began exclusively giving secondhand or regifted presents three years ago largely because she was concerned about her environmental impact. And because they’re typically a fraction of the price of traditional shopping, it also allows her to save money for college.
For Gatewood, the trick for giving great secondhand gifts is being extremely thoughtful about your recipients’ needs and wants. For instance, it occurred to her that her boyfriend’s family loves to cook, but they never had a place to rest their spatulas and ladles. So she found a beautiful spoon rest at a vintage store. She also keeps a running list on her Notes app to keep track of ideas. “Sometimes right before you’re going to bed, a great gift idea pops into your head,” she says.
She’s also a big fan of regifting. A minimalist when it comes to beauty products, she sets aside soaps and lotions she receives for her mother, who loves them. This year, she received a tin of flavored popcorn as a white elephant present at work that she’s giving to her father, who loves popcorn. “If someone gives me a gift, I always try to give it a chance,” she says. “But if it’s clear I won’t use it, I think it’s almost more thoughtful to give it to someone else who will really treasure it.”
Breaking the secondhand taboo
Ciara Fitts, 29, knows what it’s like to receive secondhand presents. Growing up with a single mom and older cousins, she often got birthday or Christmas presents that were thrifted or hand-me-downs. Fitts thinks there’s something beautiful about this. “As long as the present is given with love, and someone spent time picking it, I always appreciated it,” she says.
Now that she’s married and trying to live a sustainable lifestyle, she’s continuing her family’s tradition of giving used gifts. She’s familiar with the thrift shops in her area and tends to buy presents for local friends and family there. For those who are farther away, she shops at online thrift stores like ThredUp. And importantly, she doesn’t hide the fact that these presents aren’t new.
Some people like to hide the fact the the gift was pre-owned. But if you want to be part of the effort to normalize secondhand gift-giving, you can follow Fitts’s lead and be open about where you got it. Fitts likes to tell her recipient the story of the gift: why she chose it, where she got it from, and perhaps even why secondhand gifts are superior. “There shouldn’t be a taboo around giving used gifts,” she says. “But there’s nothing shameful about it. We should all be doing it.”