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Everything that’s old is new again: Elevating all three pillars of sustainability

The traditional concept of sustainability reaches far beyond benefits for the environment. 

Everything that’s old is new again: Elevating all three pillars of sustainability
[22Imagesstudio/Adobe Stock]

Watching the old become new again is a constant in life, with fashion, design, and even music that regularly reemerges decades later. This cycle, typically driven by younger generations, is now contributing to meaningful commerce that adds purpose behind each item sold and purchased—like finding the perfect vintage blazer from a local thrift store for your wardrobe, or searching online for the used tripod you need for your photography business and saving it from heading straight to a landfill.

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Greater intention within commerce is one thing, but even better, those intentions often lead to sustainability practices that have a positive impact on the environment, economy, and society. This positive impact often goes unnoticed. But what if that changed? What if everyone knew how easy it is to contribute to and help drive positive change while doing things you already love, like shopping? It’s time we revisit the definition of sustainability to better understand how small acts can make a bigger difference than initially meets the eye.

THE EVOLUTION OF SUSTAINABILITY

Sustainability became a mainstream concept in the 1980s when the United Nations Brundtland Commission referred to it as ‘meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

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Since then, scientists, sociologists, economists, and experts across many other fields have come to look at sustainability practices in three dimensions: environmental, economic and social.

• Environmental practices are centered around preserving and protecting our natural resources, reducing waste, and only consuming what can be replenished.

• Economic practices are focused on nurturing profitability and growth today and for future generations, such as building carbon-neutral offices or adopting technology that will create energy efficiencies throughout our cities.

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• Social practices are concentrated on ensuring that everyone has their basic needs met and that communities are kept safe, secure, healthy, and happy.

Yet, the reality is that sustainability has come to be equated primarily with the environment, and the social and economic components of sustainability aren’t always top of mind. Promoting the positive impact that small acts can have on all three sustainability dimensions might be the ticket to convincing even more people to add extra thought and intention to the things they buy and consume.

Meaningful commerce contributes to sustainability.

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Meaningful commerce—or adding greater intention and purpose behind the things we buy and sell—can take shape in a variety of ways. It could be shopping locally and supporting small businesses. It could be taking a moment to ask yourself who created or manufactured the product and researching how it’s made to ensure it aligns with your values. It could even be buying and selling secondhand (i.e,. recommerce) to give used items an extended life.

Notably, according to survey results from the latest eBay Recommerce Report, sustainability is an increasing motivator for people participating in recommerce, yet the impact this truly has across the environment, the economy, and society at large is even bigger than we think.

Simply buying used items makes a difference in helping conserve energy, resources, and costs of creating new items when used versions are available. It also means people can reduce excess waste, which is a particularly concerning problem in the U.S., where ‘roughly 42% of all greenhouse gas emissions are created during resource extraction, the production of goods, waste disposal, and the transporting of materials.’ To this, 20% of eBay survey respondents named supporting the circular economy, which focuses on restorative or regenerative activities and eliminating waste, as the top reason for participating in recommerce.

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Sustainability practices, when implemented thoughtfully, can actually be an economic driver as well. Recommerce, for example, can serve as a source of great income. Our survey results show that the main reason people sell used items is to make extra money or supplement income, with the majority (71%) of female respondents stating this. Sixty-three percent of Gen Z also named this as their main reason, significantly up from 46% last year. By participating in the buying and selling process with online marketplaces, the economic benefits of recommerce become more accessible, equitable, and attainable for all.

Meaningful commerce creates opportunities for people to make better choices when it comes to their purchases that can benefit communities near and far, such as buying produce from your local farmer’s market or buying a print from an emerging artist you found online. There’s also a thriving community of thrifting that brings together both new and veteran sellers and buyers—and where many buyers actually become sellers themselves. This fosters connection, and it can even create net-new communities of people who have shared interests and passions such as gamers and collectors. Finding people you resonate and connect with through meaningful commerce can contribute to happier individuals and a more prosperous, supportive society.

If we start to celebrate all three dimensions of sustainability, it can spark new ideas for new groups of people who want to make a positive impact but may not know how. Small, meaningful acts—often just tweaks to things we are already doing every day—can have widespread impacts. And as more people see the benefits for the planet, their communities, and themselves, we won’t need more articles or arguments in favor of buying secondhand or supporting eco-conscious businesses. Instead, these sustainability practices will become self-sustained.

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Renee Morin is Chief Sustainability Officer at eBay

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