To insulate yourself from the trade war, stop buying new stuff

To insulate yourself from the trade war, stop buying new stuff
Image: AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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A new round of US tariffs on Chinese-made goods went into effect today, on Sept. 1. It remains to be seen how much and how soon retailers will pass on the 15% tariff on goods like Apple Watches, sneakers, and furniture to customers. But according to analysis by economists Kirill Borusyak from University College London and Xavier Jaravel from the London School of Economics, the costs of  US president Donald Trump’s ongoing trade war with China are starting to add up in a way that most consumers will notice.

The New York Times reports that Borusyak and Jaravel estimate that the tariffs will cost the average US household $460 by the end of the year. Some of that cost may be unavoidable, but you can insulate yourself by choosing what not to buy. There’s a growing awareness that our insatiable demand for stuff, whether that’s fast fashion, children’s toys, or new furniture, is fueling an environmental nightmare. All that stuff stresses us out and demands our mental and physical energy, too.

Not buying new items in the coming month has benefits for your bank account and your well-being. And it might even make the trade war the Trump administration’s most environmentally friendly policy yet.

You don’t have to stop shopping

As my colleague Marc Bain recently wrote, there’s never been a better time to buy used clothing. Secondhand and vintage is no longer synonymous with a dusty pile of outdated sweaters in the corner of a church basement, or a yearly rummage sale. Online resale, including high-end designer items, is booming, thanks to start-ups like The RealReal, Depop, Poshmark, eBay, and Etsy. It’s possible to fill your entire closet this way, as Marc himself does:

Today, except for a few essential items—socks, underwear, t-shirts, and sometimes jeans—most of what I wear, I buy used. When I started shopping this way, it took a good deal of searching to locate what I wanted. Now the search is easier than ever. In the past decade, at least half a dozen peer-to-peer fashion marketplaces or full-service consignment shops have popped up online, making available a huge and easily accessible selection of used clothes spanning a range of brands, styles, and price points.

It’s true that if the price of clothing rises in stores sellers on resale sites may in turn raise their prices. Many, like Poshmark and eBay, work on a bidding system, and it’s often possible to pay only what you want (within reason) for an item, with a little luck and patience.

When Quartz editor Jackie Bischof gave up buying new clothes for a year, she embraced clothing swaps as a way to re-up her closet without spending a dime.

For the most part, the shopping ban came as a relief. Participating in clothing swaps gave me permission to try new things without the guilt or financial dent of something not working out. At a clothing swap in May, for example, I picked up several items that I thought suited me, only to reconsider when I tried them on at home. I’ve kept a Banana Republic coat, Nine West sandals, and an H&M sweater in heavy rotation; the other items I recycled at another swap, guilt-free.

Swaps are more than just an exchange of clothing, though. They can also build community. The school my children are starting at next week holds an annual clothing swap at the start of every school year. To my mind, it not only recognizes the fact that kids either stain, rip, or grow out of most everything we put on them with shocking regularity, it feels like a pragmatic gesture of welcome.

You have more than you think

For most adults, new clothing is not strictly necessary. Other items like shampoo, pens, and dish soap do actually run out. When the novelist Ann Patchett took a year off from shopping she determined a set of rules for herself (she could buy books and anything in the grocery store, but no clothing or furniture), one of which was that she had to use up things she had before buying new ones. She wrote about how much stuff she discovered that she had unwittingly stockpiled:

My first few months of no shopping were full of gleeful discoveries. I ran out of lip balm early on and before making a decision about whether lip balm constituted a need, I looked in my desk drawers and coat pockets. I found five lip balms. Once I started digging around under the bathroom sink I realized I could probably run this experiment for three more years before using up all the lotion, soap and dental floss. It turns out I hadn’t thrown away the hair products and face creams I’d bought over the years and didn’t like; I’d just tossed them all under the sink.

I’m using them now, and they’re fine.

Likewise, before I buy new containers to store toys, blankets, or sweaters, or anything at all new, I shop from my house first, digging through kitchen drawers for pens and notepads (so many!), and pulling folded storage bins and baskets from the back of the closet.

What you have already is good

There’s one Marie Kondo. There are entire networks churning out content devoted to convincing us that we either need to move to a new home or remodel the one we have. All those bespoke laundry rooms and French country kitchen remodels are full of items affected by the tariffs. “[T]ake a moment to consider this simple idea,” Kate Wagner, creator of the blog McMansion Hell writes on Curbed, “There is nothing wrong with your house.”