State of the Planet

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Purchasing Power: How Conscientious Buying Can Enable a More Just and Sustainable Future

sandra goldmark in front of lamp
Photo courtesy Sandra Goldmark

Sandra Goldmark wears many hats. She is an associate professor in the theater department at Barnard College, Barnard’s first director of campus sustainability and climate action, an entrepreneur, and author of the book Fixation. Her work details how as individuals and a society we can transition to a sustainable and just “circular economy,” which is an economy that prioritizes reuse, repair, and sharing of existing material goods over the creation of new products.

I spoke with Goldmark in her office on a cold winter morning, surrounded by books, a design table, and bits of materials waiting to be repurposed for her next project. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

What led you from your background in theater and design to a focus on sustainability?

About 10 years ago, I had this moment which was kind of a work crisis. I was working as a theatrical set designer here at Barnard.

I always cared about the environment, theoretically. There I was at home, rinsing my yogurt cup and bringing my little canvas bag to the supermarket.

But I would go to work in theater and design, show after show, year after year, and put thousands of pounds of scenery in the dumpster every show, every season, every year. And I started thinking, this is crazy.

I wondered, “How can I have a commitment to the environment in my life, theoretically, and then go to work and just make garbage day after day?”

At the same time, I had my second child. And when you have a baby, everybody sends you all kinds of stuff that you don’t really need.

While I was home on maternity leave, a whole bunch of stuff broke in my house: the vacuum, a lamp, a backpack, the toaster, a necklace. And there was nowhere to get anything fixed in the neighborhood.

I thought, “This is crazy that I can’t get my vacuum fixed and I have to buy a new one.” I know that these things can be fixed because in the theater we fix things all the time. I know that you can fix a necklace, a backpack, a vacuum if you just have the time or space or tools or skills.

So, a few things started happening. One was that I started opening these repair shops all over New York, staffed by theater artists. Short-term pop-up shops where we would fix people’s broken objects and charge for them.

And at the same time, I started changing the way I designed for theater, really prioritizing reuse. Thinking about how we budget for sustainability.

And then the third thing I started was I added the role of director of sustainability at Barnard. So this was all very overlapping and messy. A period of ten years of changing who I am and what I do.

The goal was to try to tackle this issue from all different angles.

Your book, Fixation, talks about how to have stuff without breaking the planet, and a lot of your work focuses on sustainable engagement with material culture. Could you tell me about your personal relationship with stuff?

Well, I wound up moving from a place of feeling overwhelming despair, feeling like I was drowning in clutter, feeling like there was no way out, like I couldn’t buy anything, to moving to a place where I now feel like I can make responsible choices and operate in a way that feels more manageable.

I also understand the bigger system better. I know what some of the policy and business changes that need to happen are and I can advocate for those.

I know you’re working with Barnard to make a circular campus. Could you touch on what that looks like?

So we’re building this framework here at Barnard called circular campus to address a number of issues at once. We’re using circularity as a holistic framework that will help us reduce CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions, reduce waste, support student access to supplies and materials, support community resilience, and support ties with the local community.

We feel like this circular framework is an intersectional response to an intersectional challenge.

There are five buckets within the circular campus: waste, food, green spaces, design construction and deconstruction, and reuse and sustainable purchasing. We’re putting them together because they’re all connected.

If you want to reduce waste, you have to look at what you’re purchasing. You have to look at what’s going on in the dining halls. You have to look at what’s happening when you’re doing a renovation project. If you want to look at your renovations, your capital projects, you have to look at purchasing. You have to look at how things impact the green spaces.

I like to think that circularity provides positive action steps you can actually do. For instance, when I need 10 chairs for a classroom renovation, I ask, “Can I get them used?” And from there I ask, “How do we build the platforms to support reuse?”

A lot of people practice reuse. Circularity is nothing new. One of the goals of circular campuses is to not pretend we’re building something new, but acknowledge and validate this very powerful practice that is all around us, especially led by women and low-income communities.

Do you have any thoughts on what would help encourage a scaled-up shift towards reuse and repair to happen?

Well, one, we need to build the systems to make it easier, right? It needs to be just as easy to buy used and to repair things as it is to buy new, or easier.

Two, we need to have international fair labor standards. Repair and reuse are almost inherently locally based, but right now the cost is stacked against artificially low, overseas labor rates for cheap new goods. Until we address inequity in production, until we have people paid properly for making our stuff, it’s going to be very hard to transition to a circular economy.

However, we can’t stop and wait for that to happen because that’s going to be a really, really, long time. Businesses can begin building those reuse and repair arms into their business model.

Policymakers from the municipal all the way up to the federal can start building in incentives that help nudge people away from buying new goods and towards more sustainable methods.

Are you suggesting that the sustainability-minded consumer should avoid buying new goods?

This gets into one of the really sticky things, which sometimes people challenge me on. They say, “Well, wait a minute, from what you’re saying it seems like new goods should become more expensive and that seems very unfair.”

What I always say is, “Yes, new goods need to become more expensive because the people who make our new goods need to be paid a living wage and we need to factor in the true cost of all of those resources we’re extracting in the process.”

The way to address that inequity is not by keeping prices artificially low, causing people in manufacturing communities overseas to struggle to live so that we can have low prices here. The way to address that is to increase access to higher quality goods throughout the system. Again, through reuse and repair.

Right now, we have this one firehose of new cheap goods, right? We need a smaller hose of high-quality fair labor, sustainably produced new goods. And then we need access points throughout the system so that more people can have access to high-quality goods at different price points.

What is the first step anyone can take towards creating a more sustainable future?

I always like to say to people, especially on the ‘stuff thing,’ “If you just want to start small now with something, think of it as if you have two dials (like on a radio). One dial is for new goods, and one is for used goods. You want to turn down the volume on new goods, except for high-quality ones, and you want to turn up the volume on used goods.”

That’s your start. Then from there, you can advocate for the policy changes. You can host a repair café [an event focused on learning how to fix broken items] in your community. You can think about exactly where you’re shopping.

There’s a really simple starting point that almost anybody can begin today.

Marie Lilly is a Ph.D. student in Columbia University’s Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology program.

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