A slightly marked white sofa bed; a pair of cream-coloured patent leather shoes (size 40); boxes of N95 masks; bags of peanuts in the shell (‘no expiry date, consume at your own risk’), tiny rocks for a fish tank or plant pot – all free items recently listed on Hong Kong’s private Reduce Reuse Recycle Free Facebook group. Members give away a huge range of things they no longer need. “Thanks for helping us reduce Hong Kong’s staggering 15,000 tonnes of daily landfill!”, the group notes on the page. Several listings are posted each week by members, now numbering 2500, who give away unwanted stuff as a matter of goodwill and concern for the environment.
Giveaway and swap social media groups all over the world have seen a surge of interest from people who fear that uber-consumption and excessive waste – the buy fast, discard faster mentality – spells environmental disaster. The spending blitz of the last decade was given an extra push by the pandemic, when billions of shoppers were locked down or socially restricted and used their time to sit online and browse Amazon, eBay and a universe of other sites, to buy, buy, buy.
Now Christmas, the festival of the spend, is on the way and the corporate world is hoping for a big year after the disaster of the Covid-19 pandemic and social isolation measures. No-one wants to be a party-pooper, but environmentalists fear a lot of the stuff about to be bought, wrapped up and given to loved ones will soon be on the way to one of Hong Kong’s bulging landfills.
Marketing consultant Louisa Harker, one of the Reduce group’s administrators, says she has been worried about the consequences of accelerating consumption since she saw statistics on the millions of tons of solid waste dumped in Hong Kong’s landfills annually (an average of nearly 1.5 kilograms per person in 2019 every single day, according to the Environment Protection Department).
Yet shoppers just want to shop and they are often inspired by tiny prices. Harker lives in a fifth-floor walk-up and she remembers trying to give away a large and heavy entertainment unit with no luck. When she listed it for sale for a bargain price, it was soon snapped up.
The Reuse social media group, she says, is a grass-roots facility started a couple of years ago to address the wasteful disposal of still usable items – which is often simply a matter of convenience. For those who can afford to, it’s often easier (and sometimes cheaper) to buy a new appliance than have one repaired, or buy a new garment rather than sew up a hole.
Helpers, Harker adds, often pick up the smaller items that wealthier residents no longer want and either on-sell them or send them to their families abroad. “Other than large furniture items, anything that’s offered in terms of clothing, smaller appliances, toys – that kind of thing – there’s always someone willing to take it,” Harker says of items listed on the Reuse site.
In the past, she has been happy to post her own unwanted items for free in classified sections of various expat group sites, just to make sure they go to someone who wants them, rather than dumped on tips. “At the end of the day, it’s not about building a competitive brand, it’s about spreading as much re-use and waste reduction as possible.”
The global “shop less” movement runs against the mass corporate push to keep consumers shopping and the retail industry humming. Millions of keen consumers around the world have revelled in the idea of being “shopaholics” and “born to shop” with the “shop ‘til you drop” mantra. It’s an image perpetuated in film and television programs: the cute young woman carrying several brand shopping bags in each hand.
Environmentalists think far more could be done on an official level to help people understand the ecological importance of changing their shopping habits, but these ideas are spreading organically, powered by social media and driven by an increasing awareness of the hazards of climate change and surging waste and pollution.
Edwin Lau, founder and executive director of Hong Kong’s The Green Earth environmental organisation, says most ordinary people don’t really understand that everything they buy has a carbon cost, and more should be done to promote the idea of giving non-tangible things.
“To buy something in festive seasons is a tradition, but the ‘something’ can be a non-materialistic thing, such as a nice local journey to nature or to learn a skill about health, arts, music,” he says.
If it simply must be an object of desire, he says, maybe shoppers could consider buying a single, high-quality, valuable item – which is likely to last longer and generate far less waste, rather than a number of cheaper things. Or they could even write and sing a beloved friend or relative a song, or write them a poem, or take them dancing. Lau admits that when he was young he used to sing to his wife, and she giggled at him, so these days they prefer to go on nature hikes and eat seafood lunches. “We do not need a lot to keep us alive, but many people have an unquenchable desire, which is the real problem,” he says.
Karen Ho, head of corporate and community sustainability at WWF Hong Kong, says the Hong Kong shopping mindset can be difficult to budge, although some of the more environmentally-aware youngsters are starting to get the idea.
“Instead of use and dispose, we’re trying to encourage people to upcycle, recycle,” she says. “A lot of young people don’t mind buying second-hand, they’re actually quite committed to supporting the new start-ups who are really-using environmentally friendly materials – all the way down the chain back to the farm. We’ve started seeing some changes, though not on a very big scale, and of course fast fashion is still very dominant in the market.”
Hongkongers say that they “release the pressure” when they go window shopping or real shopping, Ho adds. “It’s so easy for them to shop online and get the stuff delivered to their doorstep.” Housing issues might play into the equation, she thinks – those who can’t afford to buy real estate property might then buy a lot of stuff to satisfy an inner urge to own.
There is also a groundswell of people who forswear excessive consumption. The “stop shopping” has become a popular movement, with a massive global network of share and giveaway groups including several Hong Kong-specific groups. Local swap marts and repair groups have popped up in Lantau and elsewhere, and local community What’sApp groups have emerged with the twin aims of saving money and saving the environment. Some groups will take unwanted stuff (from beds to bikes to books) and redistribute it to those in need.
Tanja Wessels was a co-founder of one of these groups, Circular Community Hong Kong which since the pandemic has morphed into a What’sApp community.
“It started initially as a fashion group and quickly became anything to do with sustainability, so you’ve got people from corporate, people from their own start-ups, you’ve got grass-roots, you’ve got NGOs,” she says, adding the Hong Kong group had become so popular it had produced five offshoots – each primarily dedicated to different aspects of sustainability: plastics, food, business, climate action and creatives. At the same time, members have taken the Circular Community idea offshore: to cities including Melbourne and Singapore.
Wessels, who stopped buying new clothes four years ago as a personal challenge, now works with local designers who upcycle clothing and NGOs that tackle textile waste. She says the Circular Community group began in 2017 when a like-minded group of Hong Kongers started to share ideas on sustainability, understanding the need to eliminate unnecessary waste had become increasingly important.
“It’s about upcycling, recycling, sharing, swapping, loaning – anything to keep it out of landfill,” she says, adding a typical post might be ‘I’ve got an office full of furniture that needs to be rehomed, where can I take it?’. She adds that when sustainability is top of mind, the mantra is to ‘keep it out of landfill’.