The second hand is one of the solutions that the French use to reduce their impact on the planet. But this alternative is not without consequences for the activity of certain charities such as Emmaus, one of the pioneers of the solidarity action. Valérie Fayard, Deputy CEO of Emmaus France, discusses the effects of deploying these platforms, both on donations and on overconsumption.
Emmaüs is one of the second-hand pioneers in France. Can you go back to the origin of this activity?
“Reclaiming second-hand products is a vector of integration for people who are excluded. It is an activity in the service of a social project and therefore fundamental. Emmaus has indeed been a forerunner since this project was born 70 years ago. It is all the more difficult to observe the upheavals that are taking place in the second-hand market today. The basic idea of the Emmaus movement is to welcome people in great difficulty. Abbé Pierre wanted to do this by giving them natural food and clothing, but also by giving them back a place in society and the means to be independent. Something that goes unrelentingly through activity and work. He started with a simple cart collecting boxes and scrap from the street, after which the Trent Glorieuses gave the people the opportunity to equip themselves and thus get rid of their old products; allowing the activity to develop. The activity, which represents a significant turnover, enables thousands of people to find a job and a place in society. Making a profit is out of the question for us.”
Emmaus has also always been committed to the environment…
“In our view, the environmental axis is of course essential, as evidenced by our formula: “a second life for objects, a second chance for people”. This activity is very important from an environmental point of view as it collects about 300,000 tons of products per year, 95% of which is recycled. Once the donations have been made, we sort, repair and sell the products where possible, or place them in the recycling stream. We have a social role, which is of fundamental importance, but also an ecological role in waste prevention.”
What does second hand mean to Emmaus in terms of resources and jobs?
“Second-hand it is about 200 million euros in turnover per year, and it is work for about 7,000 supervisors and 8,000 employees per year. So we are talking about almost 15,000 people who can find a place in society thanks to recovery. This is very important, especially as our goal is to enable these people to regain their autonomy and dignity through work.”
Studies are unanimous about the fact that the French are gradually switching to second-hand platforms. Is the impact positive or negative for Emmaus?
“In absolute terms, that’s a good thing, of course. It is better to buy a used T-shirt than a new one, because the environmental impact is immeasurable. We are very happy that the French are adopting this reflex, but that also causes problems. Some second-hand platforms, and they don’t hide it, encourage consumers to buy new products by telling them that if they don’t fit, they can easily resell them. It is clearly a matter of forcing them to over-consumption, not to consume responsibly. All under the guise of a circular economy. It has become a frenzy for some who don’t stop buying and reselling. In this case, it’s not necessarily a good thing.”
Is there also an impact on donations?
“Yes, of course, it is a real subject for Emmaus. The functioning of our model is based on the donation of good quality goods – clothing or objects – because that is exactly what makes money. When people mainly turn to second-hand platforms, they are only giving away what hasn’t been sold, even poor quality items. At Emmaus, this means that the share of recycling will increase at the expense of the share of reuse, and our economic equilibrium will inevitably be upset. To fully understand it, you have to know that out of a hundred products, sixty twenty years ago, the rest went for recycling. Today, only forty-five products are reused… That’s a significant drop, a real revolution. We are now getting more donations, but of poor quality. This is terrible for our model, but also on a societal level, because it means that everything is commodified.”
Are there more and more donations?
“When I say we’re getting more donations, it’s true over the past twenty years. But for the past one or two years we have also been a bit concerned about the quantity, especially with textiles. We don’t have numbers yet, but some structures have let us know. There are signs that there may eventually be an impact on quantity and quality. We have to keep donating, that’s very important. It is a civic act of value, not monetary, but ethical.”
Some people also do it to make ends meet. Isn’t it complicated to ask them to give up this money?
“Yes, of course. When I talk about a frenzy around second-hand platforms, I’m not talking about people doing it for food or to pay their bills. The fight against poverty and inequality is also an Emmaus fight, and it is definitely not normal that people have to sell their T-shirts at the end of the month in order to eat, but there are consumers who don’t have this kind of problem, who turn to these platforms to raise money that will allow them to consume again when they don’t really need it.
Are you working on solutions to stimulate purchases and donations at Emmaüs?
“We actually have several projects underway. Above all, we want to develop and improve our network of physical stores. The aim is to make them more accessible, for example by opening in the city, but also more attractive. We want to turn them into sales, entertainment and meeting places. The idea is to create a place where customers meet excluded people, companions and employees, as well as volunteers, to create social bonds and change the way people view poverty. We also need to communicate and educate. Social and environmental issues are complex, and the heart of the matter is understanding, holding people to a vision. They sometimes fail to decipher what society is becoming. We want to help give them these keys, and make them understand that another society is possible: that of encounter, inclusion and social bonds, as opposed to that of overconsumption and fast fashion† At least it’s our view of society, and we have the weakness to think it’s better. Emmaüs is not just a platform or a purchase, it is a real citizen experience.
(ETX Daily Up)