Will The Supreme Court Kill "Recycle Reduce Reuse"?

On the Supreme Court's docket is a little-known case coming up for review that could have enormous implications for those of us who believe in "Recycle Reuse Reduce", the mantra of for sustainable legionnaires. For those who don't know what that refers to, it simple asks us to reduce our consumption needs, reuse items as much as possible, and finally to recycle what you can into something else. At Fed By Threads, we incorporate this mantra into some of our fabrics that use upcycled denim, repurposed wood pulp, and recycled plastic bottles. But with the stroke of the pen, the Supreme Court could make elements of "Reuse, Recylce, Reduce" illegal, a crushing blow to our movement.

To bring you up to speed on the specifics, the case is Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons which surrounds claims that a man from Thailand came to the US for higher education and while here realized that the publisher of his textbooks sells the same books for far less in his home country. So he began asking his family to buy as many of those textbooks and ship them to him at which point, he put them on ebay for resale, eventually earning himself $1.2 million in profits. The publisher claims he illegally broke copywrite laws. But currently, such laws protect only first use, meaning that only the first person to purchase a product has a responsibility to compensate the copyright holder. Afterwards, we are allowed to resell that item to whomever we choose without need for permission nor a responsibility to pay fees or other commissions to the original copyright owner. 

Herein lies the crux, if the Supreme Court does in fact rule that any copyrighted product produced in another country can not be resold without the express consent and/or some form of compensation to the original copyright holder, they will in effect be banning the efficient flow of goods into the hands of those who might most optimally utilize those goods. 

For example, if I have to get permission from a sewing machine maker in Europe who made my grandmother's heirloom before I can sell it to my neighbor, it is very likely I won't bother and simply leave the item in my garage or worse yet, one may opt to throw things away into landfills because it is easier than jumping through the hoops to resell it legally. 

Everything from thrift stores to eBay are channels through which goods are recycled, reused, and repurposed without the need for a brand-new good to be produced. If we damage those secondary markets, we are in fact increasing inefficiency and raising the demand for more raw materials needed to make unnecessary new products. I don't know about you but I have procured numerous items off of Craigslist. In many ways it is the fastest way to source exactly what you need from someone in your geographic region who no longer needed, wanted, or could afford the item. Often times, the items are in near-brand-new condition: For example, I recently went to a guy's storage shed in south Tucson where he had endless Ikea shelving systems that he no longer needed because he had lost 100 pounds and couldn't fit into the sea of clothes he had in storage. The shelves work perfectly and it saved me the gas mileage of having to drive to Phoenix to the Ikea store and reduced my demand for more metal to be used to create more shelves. 

The free-flow of goods on the secondary market is a vital element in our push for sustainability to protect the environment, reduce our collective carbon footprint.

Another unintended but potentially damaging aftershock could be that manufacturers may be incentivized to fire American workers and shift production overseas so that they can take advantage of such laws that would allow them copyright protection beyond the 'first use'. While not directly related to the issues of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, it could hamper job creation. 

It is our belief that the Supreme Court should not hinder the resale of goods in the United States on secondary markets such as thrift shops and eBay because such resales reduce our need for new goods to be produced. We shall see if the court agrees with us or not. 

-Alok Appadurai 


Alok Appadurai is Founder of Fed By Threads and writes on the environment, sustainability, the US economy, social entrepreneurship and beyond. Email him directly at Alok@FedByThreads.com

Alok Appadurai
Alok Appadurai


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