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The mailroom during move-in week is a daunting place. Delivery boxes stacked to the ceiling construct a cardboard jungle of our collegiate consumption. Mail center workers zig-zag between the skyscrapers of packaging materials as they process neverending shipments of clothing, bedding, furniture, storage containers, and other easily-ordered goods. Stamped on what feels like every brown box, the sinister Amazon arrow smiles, as if to say “you may own our products, but I own you.”
“From August 16 to September 13, 2023, 27,466 parcels were received and processed for all twelve undergraduate Houses. Of the total, 49% were Amazon parcels,” a Harvard University Mail Services spokesperson wrote to me.
“During the same date range, 13,226 parcels were received and processed at the Harvard Yard Mail Center for first-year students. Of the total, 57% were Amazon parcels.”
Damn. That’s a lot of things we consume.
As college students, we are, by nature, mega-consumers. In many ways, we have no choice. The 21st century college experience lends itself to cheap and efficient online shopping as we race to turn blank dorms into temporary homes.
Our liminal existence on campus (swipe access ends the day after finals!), the unknown of what future rooms can hold, and limited affordable summer storage opportunities discourage investment in higher quality, longer lasting products.
The acquisition of things feels like a canon part of the college undergraduate experience. And so, in many cases, the orders that clutter our mailrooms at the beginning of the year clutter our dorms by the end of it. Our quick-click purchases suddenly risk becoming landfill fodder.
Enter the “senior sale.”
In attempts to clear closets, part with unneeded products, and make a few bucks while keeping things out of the landfill a little longer, students flock to email lists to auction off their goods. While dubbed the “senior sale,” students in all classes participate.
I’ll be honest: My immediate impression of senior sales was not positive. Too many times, I have excitedly clicked on a sale to find myself scrolling through a slideshow of someone’s garbage. I groan as peers upsell once-free Harvard merchandise, half-filled Tide Pod cases, and other items that could easily be donated or placed in a communal space for others to use. My hair grays as I click through slide after slide of fast-fashion items captioned “brand new, never worn.”
So, as this piece developed in my mind, I prepared to rip senior sales to shreds and reject this micro-market entirely, pontificating on how they fail community principles and rely on a capitalist spirit unneeded in our college houses.
At their worst, I still think I might be right. For the sake of our environment and culture, we need to be more thoughtful consumers, and we should undoubtedly think more about fulfilling our community needs before haphazardly throwing used goods up for sale.
But at their best, with the right intentions, senior sales hold a glimmer of hope for building a more sustainable, community-focused culture on our campus.
Elizabeth I. Ogolo ’24 is no stranger to senior sales. She has participated in them on both sides, and her current sale boasts over 100 items neatly organized and displayed on a Google slideshow. She has put clear effort, time, and intentionality into the process.
“As an FGLI student, not only is it a way for me to reduce the amount of clothing, items, bedding, and dorm stuff that I have and have accumulated during my three, going onto four years on campus, but it is also a very sustainable way to get an income,” Ogolo told me.
Ogolo also noted that there was “something really cool about keeping things within Harvard’s community” through senior sales.
“It’s another means of recycling, albeit a lucrative one,” she said. ” It still does fulfill that purpose of keeping things in circulation so you don’t have to purchase something else and increase waste that way.”
Ogolo criticized the oversaturation of low quality sales filled with goods that “could have been left in the donation bins in your house basement,” noting that “it makes people less inclined to actually go look at senior sales.”
Senior sales, however, are not always monetarily based. Ogolo mentioned the “unspoken and underrated tradition” of passing down items for free, which leans into community values with the fullest force.
Cabot House, of which I am a proud resident, is no stranger to these traditions. Every year, the “Tiki Bar,” a charismatic and slightly out-of-shape bar, is passed on within the House. Rather than paying, prospective buyers are asked to write a love letter to their roommates, according to last year’s Tiki keeper Stephany Zhivotovsky ’23.
“There was an honor in carrying on a tradition and a feeling of, ‘I’m gonna give you something that has been cherished for a really long time and hope that you continue to cherish it and pass it on,’ and there’s no monetary exchange happening,” Zhivotovsky told me.
She credited the tradition, in part, to Harvard House life.
“Harvard’s unique in that everyone is assigned a House and more than 90 percent of students live on campus, so you know the people that are going to be in your House the next year,” she said. “You already have this community.”
We could use more House traditions like the Tiki Bar. Be it a couch, table, rug, or bar, furniture that would otherwise find itself on Facebook Marketplace (if not a landfill) should be passed down for free in our Harvard community, extending its utility and eliminating the potential for waste.
Ogolo sees opportunities to build this culture further by better organizing and centralizing senior sales, trades, and other sustainability events, noting that “there’s a lot of fragmentation” and “a lot of students end up missing out.” She offered the clever idea of a mailing list specifically for transactional sales and swaps, regardless of House.
Still, as much as swaps and sales can support our sustainability efforts, a fresh new box at the mail center remains a click away. I’ll be honest: When I need something quickly, efficiently, and on the cheap, there’s a strong chance I'll find myself scrolling through the internet for satiation. In 2023, as a college student, who wouldn’t?
Either way, I think we can all see why our environment would prefer we turn to, or at least consider, fulfilling our needs from within the community. Our waste would decrease, our psychological reliance on the Amazon shopping cart would weaken, our communal bonds would strengthen, and we’d all probably feel a little better too.
I can’t help but be a pessimist, though. If by some brilliant grace, the entire Harvard undergraduate population suddenly stopped buying from Amazon and Shein and built a robust and logistically sound market for sale, swaps, re-use, and community-reliance, I figure it wouldn’t make a dent. We are specks in a world addicted to buying new.
The shopping carts and one-click orders and Prime delivery days don’t look back. The landfills still overflow. The factories churn away and the planet overheats as we drown in the smokestacks of our ‘unlimited’ production marketed as growth. Satisfied leisurely ‘needs’ on one end, exploited labor and mass resource consumption on the other. I struggle to find a silver lining.
But if we don’t even attempt to challenge our consumer mindset — and reconsider not just how we fulfill our needs in our community, but what those needs really are — who else is going to save us?
Matthew E. Nekritz ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies Concentrator in Cabot House. His column, “The Things We Consume,” runs tri-weekly on Wednesdays.
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