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Planning to gift yourself some gadgets? Consider these sustainable shopping alternatives

Grover and Back Market are committed to giving the tech we use multiple lives.

Items available to rent from Grover.com (from top left) Apple AirPods Max headphones, Samsung's Galaxy S21 Ultra, VIVE Focus 3 Virtual Reality Headset, Apple iPad mini, iRobot Roomba S9 and Samsung Galaxy Watch 4. (Samsung,VIVE,iRobot and Apple/Washington Post illustration)

If you’ve already started your holiday shopping, there’s a pretty good chance there are at least a few gadgets on your list. And at least a few of them are probably for you.

A report published by the Consumer Technology Association last month predicted that Americans would spend $142.5 billion on tech this holiday season, mostly as gifts for themselves. (Loved ones like spouses were a close second.)

Even if your shopping is well underway, it’s still worth taking a moment to think about the technology you’re planning to buy yourself. Do you really need the flashiest new gadgets Big Tech is pushing this year? And if you do, do you need to hang onto them forever?

A pair of European start-ups trying to make it in the United States are pushing a more circular approach to buying technology. Berlin-based Grover wants you to think about renting your gadgets until you grow weary and send them back, while Back Market in Paris curates deals on refurbished gadgets to help quash the stigma that can come with buying used.

When you figure how many personal electronic devices wind up in landfills, these more sustainable ways of buying tech start to sound a little more appealing. Here’s what you should know about how these services work.

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Rent and return

There are some people — myself included — who fall for the newest, flashiest gadgets, but ultimately don’t wind up using them frequently. For them, Grover might be a viable option.

Grover, which launched in the United States in September, offers a wide selection of gadgets, from gaming laptops to drones to its bread and butter, smartphones. But instead of buying them outright, Grover charges recurring monthly fees based on how long you want to hold onto those products.

“All the research that we’ve ever done shows that the U.S. is much more likely to subscribe to tech with Grover than any other European country,” said founder and CEO Michael Cassau. “Including the ones where we are really big, like Germany.”

If you eventually hold onto those products long enough to have paid full price for them, Grover asks you to pay one additional dollar as a symbolic gesture that grants you ownership. But that’s not really the point.

Grover’s main draw is that you have an easy exit strategy for the moment you decide you no longer need what you’ve been paying for. Just ship it back to the company — then, it gets cleaned, repaired or refurbished as needed, and made available to the next person who wants to give the product a go. Cassau said on average, devices like phones and laptops go out to subscribers and back three times before they’re decommissioned, though some products — like drones, which people tend to use for specific events — make the rounds as many as eight times.

On a lark — and because I wanted to see if Apple’s pricey AirPods Max were worth the splurge — I signed up for the service myself. The process was as simple as it gets: you pick your product, choose how long you want to hang onto it, undergo a soft credit check and — assuming you’re not a major risk — you’ll get a package in a few days.

If the AirPods I ordered were used before, there was no clear sign of it. They came sealed and charged, and paired perfectly with my iPhone. And it didn’t take long to confirm what I already suspected: they’re nice if you’re all-in on Apple hardware, but I’d personally go with Sony’s WH-1000XM4 instead.

For people who hold onto their possessions for a long time, Grover doesn’t make much sense. But if you’re one of the many gadget lovers that’s always on the lookout for newer, better options, Grover is a solid way to get your fix for a few months at a time. And once these lightly used headphones go back, it’s nice to know they won’t wind up in a landfill because they weren’t for me.

Buying used gadgets

With that said, it’s in our collective best interest to make sure our tech is used for as long as possible. And Thibaud Hug de Larauze, founder of Back Market, has been working on giving old devices new life since launching the service in Europe in 2014.

There’s no shortage of place to buy pre-owned tech on the Internet: Swappa is a great source for gadgets, and I still buy retro phones on eBay. But Back Market — which expanded to the United States in 2018 — works a little differently. Rather than serving as a hub for individual people to sell their old stuff, Back Market liaises with a sprawling network of refurbishers and repair shops to score discounted prices on smartphones, tablets and computers that deserve a second chance.

Of course, not all repair shops are equally trustworthy.

“Out of 100 sellers that apply to Back Market, we only accept 30 percent,” de Larauze said. After that initial application, refurbishers have to fill out a five-page technical survey about their repair processes, and then work through a trial period where they’re limited to five sales a day for well over a month. Repair outfits that try to game the system, or don’t offer products up to the Back Market team’s standards, quickly get the boot.

In theory, that rigorous audition should mean most products on Back Market are up to snuff, but you’ll still need to do some research. Each listing highlights the company that repaired or refurbished the product, including their location, number of items sold and overall rating.

To prevent you from falling into the weeds, Back Market uses an algorithm to highlight deals it believes offers the best mix of price and overall device quality. (A phone rated “fair” will cost less but look definitively used, while an “excellent” product should look nearly untouched.) Just know that there are some potential caveats.

For one, you almost certainly won’t get your gadget in its original packaging, and with all its original parts — replacement batteries from third-party sources are very common. The site’s nature means it also isn’t the place to go when you’re hunting for the holidays’ hottest products. For me, that became apparent after poking around on their website for a bit.

As it turns out, Back Market’s algorithmic curation system isn’t always perfect — the morning I spoke to de Larauze, the website was touting a deal on a refurbished Xbox Series S, a game console that has steadily become harder to find as Christmas draws closer. The problem? Back Market was selling that pre-owned machine for $339.98, or nearly $40 more than the same console would cost brand new. (After our conversation, Back Market quickly pulled the listing.)

Eventually, de Larauze wants to close the circle by giving customers ways to sell their old products to refurbishers through Back Market. That system is already live in the company’s native France and is slated to go live in the United States in January — just in time to deal with a glut of gadgets that just got replaced by new presents.

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