by David Zetland (originally published at One-handed Economist)
I read this 2019 book at record speed due to its breezy (“magazine”) tone and discussion of one of my favorite passions: reusing old stuff.
A few years ago Adam Minter wrote Junkyard Planet about the trash trade, but many readers told him about how they reused stuff rather than about their trash. Their passion led to this book (subtitle: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale) on the second-hand goods that are exported by businesses and non-profits in the US and Japan, via processors in India, to various Asian and African countries.
Perhaps the most important fact I learned is how little we know about the secondhand-world. Data is missing due to the “used” nature of the goods, their missing objective value (“one mans trash is another man’s treasure”), and the informal trade of “worthless” things among some very poor people.
That’s the summary. Now I will list my notes and highlights to summarize what I learned and why you might want to read it.
- Part of [North] Americans’ problem with having “too much stuff” can be traced directly to the huge amount of personal space that Americans enjoy. My girlfriend and I share 60m2 (600 square freedom units), which means that I often throw away (or donate) old stuff as new stuff comes in. Americans with garages, mini-storage, etc. tend to buy too much and definitely throw out stuff they’ve barely used.
- Governments “like” new stuff that can be taxed and added to GDP. That means they may disfavor reuse saves people money and reduces the environmental harms from production and disposal.
- Rich people can choose to be minimalists. Poor people are involuntarily so.
- Producers respond to our desire for more, new, cheap by reducing quality, which means we might not care for the goods but also reduces resale value. These dynamics put us another step away from a circular economy (aka, “Spaceship Earth”) and towards a throughput economy that increases resource use and environmental damages.
- The move from handmade and hand-me-down to fast fashion and psychological obsolescence means that people are more careless about their stuff, which drives the circle of high-speed, low quality consumption around once more.
- “Marie Kondo… is addressing the problem of an abundance or excess of stuff, which is a problem only if you’re of a certain class and can afford to have an abundance and excess of stuff. [S]he doesn’t actually address the consumption side of things… how and why stuff ends up in your home in the first place” [loc 659].
- Goodwill Industries began as a business to help underemployed people repair and refurbish used stuff for reuse. That model has changed to hiring professional managers to sell decent quality used stuff and then using the revenues to help the poor get jobs outside of Goodwill.
- The global trade in used stuff has been changing as China produces cheaper new things that grab people’s attention, further undermining reuse. “Between 2000 and 2015, global clothing production doubled, while the average number of times that a garment was worn before disposal declined by 36 percent” [loc 985].
- In Japan, there are businesses that will buy used stuff, so they get higher quality. In the US and Europe, old stuff is donated so people do not take care of it.
- The value of used stuff can rise and fall based on trends (e.g., typewriters and hipsters).
- “The democratization of stuff that began with the industrial revolution is quickening. In the nineteenth century, household objects that once held value—like dishes, glassware, and solid-oak furniture—began to lose it. By the early twentieth century, middle-class consumers could afford multiple sets of dishes and changes of clothes. Individuals further down the income ladder were still excluded from the new and fashionable, but thanks to the excess thrown off by wealthier consumers, they could participate via secondhand” [loc 1548].
- India, Mexico, Nigeria and Rwanda prohibit trade in used goods, which helps local producers but harms consumers and results in smuggling (and corruption).
- The secondhand world is ruthless about costs and profits, which maximizes trade-value-added as well as tonnage dumped in landfills: “more than half the apparel that arrives at Goodwill is unsold” [loc 2084]. (Japan’s landfills are expensive compared to the US, which means there are stronger incentives to reuse goods.)
- African buyers of bales of used clothes are businesspeople, not idiots:
‘“Do people send garbage? Not if they want to be paid. They learn what we will take. We are not a dump.” That’s an opinion at odds with fashionable Western perceptions and critiques of the secondhand-clothing trade. Instead of viewing it as an exchange of goods driven by African demand, Western critics tend to view it as an exchange between the savvy and the ignorant’ [loc 2375].
- “In fact, by easing consumer concerns over the environmental impact of consuming, and lowering the overall cost of raw materials (recycled raw materials compete directly with virgin), recycling can actually contribute to more consumption. There’s a reason that “recycling” is the third “R” in the familiar “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” environmental mantra: it’s the third best (or worst) thing you can do with stuff. When a consumer brand like Coca-Cola advertises the recyclability of its products, it’s not promoting sustainability. It’s helping sustainably minded consumers assuage their guilt” [loc 2857].
- Baby-car-seat manufacturers in the US add “expiration dates” to their products and tell parents to buy new (if they want their kids to live!) without any evidence of safety problems. They just want to sell more seats. (This is fucked.)
- Quality depends on the buyer’s goals. “Rather than design for the durability valued by business, most consumer appliance manufacturers will work on finding a way to ensure an attractive sticker price”… and thus build lower-quality, cheaper goods [loc 3202].
- Consumers do pay attention to quality but manufacturers can lie about it. (I have a few “100% cotton” shirts that are poly-cotton.) What to do? “Companies must be transparent about the lifespans of their products and attach a sticker or tag (physical in stores, and virtual for online) to their products informing consumers of just how long they’re projected to last, based on verifiable testing” [loc 3278].
- “Right to repair” laws should be enacted everywhere. (I tossed out an old dishwasher with a leaking hose because I could not access the back panel. Since it would cost €100 to get a service person to open the panel and €30 for an official plastic hose, it was more cost-effective for me to buy new.)
- The media loves stories about e-waste dumping in Africa or Asia, with stories illustrated by children burning bundles of plastic wires. The reality is that most goods shipped over the ocean have value (someone pays for shipping plus what’s in the container) so those fires only for the least valuable dregs of a sophisticated reuse and refurbishment industry. “Implicit in these editorial choices is the assumption that Ghanaians are incapable of doing anything with foreign technology other than burning it. That’s a failure to see the computer workshops in Agbogbloshie and around Ghana. And in many cases, it’s a failure to recognize that the developed world has something to learn from the developing world about managing stuff” [loc 3897].
- Waste colonialism is when rich-country politicians, rather than traders in markets, decide what’s “waste” (and thus prohibited from export) or not: “Whether acknowledged or not, debates over whether certain countries and peoples can import or export “waste” are, at their core, debates over whether certain racial groups should have access to material goods, and whether they should be required to use and dispose of them in ways that richer, usually white countries prescribe… As a white U.S. citizen… but also a business journalist with a career spent covering the global recycling and reuse industry. In that capacity, I’ve learned that ignorance, racism, and other prejudices are among the most intractable barriers to the development of globalized secondhand and recycling” [loc 3985]. Let the market work!
I enjoyed this book immensely for its confirmation of what I knew, its corrections of what I misunderstood, and its strong support for less consumption, quality repairable goods, and a vibrant market in used goods. I recommend that you read it but more strongly recommend that you examine your own consumption:waste ratio before buying anything this holiday season