Why do we accumulate and throw away so much shi* (stuff)
Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale
by Adam Minter 2019
Why do Americans have to have so much stuff? Do we really need that much? At what point does it weigh us down and drain us instead of spark joy? And what happens to all our stuff when we give it away or try to donate it?
American families have found that the garage, basement and attic are not enough space to store their stuff, so self-storage units have proliferated everywhere to contain our bulging levels of things. Stuffed animals, old clothes, broken furniture, used books, stacks of record, VCR, and CD collections all sit unloved and unused in storage limbo. The lucky items end up in a resale store for someone else to fall in love with, but most of it will end up in a landfill, 3rd world country, or cut up for parts.
Secondhand- travels in the new global garage sale, by Adam Minter, is a fascinating journey into the world of secondhand dealers, from the Goodwill store down the street to the markets of Mexico and Africa where so much of our unwanted stuff ends up. Minter's first book- Junkyard Planet, was an interesting look at the recycling industry and this one takes us deep into the resale industry.
While Goodwill is a non-profit, its main goal is to train and support its employees, many of whom are down on their luck. The clothing and used furniture business is just a vehicle for them and others like them. Most donations end up at a Goodwill retail store, where it given roughly four weeks to sell at bargain-basement prices. Things that don't sell there go to a Goodwill outlet, where clothing is sold by the pound at even lower prices. The things that don't sell there get offered up for auction or shipped overseas, with the worst items being sent straight to a landfill.
Some of our unwanted clothes get made into rags (which then go to the landfill after they get nasty enough, and some get re-purposed by clever tailors into entirely new garments. Minter follows the path of these used items from the Goodwill store in Arizona down to the Mexican border where they take on a new life. Mexicans take a trip across the border not to immigrate, but to find bargains that they can resell to less discriminating buyers. The process of grading and sorting is fascinating, as those with a good eye for quality have to go through huge piles and throw them into different piles with different destinations. Repeatedly the dealers complain about the declining quality of American clothing, (Forever 21 gets mentioned repeatedly) and the fact that fast fashion pieces don't hold up in the wash like clothing used to. Because fashion trends move so quickly now, longevity isn't valued in the clothing industry.
There's a chapter called "The Good Stuff," that briefly covers the non-clothing items like antiques and collectibles. Antique stores are in decline according to Minter, mainly because younger generations don't want the crap their parents amassed. Furniture prices are way down from where they used to be, and things like dolls, figurines, Beanie Babies, and china sets are hard to move at any price. The few big ticket items you see on Antiques Roadshow are not representative of the antique market- full of plenty of sellers and not enough buyers.
Used items from China are deemed worthless by many of these brokers, and blue jeans from America still are in demand in the most active markets in Africa. While Africans are an eager audience for our cast-offs, the secondhand industry has emaciated Africa's textile industry before it can get off the ground. Very little clothing is made in African factories these days.
The most interesting expose that Minter provides is the claim that infant car seats expire after 5 or 6 years. Manufacturers hope to boost sales of new car seats by crushing the infant seat re-sale market. According to Minter there is no evidence provided by the makers of car seats that any of this is true, but Americans accept it anyway. This ties into the general discussion of planned obsolescence, where resale markets are the enemy and everything is designed for one and only one user.
Appliances aren't lasting as long as they used to - in part because they're made with cheaper parts to lower prices, and in part because there's no repair manuals and parts are hard to come by. Apple is one of the worst offenders because of the way they've made their batteries sealed inside of tablets and phones. As battery life gets shorter, they want you to buy an entire new device rather than replace the battery. Many secondhand appliances that end up overseas like televisions, computers, and even cars get salvaged for parts rather than fixed because the replacement parts are unavailable. Cars are now dependent on complex computers, and without the correct software that manufacturers don't always want to share- they can become unrepairable.
Minter describes a website named Ifixit where people share knowledge about how to fix unfixable products like Iphones and televisions, since the manufacturers don't want to encourage re-usage. There have been right to repair laws passed in some areas that force the companies to share this information, which is the only way to get them to cooperate. So many things end up in a landfill that can be recycled and as stuff continues to pile up, this problem will need to be dealt with by future generations.
Adam Minter is somewhat of a worldwide expert on how things get disposed of and recycled, having grown up in the junk business and turned into a globe-trotting journalist. He covers the secondhand market from North America to Japan to Ghana to Malaysia, speaking with the people who deal with this stuff day after day. I found it fascinating to follow the trail that he visits, and agree with his opinions that we are wasteful and judgmental when it comes to used stuff.
If your house was in the path of a forest fire and would go up in blazes in 30 minutes, what would you choose to save? People and pets- not stuff. Most of the stuff we have is worth way less than we think it is. The endowment effect is a cognitive mistake we make by overvaluing anything that we possess. Our stuff is no more valuable than anything similar just because its ours- we just think it is. Sure, things have sentimental value, but there are limits. Chaining yourself to your possessions robs you of opportunities to enjoy other experiences.
Minter starts the book with a gruesome interview of a company called Empty the Nest. Their job is to go into homes of dead people and sort through all the crap they left behind. Some of it might be valuable, but most gets sold or tossed. Having dealt with estate sales for my parents and having to part with a lot of my own stuff during our mold emergency, I know how attached we get to stuff and how hard it is to let go. But we're only here for a limited time, and you can't take it with you. (Plus in many cases your kids don't want it either.) Reading this book and listening to the voices of people who deal with tons of unwanted stuff made me appreciate things in life that are more important than stuff.
I close with the words of Japanese expert Marie Kondo, who has made a fortune helping other de-clutter their lives.
“The best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it. This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.”
“When you come across something that you cannot part with, think carefully about its true purpose in your life. You’ll be surprised at how many of the things you possess have already fulfilled their role. By acknowledging their contribution and letting them go with gratitude, you will be able to truly put the things you own, and your life, in order. In the end, all that will remain are the things that you really treasure. To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose.”