The Afterlife of Stuff.
A Q&A with second-hand expert Adam Minter
Journalist Adam Minter has traveled the world researching the world of second-hand goods, and he has two written books that dive deep into “the afterlife of stuff.” We spoke with him about how different cultures in Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America perceive used goods and how social dynamics play into the secondhand industry. He also provided keen insights into common misconceptions about the used-goods industry.
Let’s start with some definitions or parameters around what is “second hand,” “used,” or “hand-me-down.” There are a lot of different words and descriptions out there. What phrasing or definitions do you find the most common or useful when talking about this topic?
I think that the best way to think of it is really in terms of “second ownership.” There’s primary ownership and then it goes on. I’m looking around this room right now: my son’s notebook is a single use item, meaning it’ll have one owner. Whereas the wool shirt I’m wearing right now is a second hand item. As far as I know, I’m the second owner of it. And it probably will have other owners—if not my son at some point, you know, somebody else. So I think it’s really best thought of in terms of ownership chains.
In your time researching, reporting, and then sharing your two books with the world—Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale and Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade—what is something you’ve noticed the average person gets wrong, or doesn’t understand about the second-hand industry?
That’s a pretty easy question because it’s almost always the same misunderstanding, and that is the idea that goods shipped to developing countries and emerging markets are dumped.
There’s a lot packed into that. On the side of the person shipping, there’s this idea that, well, it’s garbage, or what I consider garbage, so it’s defined as garbage. And that’s wrapped into a misunderstanding of the economics. This stuff isn’t sent, it’s purchased. For my book Secondhand in particular, I spent a lot of time in emerging markets with people who buy second hand goods from around the world. And that’s what they do. They buy them and they pay for the shipping and, you know, shipping something from say the east coast of the United States to Ghana, where I spent time after the book, is expensive. It’s about $5,000 for a shipping container, there’s taxes and everything else. And so the only reason people would do that is because they believe that they can resell that stuff and make a profit off it. And so that’s not dumping, I mean, that’s trading. And so I really tried in the course of my career as an author in particular to break down sort of these prejudices we have about this trade and show that, you know, no, it’s not dumping, it’s actually people importing things that they want to sell and ultimately reuse.
In your travels all over the world, exploring the different ways in which people use these used and re-used, owned and re-owned products and materials, culture seems to be a major factor. Can you compare and contrast the major differences between how the U.S. portrays, views, and treats used products to what you’ve seen in other parts of the world?
I think the biggest difference, and it took me a long time to fully appreciate how powerful this difference is, is an Anglo-American view of used stuff as something that is to be donated. We see that all over America and in the UK—if you have used things you don’t know what to do with it, you take it to Goodwill. And Goodwill has sort of become the Kleenex, if you will, of thrift. It’s just ‘drop it off at Goodwill.’ There are other thrift options just as there are other tissue options, but we refer to Goodwill and it’s a donation model.
In most other places in the world, but especially in emerging markets, secondhand goods are viewed in terms of value. There’s something to be sold, there’s something to be priced and if they can’t be sold, there’s a cost to disposing of them. And I think in North America in particular, we don’t have that. As a result, I think it makes it very easy for people to buy more stuff because they can always say, well, I can always drop it off at Goodwill and there’s no cost for the acquisition. They don’t need to worry about the pricing, whereas that’s not so much the case in other places.
One of the things I think that’s been really interesting and secondhand in the U.S. in the last few years is the rise of more secondhand trading sites like Poshmark. All of these people are starting to shift away from this donation mindset and starting to see the value in the things that they have, and that creates marketplaces. So I do think it’s changing in the U.S.
Thinking about culture and the income inequality that exists in the U.S.—how does that play a role in the reuse economy?
Well, I don’t think it’s just about this country. In reporting Secondhand, I spent quite a bit of time in Japan reporting there because they have a very well-developed secondhand industry—far more developed than we have here in the U.S. They even have this wonderful newspaper trade magazine and I spent some time with the editor of that. She’s an incredibly knowledgeable, wonderful person. And she said to me at one point: One thing I’ve learned about secondhand is that it always exists where there’s inequality. It’s driven by that. We can have this notion that it’s good for the environment, and it is. We can have this notion that expands access to different kinds of goods, and it does, but ultimately, the robust trade—the existence of places like Goodwill or the existence of certain types of online marketplaces, and certainly the existence of the international trading news, which is a multi, multi, multi-billion dollar business—it exists because of income inequalities, and that there are people out there who are not able to access new goods and what are ordinarily new-goods-price-points. And so they opt to join the consumer economy through secondhand goods, and that is a story of income inequality, no doubt about it.
One of the reasons why I really enjoy reporting on second hand and writing about second hand so much is because you get these intersections of groups that are otherwise isolated from each other. And to some extent it’s because of markets and price points. I mean, one of the coolest things about used clothes and used gear or phones is it allows people to get an expensive product at lower price points, and that’s really exciting to me because it expands access. If you’re thinking about gear, it expands access to different kinds of recreation and different outdoor opportunities, and in that way, allows different communities to come together and interact in ways that they may not otherwise do it.
You’ve said before that the best thing people can do is not buy more stuff. What do you mean by that?
In my work on secondhand stuff, I have two tracks. I see from my perspective, you know, both an environmental, but also sort of a social and psychological benefit to buying less stuff.
On one hand, I talk about the environmental impact, and the environmental impact of buying new stuff as well-documented: it requires raw materials, cutting down trees, digging holes and grounding, and there’s also the carbon component. One of the things we know because people analyze the lifecycle of products is the biggest environmental impact in the lifespan of a good—say the phone I’m talking on or the garments I’m wearing—the biggest environmental impact, upwards of 90%, is in the manufacturing stage. And so if we can manufacture less stuff, we’re lowering our overall environmental impact on the environment.
The second track that I talk about is the emotional toll. The origins of my Secondhand book in large part were cleaning out the home of my mother after she passed away. That’s a very difficult process. And everybody goes through it with a relative or a friend or something where you’re finding yourself having to decide what to do with these things that are really important to the people that you’re around. For me, that made a huge impact because I spent time with businesses that clean out people’s homes in the U.S. and in Japan, and it was just heartwrenching. I’m not saying people should stop buying stuff, but don’t leave that kind of a legacy to your friends and relatives if you really care about them, because it creates real emotional work.
We’re all going to buy new things. I buy new things. I get very nervous when people sort of depict me as somebody who’s living like a monk with a bunch of stuff that I bought at Goodwill. I assure you, I am not. And as the father of a six-year-old, or anyone who’s a parent you know you do end up buying new stuff. That’s part of it. But what I do try and point people towards, and I think this is especially relevant to the gear industry actually, is if you’re going to buy new stuff by, with that second owner, that third owner, that heirloom in mind, and you can do that with gear, you know, don’t buy that cheapest thing if you really care about the environment.
And if you really care about the people in your life who may one day be left having to clean this stuff out, then buy stuff that will maintain its value. I’m very cognizant of the fact that that’s a privilege, I mean some people can afford to buy that object, that pack, whatever it is that will last for four or five owners, and some people can’t. But if you can do it, do it because you’re not only doing something for the environment, you’re not only doing something for your family, but in a sense you’re doing something for the secondhand economy, you’re making sure that they have stuff that could be sold and resold and sold for seasons.
So when buying new, buying high-quality or durable goods is almost a form of wealth redistribution?
Absolutely. I totally agree. I’m really excited to see bigger companies embrace repairing and reselling used gear because not only will it expand options for consumers, but ultimately I think these companies are going to have to start making better stuff so that it can be sold and resold. And to me that’s super exciting.
We couldn’t agree more. Good gear is built to last, that’s why we encourage everyone to Wear it Out™. As always if you have perfectly usable gear gathering dust, list it and sell it. And, whenever you’re in the market for gear that’s in great shape and costs a fraction of new, we’ve got it. May the circle of gear life continue.
*This interview has been edited for clarity.
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.
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