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An Adventure Through The Afterlife Of Our Discarded Stuff In 'Secondhand'

"Secondhand," by Adam Minter. (Alex Schroeder/On Point)
"Secondhand," by Adam Minter. (Alex Schroeder/On Point)

The need for used items to have a secondhand life is increasing both in the U.S. and around the world. We unpack where your used, discarded and donated stuff ends up after its left your possession.


Adam Minter, columnist at Bloomberg Opinion where he writes about China, technology, and the environment. Author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.His new book is “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.” (@AdamMinter)

Interview Highlights

On the cultural impact of the industrial revolution on clothing

“You could even say there’s been a big cultural shift over the last 200 years. It’s the onset of the industrial revolution. Because if we just take clothing, for example … the idea 200 years ago that you would have a piece of clothing that you wear one to five times — which is what happens with most fast fashion — is absurd. I mean, somebody in your household would make that clothing. There would be a lot of labor that goes into it. There would be the necessity to purchase the fabric. It was a measure of wealth. There’s a reason why people gave things like linens and towels and other things as wedding gifts, because it was wealth. And it’s something that could be passed along.

“But now — a piece of clothing, a set of linens — you can go to Target, or Walmart or wherever it is. And it’s really, you know, you barely notice it coming out of your disposable income. So, what we have is we have increasingly cheap things. But it’s increasingly cheap, so it only lasts a few washes, and then you need to buy something else. And your children aren’t going to be interested in that $9.99 bed sheet. You know, they can go and buy their own $9.99 bed sheet, or perhaps buy something more expensive.”

On whether the textile or fashion industries contribute to climate change

“I mean, the numbers that are out there related to fashion, textiles and climate change are really quite alarming. By some accounts, that can be responsible for — in total — around 10% of global carbon emissions. And that number is probably growing simply because of demand for clothing. And, especially, the demand for low-cost clothing that doesn’t last very long is growing. Especially in emerging markets where we have new consumers who want stuff, and can’t afford a price point that allows you to make a more durable product. So, it is very alarming.”

Are we seeing attitudes around secondhand goods changing in China?

“Yes, you are. Partly, out of just flat necessity. I lived in Shanghai for 12 years. And there were two phenomena that I really noticed related to affluence there. A number one, the children got taller in my 12 years in China — nutrition got better. And two, the hallway of my apartment building started overflowing with stuff from people’s apartments. They were acquiring, too, but they didn’t have garages to put stuff. So, they just put it in the hallway. And that’s a pretty common thing you’ll find in Chinese apartments. And as homes in China overflow with all the stuff that they’ve been buying, you are seeing the emergence of secondhand businesses there, the kind of businesses you see here. They have their own versions of eBay’s and Poshmark’s and some of these new fashion platforms that allow people to buy and sell each other’s clothes.

“But, increasingly, that stuff’s only at the top-end. And, so, sort of the middle and lower-middle class clothing, sort of the targets — in the Walmart’s, in the clothing that’s accessible to most people — it doesn’t make sense, really, to be selling that stuff online. And so what’s happening there is sort of what’s happened in developed countries. It’s flowing to big wholesalers. And those wholesalers are starting to look abroad to sell that stuff. And in the last few years, the world’s fastest growing source of used clothing — including into Africa — has been from China. And that’s an interesting phenomenon. And not necessarily a good one for the used clothing trade globally, because it means that you have this flood of supply. And it’s driving down the price, and making new goods look more attractive.”

Why do we think objects are meaningful, rather than experiences around them?

“One of the things I found interesting in reporting this book is I spent a lot of time with the people who clean out other people’s stuff, both in the United States and in Japan. And along the way, almost all of them said the same thing: that having seen all of the stuff piling up in people’s homes, and seeing sort of the emotional effect it has on them — and their children, and other relatives and friends — they’ve stopped buying as much. They’ve stopped consuming as much because they see the negative effects of it mentally, socially, even spiritually. And they have transitioned to buying better stuff, buying less stuff, buying in terms of experiences. One cleanup professional in Minneapolis told me, ‘Our wedding gifts now are not, you know, the china. We are buying gift certificates, for restaurants or holidays somewhere.’ You know, again, it’s moving to those things that bring us together as people, and away from stuff, which oftentimes separate us.”

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale” by Adam Minter

Excerpt from SECONDHAND by Adam Minter, copyright © Adam Minter. Used by permission of Bloomsbury, an imprint and division of Bloomsbury Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Publishers Weekly:Review: Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale” — “Starting at what many people would consider the end of the story, when it’s time to dispose of possessions that are unwanted, unused, or broken, business journalist Minter (Junkyard Planet) takes readers on a surprisingly jaunty trip through the global market for secondhand goods.

“Starting at a storage unit in the Minneapolis suburbs and winding up in Ghana’s Golden Jubilee Terminal, a major import crossroads, with stops in Japan, India, and Malaysia along the way, Minter introduces a colorful cast of characters, such as 41-year-old “Shoe Guy,” a (self-declared) 35-year veteran of the U.S.-Mexico trade in used goods, and Robin Ingenthron, a Vermont entrepreneur who exports computer monitors from the U.S. to the developing world.

“Largely a portrait of an industry in decline due to items such as clothing becoming cheaper and less durable and higher ticket electronics being developed to insure that they are difficult to repair, Minter’s book reveals an economy hampered by an increasing overabundance of supply (“The things I value, I quickly realized, generally aren’t valuable to anyone but me”). This is a fascinating, eye-opening look at a dynamic, largely unseen world that only starts when one drops off something at a thrift store.”

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