'Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale' (Book Review)

What actually happens to your old unwanted belongings?

Secondhand clothing market in Tunis
Shoppers browse a secondhand clothing market in Rue du Liban, Tunis.

Thierry Monasse / Getty Images

We've all done it before – dropped a box of unwanted household belongings at a thrift store and driven off with a sense of accomplishment at having redirected those goods to a new life. But have you ever stopped to think about where those items actually go? As in, what percentage gets resold in your own community, or sent far away, or recycled into new products, or buried in a landfill? Even if you're one of the few who has contemplated it, there's very little information that reveals where secondhand goods end up.

Business journalist Adam Minter got thinking about this while cleaning out his deceased mother's home. Seeking reassurance that his mother's donated items would get used and not destroyed, Minter embarked on a journey that resulted in his latest book, "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale" (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019). After traveling extensively around the U.S., Mexico, Ghana, Malaysia, and Japan in search of answers, he found it to be a remarkably murky industry, with most governments lacking data on anything secondhand beyond cars, despite the crucial role that secondhand goods play in clothing, furnishing, and educating people worldwide. 

"Secondhand" begins with a detailed description of how Goodwill runs its stores in the United States and Canada. It's a huge enterprise with over 3,000 stores and an annual trash diversion rate of three billion pounds. But compared to how much stuff people throw away, it's hardly anything. Minter writes, 

"In 2015, Americans tossed out 24.1 billion pounds of furniture and furnishings, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ... In other words, Goodwill International collected just 3 percent of the clothes, furniture, and miscellaneous durables tossed out by Americans in the middle years of an affluent decade."

What I found fascinating was Minter's assessment of how Americans tend to view their old and surplus belongings – as charitable donations, rather than items that can be resold to recoup value. This differs from how people in Japan and other parts of Asia view belongings.

"Most people [in the U.S.] lack a financial incentive to take care of their things. So instead of seeing the end of an object's life as an opportunity to extract some last value from it (as people do with their cars), Americans view that object in philanthropic terms. It'll help the poor; it'll benefit the environment." 

Ironically, because Americans tend not to "invest" in high-quality items in the first place (in hopes of reselling them someday), they end up buying lower-quality products that cannot be reused as long; this in turn worsens the environmental impact.

Being an investigative journalist, Minter doesn't shy away from challenging some commonly-accepted assumptions about the global trade in secondhand goods. First, he debunks the notion that shipments of secondhand clothes from the developed world to Africa have undermined local textile industries. That's overly simplistic, he says. Contributing factors include declining cotton production due to land reforms and civil war, economic liberalization opening African markets to Asian competition, and cheap Asian textile exports growing faster to Africa than anywhere else in the world (including pirating of traditional Ghanaian fabric styles by low-cost Chinese factories). 

Secondhand book cover

Next, Minter talks about car seats – always a contentious subject and of particular fascination to this parent who always felt skeptical about throwing away seemingly perfectly good seats just because they'd reached an "expiry" date. It turns out, my gut instinct was right: There is no data to back up manufacturers' claims that car seats expire.

Failing to get satisfactory answers from American companies, Minter went to Sweden, which has some of the strictest child safety seat laws in the world and a goal of eliminating highway fatalities by 2050. He spoke to Prof. Anders Kullgren, head of traffic safety research at Folksam, one of Sweden's largest insurers. Kullgren told Minter, "We can't see any evidence to justify [replacing a product after a short period of time] from what we have seen in real-world crashes." Nor has Folksam detected any deterioration in the quality of plastic in seats that had been stored for up to 30 years. 

Minter concludes that "recycling" car seats (a service that Target offers), rather than reselling them on the secondhand market, is a wasteful endeavor that prevents infants and children in developing countries from being as safe as they could be otherwise. It's an uncomfortable, even shocking, statement to make in a society that's been conditioned to think that we should take zero risks with our children, but when you think about it in terms of our paranoia endangering other children's lives faraway, the situation starts to look different.

Minter calls it "waste colonialism," this idea that developed countries can or should apply their own preconceived notions of safety onto the markets of developing countries – and it's deeply wrong. Who are we to say that an expired car seat or an old television is unsafe if someone else, with a different skill set than ours, is perfectly capable of repairing it and willing to use it, especially if they cannot access new products as readily as we can and have few other options?

"Barriers that give moral and legal standing to businesses, governments, and individuals who choose to discard their goods – electronic or not – rather than have them used by people of lesser means, aren't good for the environment, and they certainly don't help clean up clutter. Rather, they become short- and long-term incentives to buy new and cheap - especially for those who can't afford quality."

What Can We Do?

The book delves into the huge problem of planned obsolescence and the obstruction of repairability by manufacturers who'd rather force people to buy new products than repair the ones they already own. (Hello, Apple.) Minter calls for initiatives to boost product longevity and repairability, but both of these would require intervention by the government. 

Longevity could be improved if products required lifespan labeling. "Logically, the [car] seat advertised to last ten years will outsell the one advertised to last six." This would spur businesses to seek economic incentives to design and market better products, and "the secondhand economy, now faltering in search of quality, would profit."

Mandating the right to repair would have a profound effect on product design because, as long as manufacturers are not required to explain if or how their products can be repaired, there's no incentive to make them more easily repairable. 

"The moment Apple or any other consumers electronics company is legally obligated to make repair parts and manuals available to shops and the public, it has an implicit incentive to make those parts marketable. And they'll do that by making devices easier to repair."

At the same time, people need to accept that what they view as waste, others view as opportunity. Minter disputes the photographs of Ghana's notorious e-waste dump at Agbogbloshie, which is probably what you've seen if you've ever looked at a picture of smoking TVs and computer monitors being stirred by workers. Westerners get fixated on the burning piles of e-waste, while ignoring the fact that extensive skilled repair has occurred prior to this endpoint, and that those same devices may have had their lives extended by multiple decades – a far more environmentally-responsible approach than tossing when it's time for an upgrade.

burning at Agbogbloshie
Men work at Agbogbloshie, in Accra, Ghana. Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty Images

Dealing with surplus stuff is only going to become a bigger issue as the global population grows in number and wealth. Minter argues that current secondhand goods traders are well-positioned to deal with much of this surplus and distribute it to where it's most needed; but the crisis in quality is compromising people's ability to reuse items, and this has to be addressed.

"Secondhand" is an informative and quick-moving read, full of interesting anecdotes and interviews with people doing unusual jobs you've probably never thought about before. It gives valuable perspective on a vast subculture that disseminates our used stuff around the globe, and is bound to shift any reader's perspective on how they shop, consume, and donate.

Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), $28