EWC Second Hand Challenge: don’t chuck your junk in my backyard

The Ethical Writers Co. of which I am a part has decided to host a Second Hand Challenge for the month of September. That means something different to each of us, but we’re all hoping to bring to light the beauty of buying second hand. I’ve gone on and on about the benefits of secondhand shopping already, even writing an article about it for Relevant Magazine, but I’m still learning to Shop Secondhand First for everything instead of impulse buying on Amazon.

Since I manage a thrift shop, my perspective on the secondhand industry is perhaps more obsessively parsed out than most. While I think that the used goods market is a vital middle man between retail stores and the landfill, it is by no means a perfect system. For one, a lot of donors assume that everything they give to thrift shops and other charities will find a happy home and go on to live a full life, but that’s just not the case. At my shop – and I think we’re rather generous about what we keep – we often get rid of nearly 50% of what comes in on any given day. We send most of that off to another charity in the hopes that they’ll find some use for it, but we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t admit that half of that pile will end up being thrown out.

“…we often get rid of nearly 50% of what comes in on any given day.”

This is the biggest pitfall of the secondhand market: it operates (for many) as a guilt release valve for over-consumption. People don’t feel bad about buying new stuff because they know they can hand over all their old stuff to charity. They don’t have to deal with the burden of tossing it in the trash.

This point assumes, of course, that people tend to feel guilty about throwing things away, but that’s not true for everyone. Some people give to thrift shops simply because it makes them feel like they’ve done their good deed for the week. One donor even told me that she considers donating her stuff to thrift shops her primary act of goodwill, as if handing over unwanted items to us is a heavy burden for her. While I’m sure every charity shop is immensely grateful that people donate, it shouldn’t replace real activism. The donor-receiver relationship is mutually beneficial; it’s an exchange, not a great moral deed.

“If we acknowledged the people behind the products we purchased, I think it’d be much harder to part with them.”

Another downside of the secondhand market’s existence is that it allows people to be flippant about their possessions and the human and environmental costs of production. If we acknowledged the people behind the products we purchased, I think it’d be much harder to part with them. I’ve made it a habit to pray for the makers of the things I buy, use, and wear whether they were fairly sourced or not, not so much because I think my prayer will change the lives of those I pray for, but because I think the habitual act of prayer will change my heart for the better – it will orient my thinking toward justice and intentionality.

Despite its shortcomings (but let’s be honest, they’re really our shortcomings), shopping secondhand is still a very good thing, because it gives perfectly usable things another chance to live our their intended lives instead of being thrown out or otherwise abandoned. And everyone can benefit from the secondhand market: people with lower incomes have access to nice things, shopaholics can curb their spending, landfills don’t fill up so quickly, local charities receive financial support, and the people who made the goods in the first place are remembered and respected through the long term use of their products. But, as with everything in this life, we must act responsibly.

Shopping secondhand is a budget friendly way to shop more sustainably and I’m determined to get in the habit of buying more than just clothes on the secondhand market. Vacuum cleaners, coffee pots, printers, paper, CDs, gift wrapping – there are lots of surprising things to be found at your local thrift. Plus, there are a ton of other ways to get exactly what you’re looking for on the secondhand market thanks to marketplaces like ebay and thredup; or you could host a swap with your friends or in your community and find things you love for free (plus, passing things on to the specific people you know will value them is often a better option than donating willy-nilly to a thrift shop). I figure that if I can buy something that’s on a slippery slope to the landfill instead of buying new, that’s a small win for sustainability.

“Vacuum cleaners, coffee pots, printers, paper, CDs, gift wrapping – there are lots of surprising things to be found at your local thrift.”

So follow along with me and the EWC this month as we take on the #ethicalwritersco Second Hand Challenge. If you use our hashtag on social media, we’ll be able to see what you’re up to and get some inspiration! You may be a novice to shopping secondhand or a seasoned pro, but we want to know how you’re taking advantage of charity shops and online consignment sites to create a more sustainable, less wasteful life.

Additional Reading:

From the EWC:

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  1. Leah Wise
    September 6, 2015 / 7:12 pm

    Thanks for the idea; I would like to put together a practical guide, but really, anything that has some life left can be donated. If the thrift shop can't use it, they'll pass it on to a textiles processor. It's not that we should stop donating, it's that we should be aware that donating isn't a solution for overconsumption. We still need to try to reduce our consumption overall and maybe pass things on to people we know will want them before we donate (either in our network of friends or on Craigslist or freecycle); both of these things will help reduce the amount of stuff that gets thrown out. Are you into ebay? You can select "preowned" as a sort option and then find the exact thing you want secondhand instead of buying it new.

  2. Rea
    September 3, 2015 / 10:43 pm

    I'd love to see a list of guidelines about how to determine what should and shouldn't be donated! The bulk of my donating is usually clothing that my boys have outgrown; I try to toss everything that has holes or stains, but aside from the obvious, I don't know where the line is about what to donate. (And in our area, at least, clothing for tween/teen boys is devilishly hard to find in thrift or consignment stores. Especially if you have children who refuse to wear jeans.)Love the 'Do's and Don't's' list, although I will confess that since I hate shopping (HAAAAATE) I don't really want to spend hours browsing thrift stores hoping to find something usable. The flip side of that is that since I hate shopping I also don't buy a lot of stuff new, either.

  3. Caitlin J.
    September 2, 2015 / 11:05 pm

    Great article! I love your "Dos & Don'ts" list. I've started shopping at my local Goodwill for a lot of things, recently. It's still hard to fight the, "I like this, I might find a use for it someday, so let's buy it because it's cheap!" thought process–even at the Goodwill. I'm practicing, though! -Caitlinwww.midwestcoastsewist.com

  4. Anonymous
    September 2, 2015 / 12:37 pm

    I've been looking for a new desk for several months at local thrift stores and one of these days I will find just the right one! Great article!

  5. Leah Wise
    September 2, 2015 / 1:01 am

    Yeah; there are a lot of weird misconceptions about thrift shops. I think it's innocent ignorance for most people – they just haven't say down and thought about the fact that not everything will make it onto the sales floor.

  6. Leah Wise
    September 2, 2015 / 1:00 am

    Lol! I saw a cheese slicer at a thrift shop recently and thought about buying it, but then I thought maybe we already had one.

  7. Julia | Fair for All Guide
    September 1, 2015 / 6:49 pm

    I love shopping for household items secondhand. I recently found a cheese slicer for $0.49 and it felt like Christmas!

  8. Hanna Bar-or
    September 1, 2015 / 3:39 pm

    Great post, Leah!! I'm glad you mentioned the downside of donating because I don't think people realize that a lot of those clothes get sent to landfills. I just had a conversation with a friend over the weekend about it because she thought she was doing a good deed by constantly donating, but had no idea that most of those clothes don't even make it to secondhand stores.

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