I looked around my apartment the other day and realised just how much of what I own came to me secondhand. Books, clothes, pots and pans, books, furniture, lamps, bedding, books, dishes, cutlery, knitting and sewing materials, art, bikes, and did I mention books. Some things have come to me as hand-me-downs, far more have come from secondhand stores, and easily 85 percent or more of what I own is secondhand in some way.
Ethically, this feels okay to me. If I had the means, I’d buy whatever locally made, handmade artisanal goods or fair trade items were available. I already do this with food as much as possible, and I’d really like to expand. One day, I hope this will mean buying from – or trading or bartering with – local individuals who knit and sew clothing, throw pottery, blow glass, forge metal, and do all kinds of other cool things that result in locally handcrafted goods that can be acquired directly from their creator. But although I do what I can, my budget hasn’t ever really stretched far enough to allow for this kind of consideration for every purchase. Instead, I focus on food and try to make the rest of my consumption practices as ethical as I can within my limitations. For now, this means trying to cut down on consumption in general (something I’m better at some times and worse at others), and buying used whenever I can.
Although I know it’s not for everyone, here are some of the reasons that secondhand shopping works for me. First, I’m helping keep things out of the landfill by using something that someone else could have just thrown away. I’m also not supporting an industry that engages in highly questionable production practices, environmental destruction, and increasing wealth disparity and inequality. Yes, I’m still buying stuff, which involves consumerism and at least some of the not-so-great things that entails, and there are still some questions about the labour and environmental practices associated with some thrift stores. But I’m not helping to create a market for new goods made in sweatshops that spill toxic chemicals into water supplies. Furthermore, much of what I spend goes to the charities that help people find work, supply goods to those who need them, support animal shelters, or provide wishes to terminally ill children.
There’s also something to be said for being able to buy quality goods. Even when shopping secondhand stores, I always try to buy things that are well made and meant to last, and buying used means that I can afford much nicer things than I would if I were buying new. This means I get cast iron, wool, solid wood, silk, thick leather, handmade pottery, sturdy denim, and hardbound books instead of plastic, polyester, PVC, acrylic, paperbacks, and other goods that aren’t always as well made. I also find that they last longer, are more easily repaired, and get thrown out far less quickly, all of which are valuable qualities.
There are some drawbacks, of course. I understand that having and being able to make use of huge, well-stocked thrift stores is predicated on a culture of waste and throwaway items. Without people buying stuff and then getting rid of it long before its worn out, being able to buy used goods would be less of an option. But, given the alternatives – such as not having thrift stores and letting things go to waste – I’m still okay with this.
I also recognize that thrift stores let me participate in consumerism just as much as the next person. In a good month (or bad, depending on perspective), I can pick up a few cookbooks, some dishes or kitchen items, a sweater, a pair of jeans, and a selection of novels. I’m not sure that this is all that much better than what the average person buys in a month, aside from the fact that what I buy is used. I don’t think I’ve broken the habit completely, I’ve just found a way that lets me feel better about it and allows me to spend a lot less money in the process (although this is also something that I’d like to work on).
Overall, though, I think secondhand shopping is worth it, a fact to which the volume of stuff in my apartment would probably attest. Practically speaking, it can cost significantly less than buying new, has environmental and social benefits, and can yield quality goods. But for me, I think it’s important to note that it’s also enjoyable. It becomes a challenge to find the good stuff in and among the dreck and to keep my final total as low as I can. Some days I find stuff, some days I don’t, but in the end, it’s a good feeling to know that although I’m still shopping and consuming, I’m doing so in a way that is a better match with my values.