Quality Stuff is Better Secondhand

My new resolve after reading Adam Minter’s book, Secondhand

It was a typical occurrence in my household that we would get up early on the weekend and drive out to a thrift shop. But this Sunday was different from the others. I had my own money in my pocket now. Saved up from what I’m sure my ten-year-old self equated to hell’s own workshare program. I walk through the aisles of secondhand clothing and shoes wonder what I could spend my money on. I stumble across a basket full of used CDs. I pick up the one on top. I have absolutely no idea who the band is, but to me, it is beautiful. It is the perfect item for me to spend my money on. My mother helps me kindly straighten my crumpled dollar bills and give them to the cashier. I jump into the van and grin to myself, so proud that I was the owner of The Hooters’ fourth studio album, ZigZag.

zigzag cd

CD listing image on Ebay

This story is the first time I ever truly felt like I purchased an asset. Several decades later, I realized that my first real asset was previously owned and how vital the secondhand market is. My interest in sustainability has always ensured I look at consumer goods differently, but reading both of Adam Minter’s fantastic books (Junkyard Planet and Secondhand) has further opened my eyes.

This is not a book review, but more of my key takeaways from Adam’s Secondhand book and how I look at my own buying patterns differently.

The supply chain isn’t over when you think it is

There are so many great stories in Secondhand. The book’s power is the people in each node of the supply chain that Adam exposes so well. To that end, I will not divulge that content as you should pick up a copy of the book to read about the people doing God’s work after most consumers consider the supply chain done. Instead, I will just summarize a few topics and data points.

Let’s take an example of a Champion sweatshirt

Champion, Hane’s second-largest brand, is a USA sports clothing and equipment brand that many are familiar with as it has been serving sports around the world since the early 20th century. A staple of their clothing line is the grey branded pullover. I had quite a few of these growing up.

champion sweater

Listing picture on Ebay

1. Manufacture

Having been in the shipping industry sometimes and a quick google on some previous supplier governance shows their primary source for clothing are China and Taiwan. So, it is safe to assume that a sweatshirt you purchase in the USA today likely came from China.

2. First use

You purchase the sweatshirt at a local Walmart and wear it every day. It is definitely everyday wear, and you will eventually get it stained. If you are like the average American, you will likely try only once to get the stains out, and if it doesn’t work, it will go into a box to be disposed of later.

3. Second sale attempt

When you dispose of it, you might try to sell it on one of the famous consumers to consumers (C2C) sites like Craigslist, Offerup, or one that I have now had a good experience within Denmark, Trendsales. But with the availability of cheap Asian clothing, this sweatshirt can go for just ten dollars, new, in the USA. Why would someone spend $5 for a used one?

For perspective, I found the below passage very apt.

Is it China’s fault that quality is in decline? No. China and other fashion manufacturing countries are simply manufacturing to the standards set by foreign companies seeking cheaper factories. Walmart and Ralph Lauren, alike, bet that price — more than quality — moves product. As it turned out, they were correct, and nobody in Germany complained when Walmart dropped the price of its in-house George jeans from $26.67 to $7.85 in the space of a few years. — Adam Minter

4. Donation

This sweatshirt will likely not get sold to another consumer in your neighbourhood. Instead, it will probably be donated to a company like Goodwill. (I learned so much about Goodwill in Secondhand! I had no idea it was a multi-billion dollar company. I have a newfound respect for the company after reading the stories of the people who work there as well).

The local Goodwill often has a drive through. The book shows excellent insight into the sorting process in the Southern Arizona Goodwill. These sorting experts can assess the value of something in just one or two seconds. Though admittedly not an exact science, years of market intelligence can help weigh brand names, material, style and overall quality of clothing that comes in. These sorters will route an Armani T-shirt into a different box than the old Champion sweatshirt. The boxes are typically pre-assigned a price tag for ease of sale so that Champion sweatshirt will get a $2.99 tag along with similar items in the box like a Harley Davidson trucker hat.

The Champion sweatshirt then makes it to the showroom floor of Goodwill, where it hopefully will get picked up. Though not as surprising as I thought, over 2/3rds of goods are not sold on the floor, and after a month or two, that unsold Champion sweatshirt will move over to the outlet to be sold by the pound.

5. International sale

This is where the secondhand market gets very interesting. From the reading, that sweatshirt would likely be sold to a clothing exporter in Canada.

Mississauga sorters sort, price, and ship perhaps as much as 1/3rd of all the used clothing generated in Canada and the United States.

Just look at Canada Fortune Group’s website, boasting numbers such as 2.7 TRILLION pounds of clothing moved!

It would get picked up from some major secondhand importers worldwide, with Secondhand highlighting markets in Ghana, Singapore, Mexico, and others. But one visual that stood out to me was Adam’s imagery of a street market in Japan, where, in 2016, the secondhand market in Japan was a $16B industry. 20M used-clothing consumers (1/6th population).

6a. Second consumer sale

japan market

Photo by Benjamin Wong on Unsplash

Japanese secondhand markets show how one article of clothing can be viewed from 2 different vantages. A simple grey Champion sweatshirt is tagged as ‘1980s knit’ and priced at $60. This is something that would be tossed by USA secondhand retailers.

Fashion is primarily about value perception. That one Chinese sweatshirt, made for $1, sold for $10, given away for free, unsold at $2.99, transported to Japan for $5, ends up sold as vintage American sportswear for $60. What a wild ride one light grey sweatshirt can have!

6b. Rags

Of course, the alternative destination for that sweatshirt is the fantastic rags industry. The rags industry is often the last stop for fabrics of no fashion value. There are some wonderful stories of the people squeezing the last bit of value out of the mountainous waste of the modern consumer. However, let’s pretend the sweatshirt was sold and is now a Japanese teenager’s favourite outfit.

Quality over convenience

While I have always thought of myself as conscious of the toll my consumption had on the world, I felt new resolve by closing the back cover of Secondhand. I feel compelled to make sure I am always conscious of the life cycles of products when making decisions on how I consume. Sometimes it is easy to forget that throwing clothes or an old IKEA table into the donate pile is really just the start of another journey. But when you shift your mindset to purchasing quality goods, you will find the secondhand marketplace a much better experience.

A key theme prevalent in the book is: quality. In the United States, it seems each year, more of my generation are willing to sacrifice quality for convenience. Things were no different in Hong Kong, where shopping for furniture allowed two choices: new Ikea or used Ikea.

We have actually been consuming a lot recently due to our international move. I must give my fiancé credit though we have got the majority of our furniture and winter clothes off secondhand markets. For example, when we got a bookcase, we found a custom 6 piece oak bookcase, of the finest Danish design, for free. The original owner was retiring and put it up on an online marketplace.

free wooden book cases

Free secondhand cabinets by Author

Similarly, when it came to buying some rain gear, I knew that quality was critical. I downloaded the Trendsales application and found some great Kansas waiters and raincoat for under 50% off MSRP, even though the tags were still on! This is why I like the term “secondhand market”, as it doesn’t imply that the good has been used, its just not the first sale.

There is no defect required for secondhand.

When you are looking for a cheap Chinese Champion pullover, buying new is just a fraction more than buying used unfortunately. But if you want something that will last you for a lifetime, then secondhand becomes a much better value proposition. Not only do you get to save money, but you also reduce demand for new products to be built for a desire that can be satisfied with something that was created years ago.

I think this is a vital subject and am glad that people like Adam Minter expose the proper length of the supply chain that we consumers rarely see. I highly recommend picking up his books and thinking about how your consumption fits into the lifecycle of goods. Are you at the beginning of the supply chain or at the end?

#homelife #sustainability #DIY #recycle #buying