Where do you want your stuff to go when you die? If you’re like most people, as Adam Minter writes in his fascinating book Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, you want to see someone else find use for your belongings.
But the very fact that one might have things to distribute at life’s end has little historical precedence. As Minter writes, “The idea that a person may reach the end of life with more stuff than he or she can manage is new.”
Prior generations, especially those who experienced America’s Great Depression, worked hard to extend the life of their few possessions as long as they could. If something still could be used after its first owner died or outgrew it, it got passed down.
In the last century, this created an increasingly robust American market for secondhand goods. This arrangement continues into the 21st century, but tellingly, much of Minter’s story unfolds outside the United States, and even outside North America. Lurking behind all of it: the specter of slowly shrinking sales, due in varying degrees to worsened quality, competition from cheaply made new goods, and other factors.
Minter anchors his globe-spanning tale of material redemption on two themes: why we hesitate to send our goods straight to the landfill, and the extent to which others can actually acquire and use them.
To tell this story, he visits locations as far-flung as India, Malaysia, Mexico, and Benin, as well as multiple U.S. and Canadian locations. He prowls the bustling Goodwill operations in Tucson, shadows home clean-out crews from Minnesota to Japan, and interviews Ghanaian TV repairmen still reviving decades-old equipment (when they have parts to do so).
Perhaps due to his roots in business journalism, Minter rarely notes the spiritual side of his story, such as the Buddhist priests brought into some Japanese home clean-outs to help deal with spirits that might have clung to the dead’s belongings. In his hands, such details offer brief but unexplored color; if he interviewed any such monks, their stories didn’t make it into the book.
Yet the very existence of secondhand goods and markets embodies a moral view of our relationship to possessions. The durable construction on which secondhand markets depend both requires and fosters values of humility and generosity, as well as respect for the natural resources from which the objects came in the first place.
Similarly, to care well for something like a table or a pair of leather shoes anticipates both your own future needs and possible other users. It cultivates a mindset of stewardship rather than ownership.
When I recently returned from an 18-month, 41-country trip to research singleness within the global church, I rejoiced that my pre-trip self had left new Camelbak bite valves in an accessible part of my storage unit. The old valve had gotten severely cracked. Finding the new valves extended the life of a bottle I first found in a thrift store for about $1.50—a fraction of the retail price for a new model.
The previous owner had donated it due to a broken part where the valve attached to the cap. But since Camelbak stands by their products, I’m now on my second or third replacement cap, both of which I was sent for free.
Such stories prove rare in Secondhand. Instead, those Minter interviews repeatedly lament declines in quality, from particleboard desks and bookshelves to our increasingly synthetic-sourced clothes. Though no one admits it to him directly, the threat of dwindling business for secondhand retailers looms over many of the book’s conversations.
Even when goods do have considerable life left, younger generations may not value the same things their ancestors did. (Witness a Wall Street Journal report on the glut of baby-boomer-owned houses in now-less-desired locations.) And anyone who’s tried to sell perfectly good clothes at stores like Crossroads or Buffalo Exchange knows that it only takes a couple of seasons for the most on-trend-minded shoppers to lose interest in your otherwise usable garments.
As part of readying for my research trip, I tried to thin the wardrobe I put in storage. Between garage sales and a few online sales through Poshmark, I made maybe $30-$40 total—usually no more than two or three dollars per item. But I made a few hundred dollars selling select shoes online, thanks to my weakness for higher-end leather ones with a cult following. Through the thriving FlueMarket (hosted by John Fluevog shoes), I found buyers who wanted and valued shoes I probably would have struggled to sell at Crossroads.
Manufacturer practices like these are among the changes Minter recommends for helping us extend the life of our stuff while delaying its trip to the landfill. In one of the book’s more interesting chapters, he interviews the CEO of iFixit, who lobbies for improved product repairability. His company also develops extensive guides to fixing your own stuff—a resource I really could have used when my umpteenth Philips Sonicare quit working in Asia, partway through my trip and no more than two years into its working life.
Though Minter offers other good ideas for solving what he calls “a long-brewing crisis of quality,” he never reckons at length with the underlying question of why it matters whether our stuff can find new stewards when we die.
“Think of [my suggestions] as a program to boost the thrift stores, rag makers, and other stalwarts of used stuff,” Minter quips, late in the book. Well, sure, he’s a business journalist, and a descendent of a rag picker-turned-scrap-metal dealer. But should we make and buy durable things just to help these businesses thrive?
Elsewhere he gets closer to the heart of the matter: “Consumers in need of reassurance that their stuff is wanted and useful must, at some point, accept the idea that every object dies.” And where do those dead objects go? For that, perhaps, one must turn to Robert Macfarlane’s lyrical and leisurely book Underland, which he devotes to humankind’s complex and sometimes contradictory relationship to the earth’s underground.
“The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful,” Macfarlane writes. “Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.”
That relationship to the ground has acquired new urgency for me since moving to Alaska last fall. Here in Anchorage, the city landfill has only about 40 years left before we have to start shipping our trash somewhere else, causing collection costs to soar. Even worse, I’ve heard stories of a suspected tie between cancer rates among Arctic-dwelling Alaska Natives, and a secret-until-1992 nuclear waste burial that contaminated their “traditional Inupiat subsistence hunting and gathering grounds.”
While our particleboard bookshelves and petroleum-derived t-shirts may not have such a poisonous effect (one hopes), they still add to a future reckoning with all we’ve buried. That ought to sober Christians. In Creation Regained, Albert Wolters writes a line that’s haunted me ever since I read it: “God does not make junk, and he does not junk what he’s made.”
For many a 21st-century Christian, I suspect it’s easier to apply that insight to the people God made than to the rest of his creation. True, the psalmist did write that God “made [us] a little lower than the angels” (8:5), but how does a low view of his other creations honor the stewardship entrusted to us?
At different points in Secondhand, Minter notes the lack of ways to recycle or reuse certain kinds of materials and goods. (Elizabeth Cline also explored this issue in Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.) I humbly submit that this gap should challenge those of us who follow God to seek ways to see and use more landfill-bound items the way God does. Oh, for Christians in engineering and other fields to help us find more ways to redeem what we disregard as trash!
All of us could adopt some simple habits that extend the life of our goods. While in Brazil, for example, I made a few cuts to a plastic water bottle to improvise a silverware holder with drain holes that attached to the main drying rack (they washed all dishes by hand). Here are other ways you might redeem some of your possessions:
- Before throwing out old t-shirts, cut them up to use for rags. With most of my clothes in storage, I recently bought a used $1 XXL t-shirt for applying mustard plasters (I cut it up first). Others I know have turned t-shirts and coats into quilts and other household textiles.
- See if worn shoes can be repaired before you throw them out. A good cobbler can do wonders with soles and heel caps, not to mention holes in leather shoes. Sometimes that skill also extends to leather purses and luggage.
- Find out what castoffs local artists or craft teachers may want to use for projects. Cities like San Francisco and Seattle have developed artist-in-residency programs that give participants studio space, a stipend, and access to salvage materials from recycling center drop-offs. Some artists have done large-scale knitting with caution tape, while others have carved old hacksaws into tree sculptures that used the handle as a base.
- If you’re a more ambitious sort, consider repurposing other items. In my former communal house, we cut some of our old wine bottles into drinking glasses—carefully sanding them first, of course! All they cost was some labor and electricity, and if some broke, we could easily replace them.
- With basic tools and carpentry skills, you can even transform furniture. Over the years, I’ve learned how to paint and refinish various street-find pieces. A set of Ikea bed slats became a tall CD/book shelf, while other found boards were repurposed as a mail station for the house. More recently, I cut part of a broken futon frame in half with a mitre-box saw, then fashioned the combination shelf-and-standing-desk I'm typing on right now. Whenever I’m reunited with the desk and dresser in my storage unit, these pieces could take on a third life storing shoes or other items.
With practice, such creative thinking becomes more habitual. It can even prove a meaningful way to join God in his ceaseless pursuit of redeeming all the earth. While most of these suggestions cost more time and effort, they also offer a chance to invest in relationships current and new. I got to know my shoe guy better than anyone who’s ever been involved with what goes on my feet (except for my mom, who’s knit me a few pairs of socks). And cutting the wine glasses down became both a fun project and a chance for conversation with a housemate.
As the old hymn puts it, “This is my Father’s world.” Against the grain of our throwaway culture, Secondhand challenges us to see “trash” as God does, humbly stewarding his gifts so that they bless those who come behind us.
Anna Broadway is working on a book about the global experience of singleness. She is the author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity (WaterBrook).
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