WHAT HAPPENS TO THE out-of-style clothing we dump in the charity bin? Or the decades of furnishings downsizing empty-nesters donate to the local thrift shop? What follows the surge of self-satisfaction we feel as responsible recyclers, along with the hope that someone else will get a little pleasure from our discarded things? In Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, the intrepid Adam Minter sets off to find some answers, traveling from his home in Malaysia to interview cleaners, sellers, sorters, exporters, and importers in Japan, India, West Africa, and North America.
As with his first book, Junkyard Planet (2013), which focused on the far-flung fates of discarded scrap metals, Minter, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, does his best to sift sense from dodgy data. But it’s his vibrant sketches of entrepreneurial characters and his dives into obscure industrial histories that make a persuasive case: discarded goods are becoming a big environmental problem.
Minter’s sources are very good at what they do. Minnesota antique dealers, thrift-store workers in the US Southwest, Mexican “pickers” at an Arizona Goodwill outlet, immigrants sorting and pricing huge bales of used clothing in Canada and Benin, the Japanese certified “cleanout professional” rummaging through the possessions of the recently deceased … these people take pride in their knowledge and ability to make quick decisions. Almost instinctively, they know what the ultimate buyer in Mexico or Nigeria will want — or, all too often, that there isn’t an ultimate buyer at all. More likely than not, those yellowed dress shirts, particle-board IKEA tables, and crates of vinyl albums are destined for the landfill or the incinerator.
Whatever their specialty, few of Minter’s experts are optimistic about the future of the secondhand trade. They aren’t sentimental about it. There’s just too much stuff and too much new cheaper stuff that will continue to compete with it.
For Westerners who can only view an environmental problem, fading consumer practice, or withering industry in a developing country as a direct result of their own profligacy or corruption, self-flagellation can only go so far. Yes, Americans throw away more than 100 billion pounds of furnishings, textiles, and miscellaneous “durables” each year, and very little of it will be reused. But the rest of the world is catching up fast. Sometimes the newly affluent consumers are ditching clothes and switching smartphones at a faster rate than their Western counterparts. In some cultures, owning secondhand things is shameful. Besides, the amount of products Asians in developing countries throw out each year will soon exceed all the annual discards of the Japanese and Westerners combined.
In other words, Minter says, “the democratization of stuff that began with the industrial revolution is quickening.” In middle-class homes of the most advanced economies, chinaware, oak furniture, and kimonos used to be passed on to grateful descendants. The excess shed by the wealthier once benefited the lower classes at home and, later, the emerging middle classes in poorer countries. Even in Southeast Asia, however, where outlets specializing in secondhand Japanese goods abound, the profit margins are narrowing quickly. A Japanese exporter who, a few years ago, was selling one billion dollars’ worth of used made-in-Japan electrical appliances — from refrigerators to computer monitors to chainsaws — to developing countries in Asia and Africa puts it succinctly: the bottom is falling out of sales of secondhand Japanese products as their prices are undercut by those of new Chinese appliances, even when they are of poorer quality. He is already preparing to move into another line of work: “No country is growing for us,” he says. “Vietnam is less than ten percent what it was at its peak. Nigeria is twenty percent off its peak.”
Despite the four million tons or so exported each year, the secondhand clothing trade is the most immediately endangered. It’s not just fast fashion (and it’s not your imagination): everyone involved in the business agrees that clothing quality has steadily deteriorated over the past three decades. And poor quality automatically limits the likelihood of reuse. The deterioration helps explain why clothing utilization — the total number of times a garment is worn — is falling worldwide, although not why it’s dropping fastest in emerging Asian economies.
China, which 20 years ago imported used clothing, is now starting to export its castoffs to Africa. If you believe the imperfect United Nations data, China may even be the world’s fifth biggest exporter of used clothes, just behind South Korea. The role of Chinese products and knockoffs in accelerating the demise of secondhand goods pops up everywhere. To the surprise of no one who has spent much time traipsing around greater Asia, Chinese quality gets no respect. People in Benin, India, and Mexico may buy that polyester knockoff, but they won’t overpay for it.
This attitude even surfaces in a giant swap market in Nogales, Mexico, a town just across the border from Arizona. There, shrewd buyers comb through hundreds of stalls for used appliances, bikes, toys, and kitchenware they can sell farther south. Minter’s Mexican guide, a secondhand shoe specialist, sneers at the clothing stalls manned by “chinos”: “Chinese bring in the new stuff from L.A. Mostly fakes and knockoffs. Everything is shit — even the good brands are shit.” A Nigerian trader in Cotonou, Benin, has a similar take: “Not everything from China is bad. Just what the Chinese send to Africa is bad. They save the good things for rich countries.”
A technological breakthrough is needed before much in the way of textiles can be recycled. And forget about recycling polyesters. For now, about 30 percent of recycled textiles end up as wiping rags, but as the expert rag makers — staff of yet another venerable industry on the verge — testify, it’s getting harder and harder to source quality used material, especially genuine cotton. The situation has become so desperate that Star Wipers, a major rag manufacturer in Newark, Ohio, now orders its own 100-percent-cotton rags straight from North Carolina fields and mills. And the ripples spread wider, always with negative environmental or labor repercussions. The cost and quality of polyester-based winter clothing, notably anything made of fleece, are killing off the capital of the wool recycling industry, the Indian town of Panipat.
Many readers, on finishing Secondhand, will be tempted to despair. Is there anything we can do to stem the tide? Decluttering? As with recycling, Minter suspects that the Marie Kondo philosophy may actually contribute to more consumption. Reselling online? The glory days of eBay auctions are long gone. Nowadays, a used item must be rare, expensive, or riding a nostalgia wave to sell online — think spare TV parts in the United States or vintage boom boxes in Japan. On the upside, there’s US demand online as well for secondhand apparel from high-end brands such as Lululemon Athletica and North Face. Patagonia even has its own division for resales.
Some small-scale conservation practices might need regulatory nudges to flourish. Many people are willing to pay a premium for a new dishwasher, washing machine, suitcase, or printer with a guaranteed lifespan. Supporting laws mandating that companies disclose how long a product is projected to last could stimulate demand for more durable goods. Right-to-repair laws requiring retailers to provide manuals, parts, and service plans would be another advance and are already pending in some European countries.
It’s unfortunate that Minter’s investigations didn’t extend to Europe. With some of the world’s most fervent recyclers and strictest ecolabeling and emission standards, Europeans might offer other auspicious paths. In the meantime, the best practices are worth reiterating. Buy good quality and only what you need. Buy secondhand. Resell. Repair. Recycle.