Shopping secondhand starts off for most as an act of frugality. We notice that buying a car, a computer, a TV, furniture, guitar, sweater … anything! … is so much cheaper if it’s been used for a year or two prior, maybe even shows a bit of wear, that unsightly scar on the paint job or the stain from an errant cup of coffee. We take joy in finding stuff for unbelievably good deals.
As students or budding entrepreneurs or just run-of-the-mill misers, this discounted shopping makes perfect sense. In fact, it makes having some things, what would otherwise be unattainable, possible. All of this stuff is still perfectly functional, often even downright optimal. Simply, because it lacks the thrill of “brand new,” which instantly puts items on a pedestal, sometimes quite literally a showroom pedestal, the price takes a nosedive.
After all, many of us were brought up in worlds in which secondhand equated to other people’s old stuff as opposed to logical options. If it wasn’t good enough for them, but it’s good enough for us, then it would seem we are somehow lesser. Of course, our sensible brain knows this is nonsense, but the reality of cultural norms, antiquated ideals, can be challenging to get over.
Well, for me, for a myriad of reasons, this is one cool kid faux pas I’ve learned to live with: Secondhand shopping is not just about budgeting anymore; rather, it is something we should all be doing for the good of the planet, for our fellow humans and for the other things—sentient or not—with which we are sharing the planet.
Secondhand for the sake of the planet
What does it take to make a product, say the computer upon which this article is being typed, and what does it take for that to reach consumers? When we think about it, even on just the most basic of levels, every new product costs the planet an insane amount of resources and causes a bewildering amount of destruction.
Looking at a laptop, we can identify metals that have to be mined and refined to create wires and boards and aluminum casing, plastic that has to be fabricated for keys and portholes, glass that has to be processed for screens, and whatever million other requirements and processes that it takes. Not only does each one of these ingredients in the computer recipe use up resources, but how much energy—how many other resources are used up—to take them all from raw material to components of a portable computer?
Then, for all those resources used up in the fabrication, how much pollution and destruction has the planet had to endure in order to make each new laptop? There is the damage to nature in order to get the materials. There is the pollution caused from the extraction processes, from the refining and manufacturing, from all that transportation needed to get all the things together then distributed.
And, of course, with each new product comes the new product packaging, which typically entails a cardboard box, plastic bags for each item in the box, some sort of stuffing to prevent damaging the item during transport, and possibly shrink-wrap around it all. There are pallets and crates and more shrink-wrap to get all the products to the stores, as well as invoices and receipts and carbon copies. Ultimately, what becomes of all this packaging? Sure, there is recycling and reusing, but a good lot of it ends up in landfills, and that’s another problem in its own right.
Looked at in this light, it becomes overwhelming. Obviously, I’m not living without a computer, nor would I expect that anyone do so, but certainly it’s important for us—some of us at the very least—to realize what each new upgrade, the next 2.0 version of whatever, means on the grander scale. Buying a secondhand laptop from the techie who needs to get his pictures processed two milliseconds quicker means we’ve bypassed so much of what goes into a new computer, and it means we’ve made sure an old one isn’t added to those landfills just yet.
But, the same applies for cars and couches and clothes.
Secondhand for the sake of humanity
In a perfect world, there would be no need for labor laws, there would be fair practices everywhere people “practiced” things, and there would be no cause for us—innocent consumers—to be worried about how our purchases may be aiding in the continuation of sweatshops, unsafe working conditions, and employee abuse. But, it’s not a perfect world, and these are things we need to be thinking about.
Working is no longer about simple necessities like food and shelter. The global community on the whole has been duped into focusing elsewhere, not on the things we need to be happy but on the things questionable economics has deemed we need: food products instead of food we grow, prefabricated housing instead of homes we build, clothing brands instead of something to keep us warm. As a result, workers have become much easier to exploit.
It doesn’t take much investigating to figure out the majority of the t-shirts we buy, the appliances we use, even the food we eat comes at the expense of people less fortunate than us. Sweatshops abound throughout the third world, where lesser regulations can be bent or flat-out disregarded, and frankly, the injustice is so rampant that it’s difficult for a well-meaning company on any sort of large scale to avoid participating. Start down the wormhole of fair production, and somewhere along the line, things get cramped.
Of course, there are debates that sweatshops provide income and work in places where people need income and work. There are debates from blue-blooded capitalists, some even proclaiming how necessary this sort of labor is (read this if you don’t believe me), worker abuse and child labor just a step into development. Well, I have to assume that this type of drivel falls on deaf ears when reaching the readers of permaculture websites. We know better.
Buying secondhand means that we are not supporting this sort of inequality and injustice upon our fellow humans. A used sweater from last year’s collection will do just fine for winter. The prior version of this cellphone will keep us in contact just the same. Simply put, there are better ways than sweatshops to get the things we, and those workers, need.
Secondhand for the sake of other sentient and non-sentient beings
It seems to go without saying that, the less demand there is for new materials, the less need there will be to seek out and manufacture those materials, and that means less shipping (and all the other tenets that come with product transportation), less deforestation, less explosions, less mining facilities, less factories (and all the things that comes with factories), and—for the purposes of moving on—less loss of animal habitat.
While sustainable ideas on food have no doubt brought many new readers to the pages of Permaculture News, it’s not just mono-crop food production that is damaging animal habitats and diminishing biodiversity. For every mineral we mine on a large scale, for every road we have to build for dump trucks to get to and from those places, every pipeline that has to be put somewhere, it’s coming at the cost of plants and animals. It’s coming at the cost of the very bio-systems we are now so desperate to protect.
Unfortunately, once again, it seems all the places where we find these resources are places with lax regulations and “impoverished” populations, who have survived by responsible necessity rather than finance. In addition to having whatever commodity, these places—those not yet spoiled by industrialization—also seem to hold some of the planet’s most exceptionally diverse forests and fauna. It’s our job to protect them.
For every new item we buy, all of the resources have to be found again. For every new cotton shirt we buy, it costs these places, their animals and people, in land and in water to produce that cotton. For every new car we buy, therein lies an indecipherable amount of wilderness, waterways, and wildlife required to produce the rubber for tires, the oil-derived plastic for dashboards, the metal, leather interior, the cup holders…whatever else.
For every new home, new housing development. For every new store and all the new items that have to fill its likely new shelves. But, we don’t have to have that stuff new, do we? Wouldn’t secondhand equate to less habitat loss? Wouldn’t it change the world for orangutans, jaguars, tigers, rhinos, elephants, frogs, fish, trees, rivers, oceans?
Why it all pertains to permaculture
Well, permaculture as we know it is centered on a code of three ethics: Earth care, people care, and fair share. The concept was developed as a means by which to counteract the damage we’ve done to the planet, to live outside of that destructive system and reincorporate ourselves into sustainable ways of living. We are not just working to cause the least impact possible. In fact, we are actually striving to cause a positive impact on the planet.
Ironically, we can do so by putting to further use the very things that have been behind the world’s recent collapses. Secondhand is not just for bargains anymore. It’s for making statements. It’s for making our own demands that mass production slow down. It’s for reducing the amount of waste we produce. It’s for conserving energy. It’s for using fewer resources. It’s for making more use of what we have already taken. It’s for the animals, the plants, the water, and the people. It’s for admitting this gross human folly of excess and doing something about it.
What’s amazing is it’s all so accessible and easy. Of course, there are secondhand stores about and charity shops, which possibly double up on the goodness, but that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what is possible. EBay, Craig’s List, Gumtree, and however many thousands of buy-and-trade start-ups across the world wide web have made it possible to buy just about anything we want much cheaper, slightly tarnished and ethically sound.
Earth care, people care, fair share: Secondhand shopping seems to cover the basics. What would Mother Nature do?