“Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale” by Adam Minter

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Globalization usually means manufacturing. But globalization reaches into other realms, even waste disposal as Adam Minter wrote in his debut book, Junkyard Planet. In his new book, Secondhand, he investigates what happens to material goods we donate after we’re done using them and travels throughout North America, Asia, and Africa to explore how different countries reuse discarded items.

It turns out that many things are not quite what one might have expected. For example, people in developed countries often donate old books, clothes and other items from furniture to electronics to organizations like Goodwill, which in turn sell them to raise funds for non-profit or charitable programs. However, many of these goods are in fact sold into second-hand markets in developing countries: a business opportunity, rather than a directly charitable exercise.

When elderly Japanese die they often leave behind homes filled with junk but with no next of kin to sort through it.

Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, Adam Minter (Bloomsbury, November 2019)
Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, Adam Minter (Bloomsbury, November 2019)

Minter also explores the billion dollar market for secondhand goods in Asia, which have their own subtleties. Because Japan, for example, has experienced a negative birth rate for several decades, when elderly Japanese die they often leave behind homes filled with junk but with no next of kin to sort through it:

 

What’s left behind is one of the world’s most aged societies, millions of homes filled with property accumulated during Japan’s boom years, and a dearth of heirs.

 

One consequence is the rise of a new business called shukatsu, which helps people to get their affairs in order before they pass away—if they have no heirs. One of the ways they prepare for the end is to seek consultants to help donate their personal belongings after they’re gone. Japan’s secondhand industry brought in US$16 billion in 2016.

China, on the other hand, is relatively new to consumerism and home to many of the factories that produce goods sold around the world. Entrepreneurs in China have taken the secondhand industry to new levels not just in Asia, but around the world. Interestingly, Minter finds that there isn’t a large market for secondhand goods in China or even in Singapore, which—like Japan, Korea, and Taiwan—has witnessed a rising living standard while the birthrate has drastically declined. Minter quotes a Singaporean secondhand bookseller:

 

In Chinese culture, there’s shame if you use secondhand. Means you’re not doing well… At Chinese New Year, it’s all about new clothes.

 

When Minter visited Nogales, in Mexico just south of the Arizona border, he spoke with local merchants in secondhand markets, which are now also offering new—yet cheap—items. As a Mexican merchant explained, “New pushed used out a few years ago. Chinos moved in.”

This market in Nogales was filled with new clothes from China, usually cheaper yet of lower quality than used clothes that are more durable. Some of these new items were also knockoffs. Minter is quick to place the onus for the low quality clothes not on the Chinese, but on the western clothing companies:

 

Initially, at least, China’s apparel industry simply manufactured to the standards set by foreign companies seeking cheaper factories. And those foreign companies were only doing what good companies always do: responding to customers.

 

Chinese entrepreneurs have also reached Africa, where they sell traditional clothing for countries like Ghana at lower costs than local tailors and manufacturers. China is the world’s largest exporter of new clothes, and it has become the fifth largest exporter of used clothes. But as Minter explains, “Because China’s export data is often flawed, or distorted by smuggling, the numbers could be much higher.” No matter what its rank in the world of used clothing exports, Chinese entrepreneurs don’t always offer items of interest to Africans. In other words, Africans don’t want clothes that are cheaper yet of lower quality. So if they have a choice between new Chinese goods or used items of better quality, they will choose the latter.

Accessibility to used goods in Africa is a problem, though. Minter explains that old laws—protecting developing countries from hazardous waste originating from the developed world—have stalled the free flow of secondhand items like computer monitors and televisions, which are classified as hazardous waste even though they don’t pose environmental threats. Until these laws change, loads of secondhand electronics are held in limbo because it’s difficult for exporters to send them to markets where they’re wanted, like Africa.

Minter admits that he, too, has done his “own share of accumulating over the years” and that he’s been able to let go of some of the stuff he no longer uses, but not all of it—yet. He can’t promise readers that they will successfully be able to part with things they don’t need anymore, but he assures that

 

they will find a surprising world where what’s old becomes new again, over and over, and the desire to profit from castoffs creates innovation and livelihoods—all over the world at all hours of the day. Finding it is a treasure hunt, one that anyone can join.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.