By Hilary Smith, Sustainability Resource Center
Headed home not too long ago, fresh off the 21 bus, I spotted a store out of the corner of my eye called Uptown Cheapskate. A sucker for a good secondhand treasure hunt, I veered toward the shop and walked in, my backpack still weighed down with the heavy trappings of the school day.
I didn’t need anything, I thought, but no matter—here, in this somewhat virtuous world of once-loved, already broken-in clothes, I could more easily justify a bit of self-indulgence.
Inside, I found a nice spread of well-curated, funky things—a narrower product mix than you might find in a Deseret Industries shop (which I also love)—and I got out of there for under $4, total, with two (old) new shirts tucked into the top of that jam-packed backpack. As a bonus, since I didn’t take a plastic bag, I got to donate a five-cent token to a charity bucket of my choice: one labeled “hunger,” the other “education.”
It was a sunny, not-so-toxic-inverted afternoon, and this was feeding my sunny mood, for sure, but most of the good vibes had come from the shopping itself. The price point was only a part of it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a grad student, and I’ll happily save any dollar I can save. But there’s more, much more, to my infatuation—nay, my wild and rapturous love affair—with secondhand books and clothing.
First, I like the idea that by buying or acquiring something secondhand, I have avoided buying one more new synthetic something-or-other off an overseas production line. I do realize that the synthetic something-or-other will probably get produced anyway, whether or not I am the person who buys it. But I don’t have to participate in the cycle firsthand.
I have no illusions about single-handedly changing the global pattern of manufacturing and consumption. But isn’t it true that revolution begins at home? Where better to begin than with something as intimate as the shirt on my back?
Second, I dig the unpredictability of it. More than once, I have gone into a D.I. looking for a new (old) pair of running shoes and found nothing that fit. But I’ve also walked in and bought a perfectly-sized pair of barely-worn New Balance runners, six bucks for the pair. I’m no gambler, but that’s a roll of the dice I’m willing to take.
Third, I love the idea that the shirt, the bit of kitchenware, or the book that I buy secondhand has already lived a little bit and absorbed some love from a previous owner. The used clothing thing creeps some people out, I know, but I’m not one of them—a little eco-friendly, cold-water laundering and hang-drying and that old, secondhand swag is as good as new. And there’s little I love as much as a book that’s got some musty history steeped into its pages. Bonus points if it’s got some dog-ears and a few thoughtful notes in the margins.
Other cultures have different relationships with their “stuff” than we do. My husband, who was raised in Italy, generally has much more of a taste for “stuff” than I do—but because most clothing, toys, and electronic gadgets cost more over there than they do over here, he grew up learning to choose his purchases carefully, to take better care of his things, and to hang onto them for as long as they lasted.
The Japanese, too, think differently about their “stuff.”
I recently read a New York Times review of clutter-clearing guru Marie Kondo’s new book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese
Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” In the article, Kondo asserts that simple objects like t-shirts have personalities and life-energies of their own. Such a nondualistic, even friendly way of looking at our “stuff” is considered much more normal in Kondo’s native Japan than it is here, says the article’s author Penelope Green.
But I think Americans can get on board with this, too. If we stop looking at our stuff as just “stuff,” we might choose our purchases a little more carefully, take better care of our things, love them until we cannot love them anymore, and then, finally, pass them on—as donations, or as gifts to friends or family members. Might we stop equating “used” with “less good”?
Writes sustainability activist and recent U of U visiting scholar David Orr, “We might do a great deal better with less stuff, less energy, less hassle, less frenzy, and more conviviality, more leisure, better poetry, more silence, slower food, more bike trails, and more face-to-face friends.”
When it comes to new stuff—and stuff in general—it is clear to me that I need to reassess, constantly, whether what I buy is a ‘want’ or a ‘need’. Separating the two is a difficult task, for sure, and I don’t think many of us could, or should, live without a tiny bit of indulgence. But I do think that most of us could stand to re-evaluate our want-to-need ratios.
I do make exceptions. Sometimes I buy things new, particularly when in doing so I can support a local business or an artistic talent. I won’t pay full price for most mass-produced books, but I have forked over $30 for a small-press volume by a writer who gives a hoot about something bigger than his or her own presence on a bestseller list. Once in a while, I’ll buy a nice new shirt or piece of jewelry if I can put the money directly into the hand of the person who stitched it together. Another Sustainability Resource Center intern, Maggie Fey, is one such producer — through her business, Reborne Jewels, she upcycles old and heirloom jewelry, giving new life to items already rich with story.
I’ve enjoyed this personal quest to expand my empathy just a little bit. To love, truly love the stuff of my life, and then, when it is no longer of use to me, to let it go, with great tenderness—so that the quirky, color-loving, bargain-hunters of this valley can scoop it up, off the shelf of a socially-conscious secondhand shop, at just a few blessed dollars a pop.
Hilary Smith is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities. She is a graduate assistant in the Sustainability Resource Center.
This article is part of an ongoing blog series focusing on fun, practical tips for leading a more sustainable life. If you have any tips to suggest, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org or Hilary.email@example.com.