No Need for New: Some principles for reducing consumption

As I read through our primary school’s newsletter the other day, I had the annual moment of excitement over the Smith Street Xmas appeal – ‘Yay! We can contribute!’ And then I had the annual moment of deflation when I read that all donations must be new. ‘Why?’ I moaned at my secondhand computer monitor, as I pictured the box of toys and clothes in perfectly good condition but no longer of interest to my children, sitting in the shed waiting for a trip to the Salvo’s.

I decided to check my response with the twitterz, expecting replies of ‘don’t poor people deserve new stuff?’ And the twitterz didn’t disappoint, but mercifully a number of the likely suspects joined a thoughtful discussion about the issues – consumerism, the lived experience of poverty and being ‘marked’ by secondhand goods, the practicalities of sorting through secondhand donations, the pleasures of the handmade gift, and questions of sustainability.

Why do people think we have a right to new things? Why do people make others feel bad if they don’t buy new things? I’m not such an ascetic as to suggest there’s no place for wanting something that is new to you, nor that in some cases new will simply make better sense than secondhand, whether for reasons of efficiency, practicality or some desired aesthetic. But having ‘new’ as your default position is, quite simply, wrong.

Logical fallacy #1: New Things Will Make Us Happy

It worries me that people think any of us ‘need’ or ‘deserve’ new stuff. In a civil society, you have a right to a roof over your head, access to clean water and nutritious food, good health and to be treated equally and fairly, and not much else.

There is clear research that shows that buying or having new (or more) things does not make us happy beyond an initial rush. In fact, the research indicates that the more affluent a society becomes, the less happy it is. Increasingly, we are being encouraged to spend our disposable income on experiences rather than things, as we work out that identities need grounding in memory, belonging and discovery, not the shirt on our back. I would add to this wisdom that many experiences cost nothing.

Logical fallacy #2: New Things Are ‘Nicer’ Than Secondhand

An unwanted gift on its way to the donation bin

So many new things are simply bright, cheap plastic – things that caused unhappiness in those who worked to make them, those who worked to deliver them, and those who must work to dispose of them. These things cause little more than a flash of ‘oh! Bright and shiny!’ in the children/adults who receive them, followed by the pallid realisation of how little joy can actually be found in such superficial ‘small pleasures’. These items fail the hedonistic principle at every stage – one should seek pleasure, but your pleasure should not be at the expense of another’s.

Obviously there are lovely things that are new. Handmade gifts can be a great pleasure for the maker, giver (who may or may not be the maker) and the recipient. Good quality items with an ethical production and distribution history can ensure you are comfortably and fashionably clothed, or perhaps using durable and effective cookware without breaching the pleasure principle for anyone (though many such things can also be found secondhand, obviously).

Bookshelf bought at auction, filled with old books inherited & bought.

We all have certain things we prefer to buy new – for me it’s shoes, which I buy very seldom, but always new. And who wouldn’t love to receive a brand new barbecue after two decades of the uneven heat and rust of hard rubbish versions? Last year we asked Stuart’s folks to withhold our birthday presents for the year and pile them into a Xmas present so we could cook entire meals outside for the next 30 years with fantastic results. We took years to decide a new one was a defensible choice and have not regretted it.

The pleasures of well-made old things.

Yet nearly all of the most treasured items in our house came to us secondhand. Bookshelves are a great example – some bought at auctions and some on eBay, some found in the hard rubbish – why would you buy shelves new? Our old hand beater is one of my favourite kitchen implements – my mother-in-law bought a new one a few years back and ended up vastly preferring a secondhand one we gave her. When our 50-year-old fridge didn’t survive our last move, eBay came through with an excellent secondhand one. I know loads of people who buy secondhand books, so what’s with the stigma on kids’ toys? If they’re in good condition, why not choose them over new, both for your own children and to give to charity? And nearly all the clothes I buy the children are from Savers.

Logical fallacy #3: Giving Secondhand Items to Charity is Patronising

Why would this be an unacceptable gift?

Some folks on Twitter suggested it was patronising to insist we give secondhand items to charity, arguing that ‘poor people deserve nice things too’. See Logical fallacy #s 1 & 2 for my response. However, obviously there are resonances of the First World having a First Class Freakout of What Happens when the Developing World catches up on Over-Consumption. Of course that would be patronising if it was my point, but what I’m suggesting is far more radical.

We all need to make secondhand our default position rather than seeing it as a deficit model. In fact, the default position should really be ‘why buy anything at all’, so that purchases are in fact only made when truly necessary or when one really desires to give a gift (birthdays being the most obvious example), and secondhand (or homemade) should be our first thought. New stuff should be a last resort for many consumables. How much waste could we avoid if we actually put a lot of thought into gifts, rather than marching into shopping centres like automatons who believe we might insult someone by giving them something that already has a history?

Imagine

Now imagine that those who can afford new things regularly make the choice to buy secondhand. Suddenly those who can’t afford new things don’t stand out for buying old stuff, and nobody has to feel bad about giving a secondhand gift. Of course any gift you give should be clean and not broken, as should any donation to charity (though there’s another post in what some consider irreparable and others will resurrect – our society is so de-skilled and accustomed to planned obsolescence it’s shameful the things we throw out).

When I was interviewed for the Salvo’s Buy Nothing New Month article that ran in Woman’s Day in September, I was asked how much money we save by choosing secondhand over new, and my immediate response was that we don’t think of it as saving, we think those who shop for leisure or choose new over secondhand are wasting money. We need to reverse our thinking – instead of a world where refraining from shopping is some kind of hardship, we’d all be better off if we saw shopping as the hardship – something we occasionally just have to do when we’d rather be gardening. In terms of both social and environmental sustainability, it’s the right thing to do.

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

12 thoughts on “No Need for New: Some principles for reducing consumption”

  1. Interesting thoughts, T.
    I’m with you.
    But one thing I’ve noticed: often buying second hand requires a lot of driving around. To look at shops in far away places, to bring home large items. When we were redoing our bathroom, for example, we’d have much preferred to source used items (sinks, etc), but we just couldn’t afford the time (looking around for ages every weekend when our bathroom needed fixing STAT) or the money (hiring a car) to get to second hand places or to bring the things home with us. I’ve managed to get bookshelves on buses and crates on my bike, but a sink?

    So I tend to buy a mix of old and new, and make the rest. At the end of the day, I try to avoid buying something unless I really need it. My biggest spend these days is on music, and the challenge there is that I tend to buy downloads – where there’s nothing to sell on second hand afterwards!

  2. I really don’t see what the problem is with the Smith Family asking for new toys. Firstly, they will be inundated with junk and rubbish if they accept used goods – ask the Salvos and Vinnies how much they have to spend every year to get rid of the junk that people foist on them. I believe itruns into the millions. I have seen the most unbelieveable rubbish (furniture even) left next to the clothing bins near our house, and it’s less than a kilometre from the nearest council collection point.

    Second, I have been in the position of accepting charity from an organisation like the Smith Family in another country. While it might be great if everyone was happy to accept second-hand goods, that’s not the case. Poor people (even poor children) have pride in their appearance too, and they want their kids to have new clothes that fit. Imagine the kid who wears used ill-fitting clothes to secondary school on their first day – target for bullying, much? And new clothes last longer. I was given some second-hand school uniform shirts a couple of times for my boys and they didn’t last the year. They were already frayed at the seams (especially under the arms), and I could only take them in to the limit of the boys’ ever-increasing size. Used school jumpers always go at the elbows and in other places. Adding leather patches or darning them, again, makes kids self-conscious – especially adolescents, many of whom who will do anything not to stand out.

    Finally, if people want to ‘waste their money’, isn’t that their business? I don’t judge people who refuse to buy their kids new clothes or toys. Different families have different ways of being in the world and I don’t think it’s useful to judge other people’s ways of doing things. You could take the viewpoint that if no-one ever bought new, an awful lot of people, not just in Australia but in much less rich countries, would be out of work.

  3. I’m with you Tam, and have been pondering this a bit myself. Old hand tools are far better than most new ones and last longer. Kris Kringle events through work also make me ponder the benefits of buying someone a gift for under $5. Fortunately, just about everyone has decided to buy food or make cakes. But these silly little things we buy each other to signify an event make me crazy; often too, given in lieu of actually telling someone you like them.

    ‘Gift Stores’ are a pretty obvious manifestation of this. A whole store full of generic stuff you can buy anyone as a generic gift. Buying properly second hand goods requires thoughtfulnes and care and I feel no shame accepting some of the beautiful gifts I’ve received.

  4. Some people have terrible attitudes about this stuff. My sister bought my dad a 2nd hand book as a gift a couple of years ago – it was in perfectly good condition but you could tell it wasn’t shiny new. He went nuts about her being a tight arse. She won’t ever buy for him again after that.

    I would like to try and give more 2nd hand stuff, particularly with kids. It can be done sensitively and well. Above mentioned sister just gave books and toys to our niece that she got at a garage sale. I saw them and they were great! It really doesn’t have to equal lesser quality at all.

  5. @dogpossum all very good points – just as cooking with whole foods can mean more labour & sometimes more sorting as well, though I suspect picking up a sink without a car is going to be tricky no matter where it’s from? But yes, I totally agree that the first principle is not to buy much stuff, second to look for secondhand, and then to buy new when necessary or most appropriate. 🙂

    @M-H I’m not sure you got my point? My experience of buying secondhand clothes for my children has been very positive and I would definitely contest the suggestion that they always wear out more quickly, though that can sometimes be the case. But my fundamental point is not about ‘wasting money’, though I think it’s a silly thing to do (and have surely done it myself on occasion). The point is about making conscious choices that don’t damage the environment or people involved in production and distribution, and it’s an important point. While I’m not going to say that I think people who always choose new are bad people, I will say I think they’re making a poor choice, and given the right information, they might make a better one – better for everyone, that is. If a family’s ‘way of being in the world’ is causing deforestation, sweatshop labour, and chronic waste from disposables, then yes, I’m going to point out that they’re making a poor choice, and try to convince them to find a more positive way of being in the world.

    @ev don’t get me started on ‘gifts under $5’ & the loathesome ‘gift stores’, the latter as you saying being emblematic of consumerism gone mad, and the former driving a huge trade in some of the cheapest, crappiest plastic rubbish that is just utter fail. I feel bad for the world on the odd occasion that someone gives me something totally unnecessary and not useful out of a misplaced sense of obligation to ‘give’, when a hug and a quiet conversation would have been far preferable.

    @Bells that’s exactly my point about ‘Imagine’ – I know many who would be insulted to receive secondhand goods, as for them it signifies something about their worth to the giver. We need to constantly address that attitude, IMO, by giving and asking for secondhand things. 🙂 Also, by writing about it. 😉

  6. @MH
    Re: “Finally, if people want to ‘waste their money’, isn’t that their business?”
    To me that’s kind of like saying “If people want to smoke in public, isn’t that their business?” It neglects to take into account anyone else. Except that with much of what people buy, from the beginning of the product’s life to its infinite storage in landfill, the issue of pollution is much greater.

  7. Love your article! You’d be proud of us–this weekend we purchased “new” couches off of Craigslist, pulled an old garage sale dresser out of my closet and refinished it and turned it into a media cabinet, and made the cutest cottage style blue bookcase out of an estate sale purchase a few weeks ago. 🙂 Currently looking on Craigslist for some other items we would like to make our house more homey.

  8. The toy library near us says they can only accept new toys because their insurers won’t cover them otherwise. Makes you go all Salatin.

    Great post Tammi, it’s a veritable barbeque stopper. My mother is happy to receive second hand gifts, but is furious at the idea of an Oxfam goat. #gofigure

  9. Thanks for retweeting this, I meant to comment back when your first wrote it but I forgot. I have been pondering the ideas since and looking at what i consume new and second hand, and also thinking about gifts and over consumption. I buy loads second hand and take a lot of hand me downs from friends and family,largely because I’m a poor student, but I can’t see myself suddenly buying only new things if/when I have more cash.

    One thing I realised is that I sometimes actually over consume second hand stuff, especially clothes. I have realised that with certain things not only do I not need new ones I don’t need second hand ones either.

    I have to admit I don’t often give second hand presents, even though no one in my family would mind in the slightest, but I do make a lot of food type gifts with the aim of giving people something delicious that they can eat and not just more stuff for them to store.

    Anyway I’m not going to write a ginormous comment but this post has had me thinking for the past few weeks and discussing the ideas with friends. 🙂

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