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
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).
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.
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
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?
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.