I’ve been thinking about garbage lately, or trash if you prefer. Weird, I know. I guess that’s because I’ve been reading about trash in Adam Minter’s book Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale. It’s a really interesting book. Well written, with lots of personal anecdotes, which are what save non-fiction books for me. I’ve not finished the book, but I wanted to talk about it anyway. So much of what I’m reading has resonated with me. Not only because I’ve become keen on the whole sustainability thing in the past couple of years. Lately in ways that go beyond just keeping my clothes for a long time, and shopping my closet. Because of course sustainability extends far beyond our wardrobes, to everything we buy, own, use, and then discard. But also because the ideas in the first part of Minter’s book speak to me personally.
Minter talks about a new industry which has sprung up in affluent countries around the world. Countries whose people need help with their stuff. Especially when an older family member has moved to smaller accommodation, or has died. With people living longer and living more affluently than ever before, what to do with Granny’s stuff is posing a big problem for many families. And apparently there are people who will take care of that for you. For a price of course.
I’ve been to many estate sales and auctions over the years. But I never thought much before about how that stuff got to the auction house, or to the thrift store. In our family we have cleaned out a few houses. Hubby’s mother’s home when she died, and Mum’s when she moved into her new little house. My grandmother when she grew older began giving stuff away left, right, and centre. Things that Granny owned will never be trash to me. My sisters, my cousins, and I all have at least a few pieces of Granny’s stuff. Some of this stuff came from an old house that my grandparents purchased when the across the road neighbours died. A spinster school-teacher and her bachelor brother who had some lovely things.
I have a beautiful fumed-oak secretary and the china tea set below, which came from the Gregory house, as we all called it. Kelsey Gregory taught school and never married, and I have several of her books. Including a complete works of Shakespeare, inscribed “To Kelsey from Jack, Christmas 1915.” I like to think that Kelsey would be pleased that someone has cared for her things. And not tossed them out with the trash. .
And that’s where the people Minter interviews in his book come in. They deal with Granny’s stuff for families, and sometimes even for Granny herself. And not in the “pull a dumpster up to the back door” kind of way. But in an efficient, but mindful kind of way. Sorting through belongings, helping the owner or their family make deliberate decisions about what can be passed on to family, what can be sold and used again, and what does in fact become trash. I think it’s the mindfulness of these clear-out experts which makes them special. And not just in North America.
In Japan they have become big business. With a rapidly aging society and as Mintor says “a dearth of heirs”, Japan has millions of unoccupied homes which stand empty of people and still filled with the late owner’s stuff. Most of which was accumulated, according to Minter, during Japan’s boom years. A situation which has lead to another boom… secondhand goods.
I’m just starting to read, in Minter’s book, the section dealing with secondhand clothes and textiles. It’s an eye-opener. North Americans need to realize that no one wants poor-quality discarded garments, used Forever 21 blouses, and Costco jeans. According to Minter’s sources, people everywhere now turn up their noses at our cheap cast-offs; they want quality secondhand goods. And that is triggering what Minter calls a “crisis of quality.” Minter’s source said North American purveyors of secondhand goods need to get to know their markets, especially their overseas markets, better. I thought that was interesting.
Of course the whole thing is way more complex than that. But, as I said, I haven’t finished reading yet. Still, I was reminded of my early experience with consignment selling. Consignment stores give potential sellers a list of their policies, and that usually includes an admonishment that they will take nothing more than two years old. But with careful and organized shopping, I rarely am ready to sell something after only two years.
One store I dealt with early on, took my older pieces, a Dana Buchman skirt suit, and some Max Mara trousers and sweaters of similar quality. They were all much older than two years, but in perfect condition. Another store refused point blank to even look at anything older than two seasons. “Okay. Fair enough,” I said to the store-owner. “But I think it’s short-sighted to turn away quality, timeless pieces.” Now, in her defense, maybe the owner knew her clients, and knew they were really only interested in a cheap, new-to-them shirt.
My friend Fiona, whose consignment shop Frock Exchange sadly closed during the months of lockdown, would never have made a mistake like that. She once told me that the stuff I had brought in might not even make it to the racks. She’d just phone a couple of her clients who were my size, and who she knew would snap up the pieces. She really knew, and knows, her stuff, Fiona. It was always a fun day out to shop at her store.
It’s amazing, isn’t it, how what some of us call trash is something else entirely to someone else? Like that old saying goes, one person’s trash is another’s treasure. Except according to Minter’s sources who are masters of recycling, discarded fast fashion is trash to pretty much everyone, even those who are in the business of trash.
Hubby is the master at repurposing trash into treasure, and always has been. You may recall from last week’s post the old hockey sticks which he redeploys in the garden. One day back in the eighties, shortly after we met, I asked incredulously why he had milk bags hanging on the clothesline. He looked startled at the question. “They make great freezer bags.” “How could you not know that?” his look said. When the bag was empty of milk, he rinsed it out and hung it on the clothesline. I’m not kidding. “Besides,” he said, “they are tough and make perfect bags for packing food in for canoe trips.” Uh, okay.
And don’t get me started on his clothing hierarchy. First good clothes or new clothes are worn in public, then relegated to ski wear or camping wear, then wilderness canoeing and fishing, then finally they are worn only in the garden. Turtlenecks always had an extra step in their life, under his hockey uniform. Now when they are no longer “good,” they go directly to skiwear, then wilderness canoeing. I’ve stopped buying him clothes. Now that we are not travelling he doesn’t need anything new. The tee shirts I bought him for our 2003 trip to Australia are still somewhere in the rotation, I believe.
And what’s funny to me, now that I am onboard with the sustainability thing, is that his once eccentric habits are now admirable. And he never lets me forget it. “You see, Suz,” he said when I told him about this post, “I told you you should have come to me for fashion advice.” Ha.
So my exploration of the sustainable world continues, my friends. Like Orsola de Castro advised, and a commenter reminded me in an earlier post, we should think about what will happen to our clothes when we are done with them. And that goes for everything we buy, I should add. We can’t do much about the planned obsolesce of so many things in our home. But we can buy quality goods. We can try to make our stuff last. And have repairs done, if possible.
And I guess basically we should just stop accumulating so much stuff. One of the sorters interviewed by Adam Minter for his book says she has learned her lesson about owning too much stuff.
But in my book that lesson doesn’t apply to family heirlooms. Or in Hubby’s book to anything that might serve as a pole to which he will tie tomatoes.
What about you, folks? What treasured items do you own that might be trash to someone else?
P.S. The book link in this post is an affiliate link. If you make a purchase after clicking my link I will make a commission.