“First, a real reuse economy will price the needy out of the market and also result in fewer goods to reuse, which you do not address (not that you need to, since this is a Manifesto, not a Reasoned Consideration of All Outcomes). However, I will say that there is nothing about reuse that makes it somehow immune to tackiness or a throwaway quality. Because, really, taking a perfectly serviceable wool sweater and making it into a felted cupcake equals making landfill material. What I am saying is that the reuse "movement" has plenty Billy Bass items and acting a though reuse--virtuous as it may be--is somehow aesthetically superior just makes us all sound snobbish.”
Dispelling the Poor Clientele Myth
I don't agree with the assumption that “a real reuse economy will price the needy out of the market”. Thrift stores currently have a wide audience, just look at the parking lots. There are BMW’s next to clunkers held together with duct tape – and everything in between. It is a myth that charitable thrift stores exist solely to serve the needy customers. Please refer to a letter from the Denver Goodwill CEO I posted in January, 2009 dispelling one of the many myths about thrift stores. Besides, many easily identified discount chain retailers specifically and successfully market to the lower-tiered income segment. Since there is no comprehensive study on the thrift market, we’ve no exact data where those with fewer economic resources shop more frequently.
Who is Thrift Serving?
Like many retailers, the aim of the charitable thrift is indeed “profit” – but philanthropic profit. Unlike conventional retail, these non-profits’ proceeds in turn fund programs that help change the lives of thousands of people for the better. I know that Denver Goodwill alone serves well over 10,000 people each year. That’s why, on multiple occasions, I’ve referred to shopping thrift as Poetic Shopping. The purchase of a reused or repurposed item helps repurpose another person’s life. Thrift shopping is a more socially, economically and environmentally sustainable practice.
Yes, many thrift stores have raised prices. I think this is in reaction to the fact charitable organizations have to help a growing population of those in need during these extraordinarily hard economic times. Like other non-profits, the Goodwills, ARCs, DAVs and Salvation Army’s must fight harder for the foundation and corporate support that’s been cut back. Recessions are very hard on non-profits. On the bright side, I think we can take solace that any price hike in a thrift store doesn’t go to extravagant and inappropriate corporate bonuses or a corporate jet. Isn’t that a relief?
Suction and Deduction
In part because Americans are such voracious consumers and easily suckered into buying new stuff we don’t need (the giant suction of the economy of new crap), we consume a disproportionately embarrassing quantity of natural resources. It will take a long time for an American reuse economy to – as the commenter writes - “result in fewer goods to reuse”. But if that day comes to pass, I will smile, cross my arms in satisfaction and think, “Mission accomplished! We finally learned a worthy lesson and embraced reuse”. I doubt I will live long enough to see that day. But, I certainly hope it will come to pass so I can dust the dirt off my hands.
Supply and Demand in a Larger Reuse Market
Like the conventional market, a reuse market is tiered by value and has different niches and price points. Also, like any other component of the capitalist market, a larger re-use market would be subject the forces of competition, not just with each other – but with conventional retailers as well. History shows us that where there is competition, prices drop, not rise.
Thrift outlets also like to keep inventory moving, hence the weekly half-off colored tag sales. This is testament that thrift stores don’t empty content and drive up the cost of the remaining stock because of scarcity. If there were “fewer goods to reuse”, outlets wouldn’t have half-off days! Thrift sale days boost customer traffic, inventory flow, and the charitable bottom line.
The Landfill Myth
As written in the comment, “…taking a perfectly serviceable wool sweater and making it into a felted cupcake equals making landfill material, “ – au contraire. My daughter received this handmade set of petit-fours from one of my girlfriends for Christmas. It, along with a quilt the same friend made of recycled material, has become one of my daughter’s most treasured items. I consider these items heirloom quality and firmly believe that as long as they are in my or my daughter’s hands they are not landfill fodder. Should my daughter have children, I’ve no doubt this is something they will honor too. I would rather have my children have play tea party with handmade felted cupcakes than plastic ones made across the Pacific Pond.
It is worthy to note that charitable thrift stores do not destroy leftover
merchandise like many conventional retailers do. This January 2010 post cites how some major retailers often destroy unsold merchandise before tossing it in the dumpster (the corporate misanthrope instead of the philanthrope). Conversely, unsold merchandise from the thrift store is packaged into huge lots and sold to third world countries where these items are used and appreciated. That's why we see photos of kids in rural Bolivia wearing NFL t-shirts. Goodwill Denver even maintains a pile of shoes without mates that are sent to countries where landmines are a problem.
Certainly items bought in thrift stores may eventually be tossed in a landfill. But even if a pot purchased at a thrift store is eventually thrown away, at least its product life cycle was prolonged – directly translating into a smaller stream to that landfill. That pot could easily be donated multiple times, too.
There’s no shame in scoring something cool (aesthetically pleasing) at a thrift store, especially if it’s vintage, not a knock-off. It’s fun, and there’s no sin in sharing a story of a successful thrift safari find. There’s a practice that plays out in the conventional market that I wrote in a September 2009 post. Lots of retailers replicate widely available vintage thrift items, selling them at ludicrous margins when the originals are worth many times more. So, one has a choice to purchase the little fellow below for pennies on the dollar. Isn’t the original supposed to be worth more? Are product designers going to thrift stores for ideas? Quite possibly.
Of course a reuse market is a reflection of the conventional market, peppered with estate items and hidden gems. If crap is being sold in the conventional market, it will filter into the reuse market (so no, thrift is not immune to tackiness or non-useful items). This is no revelation. I wrote a post about this in August 2009, “Standing naked in a thrift store”.
The consumer of a new item has a conscious, free will choice whether they wish to purchase a singing Billy Big Mouth Bass, Chia Pet, chocolate fountain, etc. In the thrift, store an antique Limoges covered dish just might be sitting next to that tacky plastic trophy specimen. I can testify to that.
In conclusion, I prefer to be more original by rescuing worthy items (and perpetuating the useful life of something otherwise disposed of) rather than falling victim to an economic monoculture. But that's just me (and Mr. Golightly).