Sunday, January 2, 2011

Americans are screaming the need for a bigger reuse market. Why is there no reply?

I feel frustrated when readers write me, wishing for a market like Denver’s. I want to help them. These people are expressing a genuine need! A need is usually welcomed, if not celebrated in a capitalist society. Filling an honest consumer need is a sure fire way to make money! Unfortunately, I believe our culture is too busy inventing new “needs”. How else would we have products like the Chia Pet and an electronic singing bass mounted on plastic, faux-wood circulating the market?

I’ll testify that one can have an enviable wardrobe, cool furniture and a well-outfit kitchen for less than 5% of what most American’s spend. How? By patronizing the thrift market and exploring other, less conventional means. I value reused products. I’ll troll urban alleys and pick through dumpsters (uh, let’s use the nomenclature “urban reclamation”). Quick with a power sander and armed with a little bit of fortitude, I’ve refinished most of the furniture in our 1,800 square foot 111-year-old home. All this done without a super hero mask.

How do I accomplish this? With a little patience and frequent, 10-minute surgical strikes to thrift outlets while running weekly errands. I also shop with a Flinch Point and strive to stick to my family’s current and future needs.

There’s another fact that makes my lifestyle possible. Denver isn’t among the nation’s top ten most populated cities, but it thrives with one of the nation’s top reuse markets. This makes a big difference, at least for now. I know Seattle and Portland can also boast to be vibrant centers of reuse.

For an assortment of reasons the reuse market needs the attention of Offices of Economic Development at the municipal, state and hopefully national levels. I’ve written to elected officials. Rarely do I hear back, mostly with form letter.

The charitable reuse market, with infrastructure in place, is waiting for some great public promo. But, so few Americans go to them, as I discussed in an opinion in The Christian Science Monitor nearly two years back. I’m not certain any critical mass of economists have dared ask the simple question, “What percentage of Americans shop thrift stores, and what is the benefit to our economy?” It would be refreshing to see our universities’ economic departments offer courses that address the reuse market. Or, would major benefactors balk in retaliation?

Promoting a robust reuse market in America isn’t trivial. Neither Mom and Pop thrift stores nor charitable thrift stores have the big bucks to hire slick lobbyists to stand on the steps of the US Capitol, pull elected officials aside and give them Wet Willies, or even a respectable wedgie to open their ears (and mouths) to start promoting – let alone tackling some minor legislation - to grow the reuse market.

Even the Professional Association of National Resalers isn’t so appetizing. No offense guys, but your acronym is NARTS. What does that rhyme with?

It’s near impossible to have the charitable thrift industry get behind reuse and drive the market. Thrift stores are simply funding their programs to aid America’s growing disadvantaged by providing an alternative to mindless consumerism.

There’s a very strong irony in play. More of us are inflicting our own economic disadvantage from years of carelessly participating in an Economy of Crap ushering in The Harbingers of Decline. We as consumers should know better. Participating in the non-mainstream market is like preventive medical care – it leads directly to personal and economic well- being. If the current thrift industry invested more in growing the reuse market they would actually prevent more people from needing programs for the economically deprived.

Millions of us are already unemployed and economically deprived thanks to disasters like the fox guarding the henhouse debacle of Enron, cutesy mortgage credit default swaps, and larger banks clinging to Federal bailout funds to push profits (and fund bonuses) instead of lending money as intended. Didn’t we learn anything from the savings and loan debacle from the ‘80’s? Why do Americans shop and vote like they are ignorant, happy-go-lucky millionaires?

How I’d love to see consumer incentives that make thrift sales exempt from sales taxes. Or incentives/subsidies in the form of lower rate retail leases for repurposing stores in or near heavily trafficked shopping centers. I dream of seeing a high-end Goodwill next to J.Crew, so shoppers can contrast value side by side. How about incentives for stores that sell “new” merchandise, mix in some “reused”? Little boutiques do it. Why not bigger stores? Oh, I’m full of dreams and ideas on pushing re-use. I may be scrappy, but my voice is paltry against the noisy American Retail Machine, in a nation that exploits most of the world’s limited natural resources and sustains this bogus activity on mounds of growing credit, mostly in the form of debt.

Perhaps I should contact Denver’s Office of Tourism and urge them to promote “Thrift Shopping Vacations” to the Mile High City. Good grief, hoards of shoppers visit Minneapolis simply to go to the Mall of America! Say what? I’ve no doubt that the Talbot’s, Banana Republic, Gap, etc are not all that different from those in the town you live in. If you must, you can pay the airfare, lodging penalty and make your offerings to the food court gods and see for yourself. While you do that with your family, I’ll make a few mortgage payments.

For now, all I can say is we have to be our own advocates of reuse. If we want a stronger alternative market, it probably best to actively participate in the one that’s already there. That’s how the market works, even if it desperately needs an accelerant.

Too skimpy of a market? In some places, sure. Use your voice, urging people in your community to purge their homes (and lives) of stuff they no longer need nor use, and donate. The reality is the inventory is already in or near your town, it’s just sitting in private homes, not the shelves of your local thrift store. Urge those around you preparing estate sales to donate goods to the thrift cause. Instead of waiting for winter to pass to have a yard sale, donate items now. Thrift stores are like year-round yard sales! Proceeds from the sale will not be cash in hand but will come at the end of the year in a very refreshing tax write off. The deduction is a lot more than most people think.

Re-use is common sense. It hasn’t been that long ago in 20th century American history that trafficking in used goods was considered o-so-gauche. “Use only new” is merely a marketed tactic for Wall Street to raise profits. By comparison, do even a minor amount of online research and find out how used goods are viewed in other developed countries, like France.

I don’t have a problem with corporate profits, per se. I really don’t. We’ll always have new goods. But, when crap is being pushed on shaky grounds, shaky credit, with cooked books and on a planet that needs to find more ways to address environmental sustainable practices, I think we need to rethink our priorities.

Comments from this post sprouted three more posts: "Myth-stakes", "Am I just a bottom feeder of conspicuous consumption?" and "Am I a blog snob?".


Mel said...

Thank you!

You have expressed so eloquently, what I am passionate about.

I cannot deny that I am a victim/willing participant of consumerism, but I get it at a fraction of the cost.

Here in Ontario, we do not get a tax receipt for donations to thrift stores, which is a shame.

With your permission, I would like to link to your post on my blog, with a little of my own commentary.
Let me know if that's ok with you.

Happy New Year!

Mel @ Junkin' Junky
flyingfishlips at gmail dot com

Anonymous said...

In AZ the not-for-profit thrift stores do not charge sales tax.

I have noticed some trends though. Prices are going up at Goodwill and Lutheran Thrift. Quality of donated goods is down at Salvation Army - all the wool sweaters I looked at had serious moth issues. And several for profit consignment/second hand stores are opening in the same malls as the Goodwills. And the people manning the jewelry counter seem to be helping out these new store owners/ebay resellers a little more than those of us who are shopping for ourselves and our families.

Serena said...

As always, another enlightening and eloquent post.

Unfortunately, ours is a society that affords those with money - be they individuals, businesses, or groups - a presence and voice, while those entities that don't generate the huge profits that Wall Street smiles on, never get the voice or presence in our media. It is not only true when it comes to the reuse market, but even in our health care. Finding a cure via big pharma gets way more press and investment than prevention, esp prevention via homeopathic means.

Alex M said...

I was pleasantly surprised that a local neighborhood association in Buffalo (basically run by merchants), permitted an individual to set up a "get rid of your junk" day at a local open area. Folks were allowed to set up tables and put out anything they wanted to get rid of -- but none of it was for sale. It was all free. People set up tables and set up there stuff and those who wanted it were free to take it.

I was out of town, but I can't wait for this event again next year.

I also don't believe thrifts should have to collect sales tax -- that's a double tax, as the original purchased was taxed too.

Daisy said...

Thrift shopping vacations: what a great idea!

Shows like "American Pickers" are raising interest in finding interesting collectible items for reuse. The next show needed: one that focuses on reuse and thrift for every day.

Anonymous said...

Love this post! You have nailed down a huge problem in our society. The cure...I'm not sure that is so easy. Greed tends to run our gov't and the only thing we can do is vote them out of office. Then again, how can we trust what the newly elected say? Often, they will loudly proclaim what we want to hear to get elected and then it is back to 'business as usual' once they are sworn in. I will write to my own gov't representatived and see what kind of feedback I get from them concerning the 'no sales tax on thrift purchases' issue. I believe I will even take it to the newspapers as well. We are starting to have a thriving reuse store market in this area. Would love to see it continue to grow!

Cynthia in Indiana

Anonymous said...

I really like the no sales tax idea and it would no doubt boost sales for the nonprofits that run them. Securing lowered rents, though, isn't a likely scenario considering owners will want to get whatever rent the market will bear. What would also help is if thrifts and consignments coordinated their promotion with brochure maps, etc. in each store that showed customers what else is available nearby. My sense is that thrifts don't compete for customers the way retailers do. In fact, thrifts (like used bookstores) thrive by generating synergies...

Blaize said...

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.

Anonymous said...

Have you heard of "swap" parties. A group of people bring
Items to bid on. (a certain number of items and a certain category). Everyone gets play money at the door. Each person auctions off their items. They are paid with the play money. They in turn can buy others items. Everyone starts with a fixed amount of play money. You get rid of things you don't need and get items you might need. We are having Swap Meets at our church regularly. We also bring donate items. It's fun and solves the no thrift shops in the middle of nowhere problem.
Honey Grove, Texas

Shopping Golightly said...


The women who run the site Swapaholics recently contacted me to help promote January 22nd, National Swap Day.

Amy and Melissa are an inspiration and can be found at:

It's a great idea and I hope to be organizing a swap meet soon.

Shopping Golightly said...

My reply to Blaize's comment can be found in today's (January 6th) post.

Anonymous said...

I was directed to this site by Jaimie from an Oregon Cottage (I truly love her blog). I was taken back by your political soapbox approach to thrift stores.

I have never had any luck at thrift stores. I do not have the time to pick through things and sometimes the smell is enough to make me want to leave the store.

Shopping at thrift stores is really hit or miss situation. My friends who shop there, go at least once a week and do not always find things they need or want.

Sorry, I am not in love with thrift stores.

Shopping Golightly said...


My main message is about product reuse.

If the thrift store doesn't work for you, and I understand not all thrift markets are wonderful, please consider shopping for reused items on the Internet instead of new. It will help save you money and lower our nation's waste stream.

Peace out.