We love stuff. So much that in 2006, a study of LA middle class homes revealed that 90% of garage space was being used to store stuff, not cars. In Secondhand, Adam follows the life and death of stuff, and explores how manufacturers have been placating us with cheap and low quality goods.
In perhaps the most evocative part of the book, Adam begins by introducing us to Empty The Nest. Empty The Nest is an organisation that cleans out homes, and passes objects on to places where they can be resold and reused.
But our personal identities are shaped by the objects we possess. And because of this connection, it can be hard to let go of our stuff. Sharon Kadet, the account manager of Empty The Nest, shows Adam how most of the stuff we hold onto actually has little value. Adam draws up scenes of huge clean ups, which are carried out on the houses of deceased relatives. Wholly sentimental items are simply thrown away. Old envelopes, old letters—I think of all the cards and notes I have kept from friends and family, that have little meaning beyond my own life.
Since the industrial revolution, we have undergone five waves of innovation. These waves have brought new technologies and have radically transformed society. This book predicts the sixth wave to come, a period that will be defined by resource efficiency.
Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev put forward the idea that Western capitalist economies go through waves of innovation. These waves are like mountains, with a rise at the beginning and a fall at the end.
We are stuffed and starved. Stuffed, because we produce more food than ever before, and there are 1 billion people who are overweight. Starved, because at the same time, 800 million people are hungry.
These two factors are symptoms of the same problem: the control of giant corporations in the food industry.
Raj provides a helpful diagram outlining where power is concentrated in the food industry. At the top and bottom of this diagram are billions of people, who take the form of consumers and farmers. But in the middle, there is a much smaller bottleneck. Here, the number of companies in play is much less than the number of farmers and consumers. These companies buy food from farmers and sell it to consumers. By controlling this gateway, they have the power to control—and exploit—those who grow food as well as those who eat it.
Paul Hawken is also the author of The Ecology of Commerce, and so there are similarities between the two books. Both explore ways to reduce toxic waste and combat the waste of throwaway products. But Natural Capitalism also talks about how to reduce other kinds of waste.
The book refers to a concept called muda, which is Japanese for waste, futility, or purposelessness. This concept was coined by Taiichi Ohno, who defined waste and therefore muda as “any human activity which absorbs resources but creates no value”. Therefore, other kinds of waste can be included in this definition, such as wasted time and wasted human resources. This is what natural capitalism is: a new kind of industrialism that promotes “economic efficiency, ecological conservation, and social equity”.
The first red flag that told me that this book is not quite right, was the header at the back:
Feel fabulous? Such a phrase reduces the environment to something trite, like a trendy jacket that you can throw on. It sounds like a phrase that an Instagram influencer would spout out, not an environmentalist.
And as I continued reading, these red flags just kept coming up. Another sign was this disclaimer at the front of the book:
“I have come to believe that we… do not know what business really is, or, therefore, what it can become” writes Paul Hawken in his Preface, “the ultimate purpose of business is not, or should not be, simply to make money… the promise of business is to increase the general well-being of humankind through service, a creative invention and ethical philosophy”. It is in the first page that Paul delivers this little nugget, a perspective so unlike what the world has ever suggested to me about commerce.
The moment you pick up this book, you can already see that Beth’s Plastic-Free is championing something unique. The book’s spine is exposed and protected only by an uncoated cardboard jacket. As the publisher’s note explains, Beth and her publisher did their best to ensure that the book was made with minimal plastic.
With this same attitude—a belief that anyone can reduce their negative impact on the planet, no matter the context—Beth talks about the many ways we can use plastic-free alternatives in our lives.