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.
Here, Adam makes reference to Marie Kondo, the decluttering guru who has been especially popular for her question – does it spark joy? If the answer is yes, the object is kept. If the answer is no, the object is thrown away. This definition makes an allowance for things that are sentimental, but not so practical. After seeing how ruthless a house clean up can be, Adam asks, what about when the consumer isn’t around to feel what sparks joy anymore? At that point, all impractical objects lose their significance. It reaffirms how little things matter, and how all this stuff becomes a burden for those who have to pick up the pieces.
Most secondhand items may be donated, but so little of this stuff can actually be sold. In 2015, 24.1 billion pounds of furniture and furnishings were thrown away in the US. 32 billion pounds of textiles, such as clothing and sheets, also went to the landfill. And 45.3 billion pounds of discarded “miscellaneous durables” topped it all off. Goodwill, who collects more second hand donations than anybody else in the US, only manage to divert 3 billion pounds of stuff from the landfill every year. Which means that in 2015, Goodwill was only able to find a second life for a measly 3% of these donations.
So how did we end up with all this stuff? As our tastes have changed from the homemade to the mass manufactured, we have come to expect the cheap prices that are attached to mass production. But such low prices are simply a reflection of low quality, and these cheap products are not made to last. As prices continue falling, and as more of these low quality items continue to be thrown away, it's becoming more attractive to refresh the wardrobe with newer and cheaper clothing.
With this knowledge, Adam suggests that the industry isn’t suffering from a crisis of stuff. It’s suffering from a crisis of quality. Schemes like planned obsolescence, where products and devices are designed to break down, are used to encourage a consumer to keep buying. Which is good for sales, but not healthy for us if we are ever to stop the waves of stuff in our landfills.
Instead, we should encourage the production of durable goods. Adam states that products should be seen as investments, rather than objects to be used for a short period and then disposed of. Companies should also be transparent about the lifespan of their products, and display such information on their labels. That way, customers can consider buying an investment that lasts.
Repair is also key to lengthening the lifespan of an object. However, in a bid to increase sales, manufacturers are training us to throw away rather than to repair. For example, in an attempt to encourage consumers to buy new, Apple systematically disabled iPhones that had had their home buttons fixed by independent repair shops.
But Adam describes a wonderful example of someone fighting against this – iFixit. iFixit provides free repair manuals for devices that don’t have these instructions. It’s a way for consumers to take back control. But this is no easy feat, co-founder Kyle Wiens admits. For example, Apple seals its iPads shut with adhesives. As described in an iFixit manual, lifting the cover of an iPad involves loosening the cover with repeated applications of heat, and six strategically placed guitar picks.
In response to this, consumer right-to-repair laws are already taking place, with Adam suggesting that the way forward is for companies to provide their own manuals and parts by law. When manufacturers are required to supply parts and manuals, they will also have an incentive to design their devices so that they’re easier to repair.
Although Adam did not supply as many concrete solutions as I’d like, Adam is a great storyteller of people. I much enjoyed his journeys through the world as he talked to secondhand merchants, searching for value. And from his first chapter where he describes how much stuff means to us, he certainly knows how hard it is to be moderate with our possessions. Still, reading Adam’s journey will definitely make me reconsider any future purchases. It’s clear that we need make better choices about what we buy and create – for us and our world of stuff.