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A journalist traces the evolution of the large, but largely unknown, global secondhand market

Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale

Adam Minter
Bloomsbury
2019
320 pp.
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In Secondhand, Adam Minter—building on his acclaimed first book, Junkyard Planet, which examined the global material recycling market—takes readers around the world to discover the people and companies that make up the global secondhand market. Along the way, he meets consumers who donate and sell their used goods; representatives from the companies that buy, aggregate, sort, refurbish, redistribute, and resell these items; and the customers who eventually buy them.

The son of a junkyard owner, and a journalist who often covers issues related to sustainability, Minter tells stories and offers insight suffused with legitimacy, pragmatism, and optimism. His narrative style is documentary, mixing context with quotes from interviews.

The book begins by contrasting how aging populations in the United States and Japan are grappling with the need to downsize their material belongings. At the root of the burgeoning need to declutter, Minter writes, is the rapid growth in the production of consumer goods since World War II.

The secondhand market has many of the same characteristics and is subject to many of the same challenges as the material recycling market. Both operate as global trades, where asymmetries in value between one country or region and another create economic opportunities. In some countries, for example, a better-made used product is preferable to a low-quality new product.

Both recycling and secondhand markets depend on sorting and aggregation and have a formal and an informal component in which entrepreneurs have discovered niche opportunities. Both spur opportunities for jobs and companies that create economic and social value.

Both markets have also been constrained by the poor quality of many recovered goods. Despite the growing amount of clothing and textiles available for secondhand use, for example, many end up in landfills, either because the quality of these items is so poor that they are unfit for further use or because there are few recycling options available.

There are ways, however, in which the secondhand market is different. There is an emotional connection between people and many of the goods they own, notes Minter. Nostalgia can drive hoarding of goods but can also drive demand for items in particular markets. Polaroid cameras, for example, which had virtually no value a decade ago, now sell for $200 because of people’s nostalgia for instant film.

The secondhand market is also more dependent on global trade than the recycling market, because of the presence of value asymmetries. Secondhand goods tend to move from richer people to poorer people, which makes it more likely that they will cross borders. If logistics costs or tariffs were to increase greatly, the secondhand market would be hit hard.

Consumers also play a more active role in determining the potential value of a secondhand item. Minter shares the story of Book Off, a used bookstore chain in Japan that has trained customers to take better care of their books, ensuring that those books will be purchased back after use.
The takeaway from these stories is that the secondhand market creates value for many. Customers get the value of reselling items, other customers get the benefit of buying products at a lower price point, and service organizations enable the trading, providing jobs and economic development, to say nothing of the environmental benefits associated with reusing goods instead of manufacturing new ones.

Minter offers several solutions for maintaining and improving the global secondhand market. The first centers on the need to increase product longevity. For almost 100 years, many companies and industries have employed a “design for obsolescence” mind-set to promote continued sales, despite consumers showing a preference for products with longer life spans and lower cost of ownership in certain categories, including appliances. Minter argues that the value of making a product last longer is not only that it provides more value to the initial customer, but that it increases the likelihood that the product will be reused in a secondhand market.

Minter also advocates for “right to repair” laws. Many companies have made it difficult for independent repair services to service their products, forcing consumers to use those brands’ repair services. This, he argues, constrains the development of a competitive market for repair services.
Minter also believes that people living in developed countries must stop making judgments about how people in the developing world should or should not make a living, as it relates to recycling or secondhand markets. He argues that certain prejudices lead to burdensome regulations that prevent used goods and materials from being shipped abroad.

In the book’s afterword, Minter shares a story of how his wife, Christine—inspired by his research and reporting—has started a secondhand book service. Now that I am done with Secondhand, perhaps I will track her down and ask her to pass it on to another reader, who will no doubt enjoy it as much as I did.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Sustainability Consortium and Department of Supply Chain Management, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287, USA.