Everything old is new again (or, What goes around should come around again)
Even the most casual stroll through a thrift store can offer quick lessons about material life. The objects on shelves serve as indicators of the complex histories of style and taste, of patterns of domesticity, and of flows of people and their possessions. Indeed, it can be argued that every object in a charity shop – every human-made and human-modified thing – constitutes an encapsulation of the processes of production and consumption, whether simple or complex. As repositories of used goods – at least in theory – thrift stores function as sites of post-consumption, meaning the objects for sale have already passed through the system of production and consumption and have, as a result, completed the market expectations of their ‘lives’. Thrift stores function to recirculate goods, whether for economic need, the pull of nostalgia, or the canny search for the unwittingly discarded, low-priced treasure. These sites exist and function because of the realities of life courses defined by changes in taste, downsizing, and the liquidation of estates.
Accordingly, thrift stores can be understood both as the socially useful storehouses of human-made and human-modified objects and as the subversive venues for the disruption of chronologies of style and taste, and of the structures of advanced capitalism based on calculated cycles of production and consumption. Equally important, however, is the fact that charity shops, resale stores and consignment shops likewise function as museums and archives of sorts. Notwithstanding the self-selecting impulse to donate goods to a thrift store, these emporia of things can be understood as reconfigured midden heaps in which the objects for sale, at any moment, hold the promise of stories about the circumstances of their creation, their ‘employment’ in the social, aesthetic and material performance of life, and the rationales of their existence. Put another way, every object constitutes a piece of evidence and a lesson in the ways that individuals, communities and societies across time and place have solved problems through the making of tools (defined in vastly broad and inclusive terms) from available materials to satisfy needs of whatever sort.
All human-made and human-modified things function as prostheses, as physical and mental extensions of the body. Whether a plastic fork or a forklift, every object represents the culmination of creative and skilled abilities to design tools that enhance the capacities of bodies in space. From the earliest use of rock as a hammer, to the intentional fashioning of the driving devices that transfer force to a surface, the transformation of resources into tools is at once fundamentally human and, in the context of the contemporary realities of over-production and over-consumption, an increasingly problematic reality.
How objects are made is of particular significance to anyone concerned with the implications of materialism. As the markers of human activity on Earth, things – tools, objects, constructions – reveal information about the ways that natural resources are transformed. These ‘things’ embody the working of aesthetic forces and the ways in which these forces are brought to bear on the creation of something in a particular place at a particular time, while also describing the ideological and social thinking that influences the way that an object is realized. The philosopher Martin Heidegger made this point in his influential essay “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954) when he discussed the different realities and implications of a windmill and a hydroelectric dam. Both tools represent the solving of a problem around the provisioning of power, whether for the grinding of grain or for generating hydroelectric power and the subsequent electrification of flour production. But, as Heidegger notes, whereas the functioning and productivity of the windmill is always at the mercy of the elements, the hydroelectric dam guarantees constant and reliable power even though such assurances and benefits are realized at the expense of a once free-flowing water course, the disruption of ecological processes, and the marring of landscapes.
Heidegger’s concepts are significant on many levels and provide a useful point of return for a consideration of thrift stores, used goods and the increasing alarm about the likely consequences of technological change, resource extraction and environmental degradation. In an age where there exists a spreading awareness of the myriad implications of advanced consumption, the question of sustainability must be at the forefront of collective concern. Each year hundreds of millions of new products are offered for sale promising to fulfil a need and, therefore, in a Heideggerian sense, to represent human essence. These products are pushed to fickle customers who may or may not be rendered happy by their new ‘things’. This customer is wilfully oblivious or unconcerned about the number of rare earth elements in a recently acquired, state-of-the-art smartphone that replaces a still-functioning but seemingly outdated earlier model. The grim reality of capitalism’s construction of desire, its nurturing of the cult of technological progress, its advocacy of stylistic change, and its implicit promotion of the personal benefits of shopping are all a legacy of the consumer revolutions of the early 18th century. This awakening consumption marked a remarkable convergence of changing notions of selfhood, broadening models of taste, and shifted expectations in the way in which possessions communicate character.
Therefore, the question of how to reconcile the human impetus to transform raw materials into tools with the facts of climate change and the host of related issues that attend mass production and consumption is hugely complicated. That the objects in thrift stores are not new (meaning they do not constitute recent industrial processes) and that they can be effectively used into the future (a stylistically old-fashioned potato masher can still work) offers an antidote of considerable force to the problems and patterns of chronic over-production, acquisitiveness and ecological decline. If, for example, the proven utility of used things was privileged over the cachet of newness and the fetishism so often attached to the objects created in the cultures of design, so could there be a significant and perhaps restorative reconfiguration of life, material and otherwise. While this is not to say that thrift shopping holds all the answers to what must become an urgent call to ecological activism and the remaking of consumer culture (including the cultures of making at all levels), the reality of thrift stores offering millions of perfectly fine objects for sale is worth pondering.
The incalculable volume of used goods in thrift stores – clothing, cooking pots, books, appliances, picture frames, all of the types of manufactured goods that have defined domestic life over the last century – speaks to how much objects mean to people. However, it also represents the mechanization of production as a simultaneously compelling and concerning narrative of the transformation of ideas and resources into forms for use. Indeed, insofar as it is possible to reconstruct the fabrication history of any object in a thrift store, what would be revealed would be the highly complicated, multiple-staged, technologically specific operations of invention, laboratory science, experimentation, engineering, labour, resource extraction, taste cultures and the psychology of consumer behaviour. Even the ostensibly non-industrial or handmade objects that find their ways to charity shops – wooden spoons, for example – still reveal their arboreal origins, the histories of invention and the contours of problem-solving that underpin all human-made and -modified things.
But, while excavating the material truths of human tools is generally possible, what remains largely hidden from view is that if there is to be any real hope for the ecological recovery of the Earth – with the reality of tipping points and point of no return– this hope must be predicated on the radical remaking of material life.
It is estimated that on any given day in Canada and the United States some 30,000 or so thrift stores open their doors for business offering billions of goods for sale. In the United States, between 12% and 15% of the population shops in charity shops, generating revenues of about $10 billion. In contrast, in Canada, a stunning 85% of the national population shops at second-hand and charity shops on a regular basis. The economic value of this particular post-consumer activity has been calculated to be worth $5 billion dollars annually. When all the transactions of second-hand goods are considered (meaning Kijiji, Craigslist, flea markets, yard sales and the like), the value is raised to $28.5 billion. While it is clear that there is money to be made in the updated and expanded ‘rag-and-bone trade’, the environmental implications are obvious.
In this light, there is much to be learned from the Finnish approach to the selling of second-hand goods. In Helsinki there are seven “’reuse” depots (the Finnish word is Kierrätyskeskus). These stores – giant second-hand super markets as they have been called – promote the idea of the circular economy as opposed to the linear one. The model of the linear economy sees natural resources taken from the earth and made into things which are ultimately discarded (with landfills and incinerators understood as object ‘death’). With the circular economy, biological materials are used with a mind to the motto “make, consume, enrich”. With technical materials the motto is “make, use, return”. Despite the seeming simplicity, the models hold the key to a new paradigm of resource use and ecological stewardship. In Finland, there is a national online store that not only sells used goods but also educates citizens about the environment and civic engagement . This initiative could be taken up anywhere. Given the predictions of global population growth (9 billion people by 2045), the grim prognostications about ecological collapse need to be addressed. Thrifting – for whatever you may need – is one viable alternative to perpetuating cycles of making and using that are not sustainable.
Watching that DVD of WALL-E found cheaply at the local charity shop might well be a useful reminder of the shape of things come.
The author would like to dedicate this piece of writing to Mr. Leopold Kowolik in recognition of his superb work as the Editor in Chief of Studio. Mr. Kowolik’s vision and leadership have been exemplary and inspiring. He has been a wonderful colleague and the magazine has been better for his advocacy for the communities of craft and design and his encouragement of conversations, debates and engagement.
 Prevalent in material culture studies is the idea of the life course or “biography” of things and the consideration of all the forces brought to bear on the making of something and the stages of the object across time. The metaphor of the life course is useful as it parallels ideas of human time – from birth to death – and takes into account the various stages of use and meaning that an object will embody. For discussions of this concept in the context of history and anthropology, see, for example, Chris Gosden and Yvonne Marshall, “The Cultural Biography of Objects” World Archaeology, Vol. 31, no. 2 (October 1999), 169–178. See also Ann Brower Stahl, “Material Histories” in The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies, editors Dan Hicks and Mary C Beaudry (London: Oxford University Press, 2010), 150–172 and Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process” in The Social Life of Things, editor Arjun Appadurai (London: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 64–92.
 According to IBISWorld, in 2014 there were 25,637 non-profit, registered charity shops in the US. The statistics for Canada are not so easily found. Rough estimates are that about 4,500 similarly registered charity shops operate in Canada. Ontario has the largest number of thrift stores in the country (about 950 in 2018) with what commentators remark on as a striking cultural diversity of objects for sale. See “Second-hand Goods in Canada: Facts and Statistics” https://www.statista.com/topics/2838/second-hand-goods-in-canada/
This article was published in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Studio Magazine