The Culture of Second-Hand Goods
The culture of second-hand goods means sharing what we have now with those who owned it before and with those who will own it after us: both in space and time. And this takes place because, whether the change of hands happens through one or more sales, whether it happens through the most diverse forms of donation or inheritance or whether it does not happen at all, we keep using something that has already been used after repairing it. Finally, whether it happens through real sharing which is not a change of hands but a rotation of many hands. Maybe this is the ultimate form of reuse.
The basic dichotomy between new and second-hand goods tells us that, according to logic, second-hand goods are more meaningful and noble than new items because they are old or antique; and that new items should only be used where second-hand goods cannot longer satisfy the need of living beings or because there aren’t enough, or because of natural wear and tear reducing their availability; or because new items include new knowledge that was not available when the used item was made.
But this dichotomy is complicated by three mechanisms that are the driving forces of current markets and through them they become the mainspring of economic “development” or of what we tend to mean by this term. These mechanisms are technological innovation, advertising and fashion.
These mechanisms, in their current shape and relevance in our modern world, have only be around for just over a century, many even less. Because in the past, the use of second-hand goods, or repair and reuse until worn out, were common practice.
Technical innovation can create new types of products that did not exist before; and with this creating new, and in a way indisputable, needs that old and second-hand products are not able to meet. Medicine, telecommunications, mobility and household activities are the privileged domain of these processes in everyday life.
All aspects of human life, including the most private one, have been affected by the spread of technological advances, making increasingly unusable “obsolete” tools, artefacts and methods while filling our lives and our homes with increasingly complex products and gadgets.
But the pace and the frenzy of this process has been set by advertising leading the entire production system towards replacement markets, goods that neither meet old unsatisfied needs nor new ones but just create a need to get rid of old items (producing heaps of waste) in order to buy new items (dissipating new resources). Advertising was the real great innovation that changed the face of economy in the 20th century.
Today advertising, thanks primarily to telecommunication advances, reaches every corner of our planet; it is inextricably linked to products; it controls economically, through mass media, all information; it settles irreversibly on our conscience and on our unconscious shaping our character, our desires and our trends.
One of advertising’s effects, as much crucial as it is overlooked, is that of creating an increasingly higher barrier, renewing it daily, between new and used goods: an used item that becomes so is simply “old” without ever been used. It does this by accompanying new items step by step, through every updating, and by sidelining second-hand goods to make space for new items even when used goods are nowhere near their wear and tear or end of life. It does it by making the use of second-hand goods a social stigma, that is not being up to date, by conferring dignity of belonging to the imaginary world that it has created only to those caught up in the frantic race for new items.
The intended victim of fashion is second-hand goods; old items are out of fashion, object of ridicule and cause of exclusion even when they are substantially “new”, that is not worn out, little used, or they are perfectly functional as when they were produced or displayed in shop’s windows just a year earlier.
The paradigm inversion juxtaposing new and used items will not have to open up a completely different path; a path representing a development and an extension of that already defined by the principles of ecodesign in the production of new items.
These principles dictate that newly-manufactured products must be built in a way that facilitates not only the maximum use of recycled materials in their production and energy and resource savings during manufacturing, their use and their maintenance; not just collection and disassembling of discarded products and recovery and recycling of their materials and their components; but above all during repair.
If a new culture of second-hand goods use and promotion catches on, these principles will have to be adopted even more radically. Products are to be increasingly designed and manufactured to last, but above all to be able to be modified and adapted to different aesthetic and functional needs and trends. Both if they stay in the hands of the same person that bought them and if they end up, as second-hand goods, in somebody else’s hands though inheritance, donation or trading.
But for such a programme to be successful, it is necessary not only for the second-hand market to acquire social and ethical legitimacy but also to develop the necessary material and institutional infrastructure to support it: in all feasible ways of recovering and utilization of discarded products: donation, inheritance, barter, trading, charitable collection and redistribution, collecting. But above all repairing.
Maintenance and Repairing
Because the culture of reuse is inseparable from maintenance and repairing culture; so much so that they can be seen as a single way of dealing with things. They are both inseparable from the knowledge of their characteristics and their functioning, from the attention to their condition and the way in which they are used and handled and in many cases from a real love for these objects.
The maintenance culture and the technical and manual skills to support it characterize and allow the use of second-hand items in all those cases representing the most traditional way of extending or duplicating the life of an object: that is when it becomes necessary to repair it in order to keep it working. Obviously, this is not enough. If an object works, it does not necessarily mean that someone is willing to use it, and above all using it instead of something equivalent but more fashionable and better advertised that could easily be bought on the “novelty” market.
A Passion for Objects
If maintenance is a conditio sine qua non, the mainspring of preserving them is a passion for objects or the irritation due the incessant assault on the environment caused by buying a new item and disposing of the old one as waste.
Repairing an object means knowing it inside out; knowing how and why it works; how to fix it but also to be able to get hold of the parts needed to repair it. The more complex an object is, the deeper, the more specialized and vast is the knowledge required to repair it. Up to a certain point the skills and the ability of the user or the person intending to own the object can be enough.
From a certain level up, the use of specialized expertise becomes essential; in some cases even compulsory (for example electrical work or boiler certification in a flat). It is not always easy, cheap or even possible to find the professionals needed to repair instead of replacing a faulty or broken installation or appliance.
The presence and level of availability in the fabric of society of such expertise and skills are an indication of the importance given to material culture by a particular society; that is the “culture” of everyday-life objects: from kitchen ingredients to work tools, from housing to means guaranteeing mobility etc.
When carried out professionally, maintenance or repair of an object, of an appliance or of an installation requires care, knowledge, intelligence and practical skills that Richard Sennett ascribes to the modern Craftsman (2008): an approach to work where the author senses a radical alternative to the anonymity and impersonality characterising the Fordist production system based on task simplification along the assembly line and then by an increasing level of reduction of responsibility and alienation from the content of what is produced, the working pattern of the flexible man as described by Sennett in The Corrosion of Character (1998), a characteristic of the post-Fordist world.
An electrician, a plumber, a mechanic repairing a car or an engine, a bicycle or a motorcycle repairer, but also a tailor or a dressmaker repairing and altering dresses, or a dyeworks owner, and even more so, an antique object or furniture restorer, must somehow “love” the objects that they spend so much energy on; or at least they must take great care and use their intelligence to identify faults and flaws to understand how to solve them. They must then combine these qualities with a good dose of dexterity to work on the object.
Through the revalorization of second-hand objects and the work needed to extend the life of items and equipment or to give them a new life, maintenance opens up a world that turns on their head the characteristics of those serial, repetitive, boring and empty activities that previous industrial development stages have enthroned as a paradigm of human labour.
Expertise for Reusing
All objects susceptible of recovery must be cleaned, often repaired, and sometimes repainted or polished; in some cases they are cannibalized to get components (especially crucial because they often enable us to fix objects whose trademark, model and spare parts no longer exists.) Only a few people, and their number is dwindling, are able to do these things: just consider how difficult it is to find a person able to repair an old radio, record-player, vacuum cleaner, an old dress still in good conditions and so on.
The knowledge, the expertise and the dexterity of these people should be safeguarded, promoted and recovered, giving them the opportunity to pass them on to others who could use them to establish a business; but also to the almost infinite number of people who would like be able to repair their faulty appliances instead of having to throw them away because they cannot find someone who is able to fix them or because they do not have the necessary tools for the job.
The solution to this problem could have an enormous impact on everybody’s material culture, on our relationship with the objects surrounding us, on the survival of these items. And on our wallets as well. It is just a question of finding the people, the centres and the modalities suitable for promoting the widespread diffusion of such expertise.
The Role of the Community
Anyway, the fine line between the ability to intervene directly on the objects that we use and the need to find specialised people or companies does vary not only over time, with a progressive impoverishment of our personal autonomy, but also by passing from a simple environment, such as rural societies but also many urban societies living in self-built slums, to a complex urban environment. It also varies according to a person’s character, lifestyle and tendencies. But it varies above all, sometimes radically, according the type of objects.
In many cases it is these objects – or “things”, in the broadest sense of the term – a bicycle, a motorbike, a car, a boat, a pair of skis, a house that speak to their “owner”; they ask to be taken care of as an integral part of their use. Obviously, not everyone listens to this call in the same way, some people ignore it completely. The fact remains that the relationship, often a true love affair, established between a person and a thing or a piece of equipment, becomes a reference model for any action promoting a wider diffusion of the culture of reuse.
A Kind of Social Bond
In a different dimension, a general attention to the health status of objects and equipment populating our everyday life could become a bond uniting a community or the key to rebuild a dimension of mutual help and embed it in its members’ everyday practices. To this end, maintenance and repair of a set of objects and equipment must be shared amongst the members of a sympathetic network with sufficient expertise to carry them out.
Collectively, all these aspects create a cultural constellation able to promote a radical shift in the attitude of humans in the world and towards things, compared to the behaviour imposed on us so far by serial, alienating and simplified labour and by the throwaway culture promoted by advertising and fashion.
Even from an industrial point of view, systems that swap the purchase of a product and then its disposal as waste with a contract with the producer who becomes responsible not only for its production but also for its repair, its reconditioning, its delivery and its collection are becoming increasingly popular with industrial highly polluting goods: lubricants, solvents, catalysts etc. Even here, we find an industrial solution promoting reuse.
A good example is the maintenance and repair of complex goods where modular components are used to replace worn-out, faulty or obsolete parts of a piece of equipment, preserving the use of the rest.
In some cases, that could become more frequent as they were in pre-industrial societies, during the whole Industrial Revolution and up until a few decades ago, reusing does not entail a change of hands of goods, but just their maintenance.
In various forms: from the most elementary to increasingly more complex ones that need repairing instead of the replacement of the faulty equipment in its totality. Or just the replacement of worn-out or obsolete parts. Or their repair, made more difficult because spare parts are designed and built to be replaced as a whole: just think about all the transformations that over the last decades some components such as a car’s dashboard or a home appliance’s resistor have undergone.
Repairing and Competition
Between industrial and marketing processes and a community’s resilience, understood as the availability of a certain amount of expertise sufficient to guarantee the repair of everything – or nearly everything – that breaks down, there is a dialectic relation in full view of everyone.
Where that expertise is lacking or disappearing, whether a durable good is easily repairable or not does not make any difference. When it stops working, it must be replaced with one working because anyway there is no one around able to repair it. But if that expertise exists and it is sufficiently present in the community, producing or putting on the market goods guaranteed to last longer and that are easily repairable can become a competitive edge, both for the individual and the community at large.
The Importance of Infrastructure
A crucial instrument to promote the culture of repair and reuse is the creation and the spreading of a material and cultural infrastructure needed to encourage discarded goods recovery. This infrastructure could be developed, as already proposed by many, from the expansion and reorganization of current waste depots and recycling centres.
The ideal recycling centre able to perform this task, has two huge areas. The first part, the bigger one, is to be found near the entrance; it is devoted to selection and collection of reusable materials, to warehouses and repair shops, to premises for exhibitions and conferences. The second part, smaller and further back, is devoted to the conferment of separate-collected materials that can only be recycled.
The first area has two access lanes: one for private vehicles, for small business vans and for dustcarts collecting bulky items. This lane receives equipment and objects extracted from controlled demolitions carried out in compliance with material recovery guidelines: sanitaryware, lamps, boilers, radiators, casing, electrical cables, pipes, beams, etc.
The second lane is reserved to council lorries collecting and emptying skips devoted to the “sixth faction” of separate waste collection that each council must create in its territory, that for durable goods – currently mainly bulky items – that could be expanded to receive also small items. Along both lanes, on the side of the entrance route, there are counters where conferred objects are examined. Behind these counters, there are bins on wheels for the separate collection of the different objects selected because deemed recoverable and suitable to be sent for reusing.
The so-called bulky items, offloaded by users with the help of reception personnel, are put into carts to be examined or they are directly put on the counters, depending on their size, weight, and indication provided by the reception personnel. Examination is carried out both on material placed into the carts and on that put onto the counters. Materials passing the recoverability test are put in bins on wheels according to their typology and are moved to the warehouse and replaced by empty bins. Those that do not pass the test are put back into the carts or they can be moved to other bins on wheels.
Carts and bins full of rejected materials are towed to the ramp of the second part of the plant and unloaded onto removable containers below, and selected this time only according to the type of material. Heavier materials, such as non-working electrical appliances, or more fragile material, such as electronic equipment that can no longer be recovered are piled up directly on the loading floor of dedicated removable containers.
Samples of material are taken from both flows sent to the warehouse, that of bulky items and small objects (furniture, furnishings, clothes, electronic devices, sewing machines, electrical appliances, computers, toys, gadgets, bicycles, etc,) and are then used in repair and restoring training workshops. Workshops are managed by the same organization that won the selection work.
The rest is divided into small homogenous lots that are sold periodically through a system of auctions to credited operators. There are no particular requirements for getting crediting. Migrant associations can also get crediting and then they can distribute the lots they buy according to their internal rules. Obviously, the organization managing the selection cannot take part in the auction.
Workshops for woodwork, mechanics, tailoring and dressmaking, restoring, electrical engineering, plumbing, artistic craftsmanship and more – are equipped with good tools and managed by one or more experts working or collaborating with the organization managing the selection. It is not necessary for every centre to have all the workshops required to give new life to all the objects selected. Once there are many ecocentres, and they are online, each one of them can specialize in some fields. It will be the workshop managers who will travel from one workshop to another to train chosen people and work alongside them. Materials to be repaired will be concentrated in the best-equipped workshops.
Ecocentres’ workshops have a threefold purpose. First of all, training: they run practical courses on repairing and restoring discarded goods taken from the separate collection flow. These courses are open to everybody, offering different levels of technical expertise. They also aim to safeguard knowledge and expertise that risk vanishing with the disappearance of the last generation of craftsmen that still have them. They also organize environmental education and creative waste use programmes for local schools.
But these workshops can also offer technical assistance: DIY, restoring and repair lovers can access such workshops at certain times to use, under the guidance and supervision of personnel, complex equipment and machinery that would make no sense to own. So the culture of maintenance and repair can spread in the whole community.