Catherine Masterman considers secondhand goods and what holds them back as a wider solution to consumer excess.
Question: In what high street shop can you spend five minutes and £25 and buy: a decent rug that fits a whole room, the needed hat for your child’s fancy dress, a decent sleeping bag and a bag of dinosaurs?
Charity shops are groaning with stuff – still working through the aftermath of the time spent ‘sorting’ during lockdowns – it’s all too common to see signs either limiting or refusing donations, or boxes left at locked doors despite pleas against it.
Both the need to spend less and the desire to decrease our environmental impact drive greater second-hand purchases – as Ebay and other companies have been promoting as a growing norm. But even if we we overcome social pressure factor, it is a long way from being the mainstream solution.
I am in no way a retail expert but I am an avid second hand consumer. After a year of equipping a playgroup and furnishing a house overwhelmingly second hand, I feel I have some insight into the biggest blockers.
First is the problem of information. Second hand online platforms are dispersed and take time to browse to see if what you need is even on offer in time. Information about physical goods in local second hand shops is even worse. Recently, I spent more money and drove 25 miles to buy a piece of furniture whose twin I then discovered sitting in a charity shop for much less money just down the road. However, with no ready way of comparing the options in real time, both consumer and planet end up paying more.
Then there is the additional time required – waiting for an ebay item (if second hand, usually from a private seller) to arrive by post or time to search different websites. Then there is the time involved in making an arrangement to pick it up, if it’s on a local platform. Seeing an item is available and clicking your interest is the least of the issue. The subsequent messages and logistics for picking up and payment end up adding to the overwhelming attrition by tiny tasks that is the daily grind of many households. Browsing a high street of well stocked charity shops is fine if you live near an affluent area, and you have the luxury of time or storage to buy something on spec for when it comes in handy. But these are luxuries. Frankly, for a particular quantity of something, or an item with a deadline, there is still no substitute for the convenience of buying new. Local second-hand platforms are useful but will only ever be a niche solution.
Finally there is the problem that producers don’t get any value from second hand sales, so (as I’ve written before) there is nothing that can match the drive for unsustainable linear production. Whilst some second hand platforms like World of Books can go some way to match buying new on price and convenience, they still don’t provide the counter incentive for new production. This is why it is so important that retailers are thinking about offering the same logistical convenience for second hand as for new purchases in a way that would earn them value from the second hand sales. I hope many more follow suit.
For the current second hand retailers, what’s the answer? Can big data processing capability offer something for tracking second hand sales? Are there ways for the charity shop brands to retain their income whilst changing the model? If they specialised and could give better information on their stocks could they earn more by charging a more realistic price? I paid £15 for my carpet. It was probably over £300 when new. Whilst my good fortune, the depreciation of what was in unused condition must reflect a market failure somewhere.
It’s good to see Ebay going back to their second hand roots this Black Friday – I’m a big fan of their contribution to more sustainable online purchase. Lets hope we also start to see some of the big structural shifts that would really make second hand a feasible first choice.