My Magic Questions
When I figure out I need, or could do with (more on that distinction later) a product, my brain goes through these stages:
- Could I/we (me and my boyfriend) do without buying it? For example, I’m going on holiday but don’t have an ‘easyjet-sized’ suitcase. I could go and buy one, or I could borrow one from a friend and make sure I bring them back some chocolates to say thanks. Another example: we have friends coming over for dinner but don’t have enough chairs. Answer: use the garden furniture and make a joke out of it! Both these examples happen regularly round these parts.
- Could I make it? This applies mainly to clothing and accessories currently, but also soft-furnishings and gifts for other people. This is an area I hope to expand in the future.
- If it’s a bit fat ‘NO’ to the questions above, then it leads to: Could I get it second hand? And so often the answer is ‘yes, the thing I would like can be bought second hand’ by either hunter-gathering my way through charity shops or spending a bit of time trawling on eBay.
- If the answer to the above question is still ‘NO’, or we require the item quicker than the gods of charity shopping are willing to grant it to us, we buy the item new but the best quality we can afford so that it should last the longest amount of time before needing to be replaced.
I write endlessly on this blog about question number 2: making things. In this post I want to go into my thoughts on second hand, but really many of the reasons for me preferring to buy second hand are the same as why I choose to make rather than buy my own clothing.
So, as we’ve clarified, if I find I need or would like something new, I’ll usually see if I can get the thing second-hand before heading to the shops or amazon. Now, a LOT of people find second hand stuff to be a bit (or very) gross. The thought that someone else has owned and touched and used their thing before they had it makes them uncomfortable. I’m not judging anyone’s responses, but I feel it would be valuable to think about why that that response is their primary one.
'New' is a new concept
The first thing to take into account is the notion that all possessions must be ‘box-fresh’ straight from the shop or delivery depot is a relatively new one. When my grandparents were my age in the 1940’s, they were skint, working class Londoners, newly married, making their home and going about their business. During this time, and for all their lives leading up to that point, second hand was usually how you got most things. Furniture, clothing, shoes, pots and pans, etc. etc. all were bought second hand or acquired from members of their family; all those things had lives beyond the initial owner. Of course, the Second World War halted most domestic product manufacture and import, but many poorer people in the UK had been living this way for their whole lives even before war broke out. Obviously, I’m not idealising those horribly tough years, and I’m not necessarily saying that given the ability to do so, my young grandparents wouldn’t have chosen a new product over a second hand one, but I am saying that I see how they rubbed along and post-war, raised a family without Primark or Wilkinson’s (probably the UK equivalent to Wal-Mart) and that is what I aim to do also.
After the Second World War ended, both the UK and US governments decided the best course for economic recovery was to kick-start the manufacturing industries. But the industry that needed to grow even more than car, washing machine or vacuum cleaning production to make this happen was the advertising industry to create and keep up the desire for these products. It was the advertising executives that constantly pedalled the idea than brand-spanking-new products would make you a happier, better person, and reflect your social standing as higher than those around you.
Quality or Quantity
Of course, the desire to be happy, better, and of higher status were not created by the advertising industry, they were always there. My grandparents wanted those things as much as the next person but, and here’s the crux of the thing, they always sought them through quality rather than simply newness. In fact, they held that notion their whole lives. I remember how my maternal grandmother, who had grown up in very poor conditions, in her later years would be absolutely thrilled with a gift of an expensive, high-quality, used coat from my paternal grandmother (who was wealthier and thoroughly middle class), infinitely more so than by a new, but evidently lower-quality, coat bought on a market stall.
The world of advertising had to almost drop the concept of quality from its list of concepts to pedal. Because if you market a product as the best quality within its field, with subsequent longevity, why would the consumer need to buy another from the same company for many years? Once the post-war homes of the US and UK had their TV, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, car etc. sales faltered and the advertising world had to find new desirable attributes to market to convince consumers to up-grade those tired old models they bought just a few years ago. Which is obviously why quality has also fallen off the list of priorities for most manufacturers: you’d probably need more than two hands to count the amount of times you’ve heard people say ‘they don’t make them like they used to’!
Advertising and Manipulation
When you see advertisements from the 1950’s today, they look relatively naïve, almost child-like in the simplicity of their messages. But as trying to create ‘need’ to consume already existing products got tougher, advertising got smarter. Advertising has used and manipulated the knowledge gleaned by psychology since the grandfather of modern advertising, Edward Bernays, deployed his uncle, Sigmund Freud’s, theories of psychoanalysis in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Obviously there are many excellent books and documentaries tracking the rise and development of advertising and its relationship with society, but it’ll suffice to say that it has got so clever and insidious that so much of it effects our choices and mind sets so we don’t really know what we genuinely want and/or need. The difference between 'want' and 'need' is also worth taking a look at.
'Want' and 'Need'
It serves the advertising and manufacturing industries to keep ‘need’ and ‘want’ blurred. Now, I know I am very fortunate having been born into a stable family in one of the first world nations, so I’m highly aware that this statement is extremely relative, but the course I have chosen for myself has always been, relative to my society and peers, low paid. Before I started to really think about these things around my mid-twenties, I used to get pissed off and feel aggrieved that I couldn’t afford all the things that I felt I ‘needed’ and ‘deserved’, like a new pair of black jeans or patent, cone-heeled mary janes from Topshop, etc. But I ‘had a word with myself’ and started to realise that I in fact just wanted those things, and then I began to look at how those notions of need/want got mixed up. Choosing to buy second hand not only saves me money (last year we kitted out an unfurnished one-bedroom flat for just £130 by only buying second hand furniture and accepting free items that were kindly offered to us, oh, and finding one clothing rail on the street) but also means I am somewhat out of the radar for all those advertising messages. Not watching much TV and no longer buying heavily advertisement-laden magazines also helps me with this.
Negative Impact on Esteem
Also, so much product advertising relies on exploiting and perpetuating our insecurities. It feels makes us feel bad about ourselves and our lives and then suggests the way to feel better is by purchasing this dress or sofa etc. But the key to happiness and fulfilment clearly doesn’t lie in buying those products because if it did, then we’d all be happy with what we’ve just bought and the whole thing would grind to a halt.
There is a horrendous series of advertisements on TV at the moment for an online department store called ‘Very’. One of the adverts shows a pretty girl wearing a 1970’s style jumpsuit telling us that we should buy it because it makes the wearer look ‘taller and slimmer’. Another in this series features the beautiful and naturally curvy TV presenter Holly Willoughby wearing a silver party dress. She confides with the camera/viewer that she loves the dress’s ruched waistband because it hides a ‘multitude of sins’. I nearly spat my coffee out when I saw that blatant example of exploitation of women’s negative body image. Now, I don’t want to go massively off-piste and discuss in-depth the feminist implications of these adverts, but I do want to highlight the negativity involved in advertising. I feel you can detach yourself from it to a certain extent by not being their ‘target customer’. I certainly don’t want to endorse that kind of message by buying their products and effectively funding the creation of those adverts. The time that ‘Very’ (.co.uk) assumes I spend, or would like me to spend, feeling insecure and rubbish about the size of my belly or my height, I would prefer to spend reading a funny book, looking for vintage sewing patterns on eBay, or stitching myself a new jacket. Sorry about that, ‘Very’.
One thing that is unarguably advantageous about buying new compared to second hand is choice and accessibility. Shopping for stuff today does give you a vast (some would say overwhelming) array of options. So how comes, having ascertained a want/need for a new pair of jeans for example, does the ensuing process of shopping for said item so often feel like going into battle? Shopping for new stuff despite of, if not because of, the amount of choice on offer to us is usually NOT an enjoyable experience. And let’s be honest, the idea that we have great choice of products available to us is pretty false when most of what a retailer has on offer is near-identical to the other retailers. I would argue that in some cases more variety can be found when looking for something second hand, because most retailers are afraid to invest in stocking products that don’t fit in to the prevailing current trends, be that sofas, shoes or TVs. There are also well-documented statistics which prove that people (AKA consumers) are less happy now than they were sixty years ago, despite this ‘utopia’ of products available to fulfil each wish and desire.
I would go as far as to argue that the choice of products we have available to us, and the process we go through to choose what to buy, provides a feeling of power. But it's a kind of false power when most of the places you can buy stuff are all owned by the same multinationals if you research far enough up the food chain. People often used to exercise power by involvement in local and national politics and issues, involvement in trade unions, community groups and other collectives. Involvement in those things has been marginalised, which is to our own societies detriment. What do we do with our time instead? Well, shop mostly.
Availability and Ease
Agreed, when you want to buy a certain product, a kettle say, by going to a retailer that sells new kettles, you are guaranteed to walk away with one and can usually be sitting at home with a cup of tea within the hour. Believe me, I am well aware that you can’t so easily walk into a second hand shop with a shopping list and expect to have all that ticked off by the end of the day. But we managed to kit out most of our kitchen with second hand equipment (I know some people are going to find that a bit icky!) with a bit of patience. There is certainly a hunter-gathering-related instinctive thrill to be got from a successful second hand shopping trip which is infinitely more of a buzz than I would achieve having walked out of Topshop or Urban Outiftters having made a purchase. When there is so much stuff freely available RIGHT NOW, there is always the feeling that ‘maybe I should have gone to a couple more shops to have found something a bit more suitable’. By comparison, a charity shop purchase makes you feel 'WIN!!!!!!'.
The Thrill of The New
What is ‘new’ and ‘fresh’ and ‘untouched’ anyhow? I’ve already discussed the fact that most of the garments, and any other products you can buy, have each been created by hundreds of pairs of hands. Yours is not the only pair of hands to have been on that thing. The idea that your ‘box-fresh’ item has been zapped into existence by a single machine just for you is so very far from the truth. That item came into being months, possibly even a year or more before you saw it. It has most likely been transported from half-way round the world via a series of cargo ships, trucks and warehouses, but having been caked in plastic to retain or create that ‘new’ smell we all so enjoy. And then when it is in the store, how many hands have picked it up, felt it, tried it and put it back down before you selected it? In particular, garments and shoes have probably been manhandled and dumped on the dressing room floor, and had sweaty bodies and feet squeezed into them multiple times before you decide to buy them. If that item had been previously purchased, used, washed and cared for (and often just purchased, put in the cupboard, then taken straight to the charity shop) then classed ‘second hand’, does that make it so completely different from a ‘new’ item? In my opinion, no.
Economy Vs. Ecology
The final issue I’m going to discuss today regarding ‘new’ Vs. ‘second hand’ can be also be framed ‘economy’ vs. ‘ecology’. The same reason that rabid consumerism was desirable in the immediate post-war period is still a prevalent one today: economics. Making, transporting, advertising and selling stuff creates jobs and therefore supports families. It also supports our governments and helps them achieve and maintain a position of international power which keeps poorer nations from developing to a position where their populations can support themselves, reach self-sufficiency and achieve a non-poverty standard of living, but that is a discussion for another day. Indeed everyone deserves to be able to support themselves and their families, but I find it a concern that the definition of that in the West seems to be ‘to a level where those workers are then able to freely purchase every item that is made, transported, advertised and sold’. I definitely don’t have a definitive answer, but I am aware that I cannot afford a lot of the new stuff many of my peers regularly consume, but then neither do I have to work the same excessive hours and worry about getting promotions like many of them do. I’ll come back to these topics in the future.
What I DO know, and what everyone who isn’t mental has acknowledged, is that this level of consumption we currently have in developed/Western/First-World nations is actively screwing up the planet. And the damage we are reaping won’t just effect us in the West, it’ll effect the entire globe including those who have almost no impact on the globe at all. Doesn’t seem fair does it? Not to mention all the children from every nation who has been, and will be, born into this mess. The public knows our consumerism is screwing the planet, the experts and scientists know this, the governments know this, the heads of corporations know this, but we cannot seem to make the leap: to jump off this economic merry-go-round to implement some of the measures that we know we need to to start seriously preventing and repairing some of the damage. Because profits will suffer, governments’ stability will suffer and indeed some first world families’ livelihoods will suffer. I don’t have the answers and even if I did I don’t know if too many people in positions of power would hear me or listen to me above their own agendas. But I will live my life the way I feel comfortable, and a lot of that is making do, making and modifying things and buying second hand.