In a follow-up to Junkyard Planet (2013), Malaysia-based Bloomberg Opinion columnist Minter looks at what happens to our discarded stuff, the used household goods and clothing donated to thrift stores or sold at garage sales.
While conducting his research, the author traveled widely in North America, Asia, and Africa to interview people involved in every aspect of the secondhand business. Because statistics on the business are scanty, Minter tells much of his story through the people he met at the many stops in his global journey. These include home cleanout businesses in Minnesota and in Japan, a swap meet in Mexico, a used clothing exporter in Canada, a sorting warehouse in Nigeria, and a Goodwill store in Arizona (in 2016, Goodwill International “generated $4.16 billion in retail sales, making it the king of an American thrift trade that generated at least $17.5 billion in revenue”). Chronicling the work of the employees at these various businesses, Minter shows readers their expertise, what special knowledge they need to have to operate successfully, what problems they face, and how the secondhand business is changing. China, for instance, used to be an importer of used clothing, but it is now an exporter. The author’s respect for the people working in the business is clear, but the character-driven approach tends to lengthen the report and blur its clarity. Still, readers will come away with an understanding that the supply of secondhand goods is vast, the amount of stuff in the world is still growing, and that the secondhand business is supplying billions of people around the world with goods they want and need. The author also offers some recommendations, especially about the quality of goods, noting how the manufacture of more durable and repairable goods would have a positive effect on the secondhand business, something he notes that is beginning to happen already. The handful of black-and-white photographs, unfortunately, are generally small, murky, and unhelpful.
A character-driven, detailed, eye-opening report far richer in description than analysis.