January 18, 2008 | Ronda Jambe

In Praise of Older Goods

…or the African Freecycle Boogie.
I guess it is rewarding to live long enough to see my youthful concerns become mainstream alarms. Or at least fashionable. And that is what is now happening with recycled goods.
Second hand goods have appealed to me since my childhood. At about age 7, with my equally naughty friend Laura, we raided a box of goodies placed at the kerb. It held treasures fit for a queen: lavish ball gowns, encrusted with beads and cut glass, with matching wraps and handbags. We carted them off and dressed up in them for years. These treasures of the 1950s would surely be sought after now, and one wonders how they have blended into the biosphere since that time.
As a US university student in the late 60’s second hand goods were a fun statement of rebellion against the mainstream, and in the 1980’s as a single parent in Canberra clothing from the Salvo’s or St Vinnies was helpful in managing the budget (as was the rent from the dancer living in third bedroom)
It gradually dawned that there is an extended benefit in purchasing second hand: someone has already paid the rip off tax, and any remaining value is real and probably persistent. I remember once reaching into the jumper bin at Vinnie’s, and knowing instantly that I had touched cashmere. And sure enough, it was a pale grey cashmere twin set from Harod’s of London, in my size and going for just $5. For many years I wore them happily, and I can only hope they rest in peace. I even picked up a cute Swiss guy once at Vinnie’s, but he soon needed repairs.
Recently I heard chatter on the ABC about discouraging consumption by saying ‘It is more important to enjoy the history of what you have.’ But of course! Last weekend we gave a little table and chairs to friends to use as their breakfast table. Years ago they gave us their old kitchen. Isn’t there a lovely symmetry in that? And the exchange becomes a pleasant part what connects us in time and space.
All enduring goods eventually have a provenance, and who dares to disconnect such feelings and esthetics from the wider barter of valued antiques, lost treasures, marks on canvas, graffiti, even seeds? Surely there is a dimension of sustainability in there, but perhaps the human stirrings are more critical. It is good to know my friends are sipping their morning coffee at that small but respectable table that we bought in Melbourne for our back room.
The investment or collector dimension does not appeal to me. Practical intelligence, which I admire so much in my table and kitchen swapping friends, is more precious. Why change something, if it works? Does the change enhance functionality, or is it just a silly design feature that says ‘NOW’? Sharp corners on bed holders and sinks with dirt collecting areas underneath spring to mind, along with inward sloping canopies, that direct rain to the weakest point in the structure.
Older goods are often more practical, their interface is less ambitious, less electrical, hopefully repairable. Today we are paying $400 to fix one window on a Mitsubishi. I prefer the old wind down window openers in cars, but they can break off, too. The unsustainability of industrial design can await another blog, if anyone is interested in providing examples.
Things become more expendible when they cost so little, as they have already served their time. After my partner rejected a $39 computer desk at Woolies, I couldn’t pass up one already put together for $15 at the Salvos’. Problem solved, the lap top can now get off the dining room table. What’s to lose?
And the older something is, the less likely it is to have been made under exploitative environmental and social conditions. Maybe. What do I know about all my clothing from China? A retreat into the past can also be a retreat from current accountability, but ultimately there is no escape from the consequences of consuming.
Whereas the occasional visits to big shopping malls generally leave me feeling enervated and confused, a visit to a second hand store is low key. Serendipity without pressure.
The break through in my thinking came when my financial pressures eased, and spending money on new goods became possible. At that point I realised that my material desires were effectively infinite. There would always be something else to yearn for, to hunt down and drag back home. And then dispose of. I concluded there was no point in attempting to satisfy these desires. Better (for me anyway) to turn away partially from these delights and focus on those that are less frivolous. That led to me at 48 to walk away from a government sinecure and take up a 3 year PhD scholarship. A bit less consuming perhaps, but a lot more satisfaction.
Which brings us (finally, you sigh) to the Feecycle Boogie. For some time, I have wished for a website or organisation that would take my unwanted items and give them directly to a family in Africa, or another desperate place where corruption keeps much formal aid money from being fully effective. (That is going out on a limb, I have no idea how effective my aid dollars are, but I worry that nothing ever changes for the better on a scale that would be reassuring)
Families and individuals, with the assistance of presumably good management of the web site and its third world interface, could put in a request. ‘The Nigono family in Nigeria needs a set of dishes and a solar powered radio.’ (no apologies for the green-badging). Then someone in a richer country logs on, and for some maneagable sum, the web site owners collect, package and ship to Africa by the containerload, and provide some minimal confirmation that the Nigono family received this gift. A direct, accountable transfer. Sure, let the middleman take a cut, he’s not going to get rich off it.
Of course it sounds stupid, but then so do public libraries and public schools, if you come from that perspective. But, having read Chris Andersen’s The Long Tail, it is clear that not all rewards are monetary. Conversely, many people are willing to pay either small or sometimes large amounts to access services that offer an extra dimension, such as personal satisfaction and documentation of accountability. If an African family posts, through their mediated helper perhaps, a note of thanks for the dishes, that might be very rewarding to the overseas giver.
Yes, the potential for graft and incompetence is enormous, as with Wiki. No way to escape from governance issues, that is the big lie of the technophiles.
In defence of this concept, I can only say that Freecycling (http://www.freecycle.org/) is alive and well, spreading across the globe, and completely non-profit. So is an open network of global giving out of the question?

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 12:29 pm | Comments Off on In Praise of Older Goods |

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