Finding Power in the Discarded

Photo Sarah Whiting

I started off as a Goodwill Outlet shopper. I saw how much was literally being thrown away or packed onto trucks for export to merchants in third-world countries.

The volume I saw of everything in this waste stream made it impossible to ignore the scale of this issue. I began to connect what I was learning about this crazy flow of unwanted goods with accelerating social problems — like pollution, carbon emissions, climate change, resource scarcity, and impact on the health of everyone, but particularly those already struggling with poverty and resource access issues. I saw the waste stream expand and overflow with commodity products that companies continue to make. Logic told me that we had to get our heads wrapped around solutions that enable circular systems and a profitable, scalable flow from one user to the next.

Historically, we have not questioned the marketing message that used goods are inherently less valuable than new goods. As a rule, we don’t have enough information to even clear conceptions about reused furniture and home goods. Unlike cars and appliances, where there may be environmental gain to come from buying a newer, more efficient model (because most car and appliance emissions happen during product use), the equation is exactly opposite for home goods and furniture, where most, if not all, emissions are generated during manufacture.

In fact, many people don’t even understand the distinction between recycling (an industrial process that takes existing goods and grinds them back into raw materials in order to manufacture something new), repurposing (taking something and making something else out of it; in our world, we see lots of useful goods being repurposed into art that may or may not actually have a purpose beyond a brief stint as home or yard decor), and reuse (extending the life of existing goods by continuing to value and use them in their current capacity).

Our current social perception of responding meaningfully to climate change involves the perception of loss: not being able to buy, to have, to do, to use. We have a huge opportunity to redefine what it means to have The Good Life.
As we recognize our power to affect change — to do more good with what we have and do less damage with what we choose to acquire — I believe this redefinition is already happening.

The connection economy has made it possible for us to weave powerful webs across a range of social networks, ushering both unwanted things and new ideas to people who want and welcome both. The act of social stewardship with respect to both is something we can all feel good about. Being helpful is magic. Creative thinking makes life more interesting (and it helps us problem solve more effectively, too).

When I think about redefining the good life in a way that leaves room for our children to also have good lives, I picture vacations by train, where the journey is half the adventure. I envision a growing social sense of personal satisfaction that comes with making repairs and learning new skills – perhaps with friends.

I envision a shared regard for those who embrace the beauty that comes with patina and time — brokenness as opportunity for repair instead of death sentence.And this matters: because when we allow ourselves to appreciate this sort of imperfection, we become better able to appreciate imperfection in other people — and in ourselves.