Friday, November 25, 2011

Goodwill Hunting

Since we've been packing and cleaning out for our imminent move, something that I've known for awhile has recently recaptured my attention - something obvious to everyone but I'd only really thought to blog about it now. It's that donating or selling secondhand goods is difficult to near-impossible, but that there's a much higher level of recycling.

Back home when I prepared for a move, almost everything I no longer wished to keep would get thrown into a huge bag, or possibly multiple bags, and dropped off at Goodwill.

Now, most of what I don't want that I can't give to friends is given to recyclers. That's almost too bad, because plenty of it is still useable. I never imagined that so much could be broken down for recycling until I started to clean out an apartment crammed with 4 years' worth of two people's stuff. Old Fang downstairs will take everything from old umbrellas to ancient pots and pans to worn-out shoes to broken microwaves. This is stuff that would likely just end up in the trash back home, if it wasn't good enough for Goodwill.

In fact, Americans talk a lot about the importance of recycling, but they either need to start sortin' or shut up: it's extremely difficult to recycle in the USA. There are no random folks roaming the back lanes ready to snatch an old wok out of your hands to sell for scrap metal, a lot of places make you bring in your recycling yourself instead of picking it up and what you bring in is fairly restricted compared to what Old Fang will take (which is just about anything). Americans don't recycle enough because no matter how much we talk about it, it's just not made easy for us to do. It's not a good default option. You can say "well then people need to be more dedicated", but, well, go try real life for awhile. Come back and tell me what you think then. It just doesn't work that way.

So, back to secondhand items. I was no stranger to shopping at Goodwill myself - like many Westerners, I have no qualms about picking up perfectly good secondhand items if I have a use for them. I got my flour sifter there (since redonated, but I wish I still had it). At our wedding we served different types of tea: the bowls that held the tea mostly came from there. I used to have mismatched mid-century plateware and glassware all courtesy of Goodwill, and one can never forget my crystal beer stein (which I still have, although I'm not sure where it is) that says "Happy Birthday, Uncle Frank" which came from there, too.

I'd shop there now if a credible alternative existed in Taiwan. There are some secondhand stores, but they're either "vintage/antique", books, jewelry or clothing based. There's nothing I know of like Goodwill where I can go buy weird, mismatched juice glasses or plates. I've never been one for matchy-matchy kitchen items and I prefer both the Earth-friendliness of secondhand items as well as their oft-quirky nature.

A friend and I were musing about why there's nothing like Goodwill in Taiwan, even though a few places to buy secondhand handbags, clothing, jewelry and vintage items do exist.

His idea is the most obvious one, which means it's probably the right one: that there just isn't a culture of pride in getting more use out of an item that wasn't yours to begin with. Taiwan - well, Asia generally - is more recently developed* and so there's a greater emphasis on ~*~shiny~*~ things. One shows that one's wealthy by buying new things, not by thrifting old ones. You can also show that you're wealthy by buying expensive, even priceless antiques, but not by buying secondhand plates. There's no subgroup of people who assume that others won't judge them - or will judge them positively - for having money, but also being fine with secondhand items. There's only a tiny subgroup of "poor little rich kids": you know, back home, the children of middle and upper middle class families who have highbrow tastes and the socioeconomic street cred to back it up, but who make $25,000 a year as baristas, organic food shop and vintage store clerks and entry-level nonprofit workers and who have no problem whatsoever with furnishing their apartments from Goodwill. (I would know, I spent time in that group of people). Simply put, if you're doing well in Asia, your stuff has to be new. You only take mundane secondhand items if you don't have money.

It's disappointing, though, that it's hard to even locate charities that take secondhand items. We managed to find a home for a lot of our stuff through a friend, who knows women who've left abusive marriages and who need help furnishing their apartments as they put their lives back together, and who took more of it to help a charity that works with the mentally disabled, but we haven't found any others (I plan to look into Tzu Chi though).

I also have to wonder if the Taiwanese aversion to secondhand goods has to do with superstition - remember, this is a country where many people believe that if you leave your laundry hanging outside at night during ghost month that ghosts might wear it, and that will be bad luck for you. Where the position of your house can bring you such bad luck that you might have to hang up a curved ba gua mirror to deflect it. Where it's common to see a fortune teller, especially when it's time to name your children. It would not surprise me to learn that some people - not everyone, certainly - believe that bad luck or bad associations can come attached to secondhand "daily use" items (I should point out that "antiques" tend not to be "daily use" items).

And, of course, there's the fact that stuff is cheaper here. I bought a lot of my home items at Goodwill because, while I could afford to shop in modest quantities for new items at stores like Bed, Bath and Beyond (there was no easily-reached Target or Walmart near me, and I try to avoid Walmart anyway), I felt that the stuff was just overpriced. I could afford to spend $10 on a set of four coasters, but why would I want to? In Taiwan this really isn't an issue - home goods and consumer items are much more affordable.

All of this points to "alright, Jenna, just recycle that stuff" ("that stuff" includes a hula hoop - don't ask - a panda that rides a bicycle, a plastic pitcher, two plastic plates, several plastic cups/glasses and more) - but the Goodwill donatin' American in me hates to see a perfectly good pitcher or toy get chucked in the trash, when someone could use it.

*yes, I realize that a good argument could be made for China and India having "developed" thousands of years before the West did, and long before modern European/Western history took flight, they were at different times the center of world civilization. That's not what I mean and you know it - we're talking about modern industrial and post-industrial development.


blobOfNeurons said...

And, of course, there's the fact that stuff is cheaper here.

I think this is the main reason.

Besides is there really an aversion to second-hand goods or is it just assumed that nobody would want to buy that stuff (i.e. is it really a question of demand or supply)?

I don't know about you but every time the question of why X isn't in Taiwan I think "cause the right entrepreneur hasn't come along yet!".

Jenna Cody said...


I know of one secondhand store that is mostly antiques, but has a whole section devoted to cheaper items (the one near MRT Guting). The thing is, that store seems to be more popular with foreigners than locals, although I've seen locals in it.

It is true that when IKEA is the "high end" of the home goods market, that low prices for that sort of stuff must have something to do with it. A lot of stuff we'd give to Goodwill back home we'd just give away here, because selling it for cheaper than what we bought it for (ie that plastic organizer thing) would mean pricing it insultingly low - may as well give it away.

Anonymous said...


(First time commenter - thanks for all the fun and interesting reads!)

I'm Taiwanese, from Taipei, and I think if anyone set about to establish a Goodwill-like business, it might really work well. Especially if it markets itself as an "eco" enterprise, with profits going to charity.

I and many of my Tw student friends in the US ADORE shopping at Goodwill, and perhaps take undue pride in assembling quirky aged items for super cheap prices while reducing junk-production. "If only we had this in Tw" has been a frequent refrain.

I just think it would take someone with vision and start-up capital to get a real chain going. Part of why Goodwill and Salv Army work so well is because they have huge network and successful branding, so that people automatically think to bring their unwanted items. I don't know about Goodwill, but for Salv Army, I assume they have some extra benefits of being a religious organization? In Taipei, certainly, a huge challenge would be affording rent in a sufficiently well-situated location.

If you know anyone with money to spare and interest in taking on a project that will not yield massive profit (at least in money; karma is another matter), this might be a worthy undertaking!

Thanks again for your blog! Best wishes for a smooth and stressless move!

- cj