Is Second Hand Old News?
A guide to ethical shopping in trying times
A long time ago, in the late 19th Century, the British Statesman Joseph Chamberlain told the people of Britain of a mysterious ancient Chinese curse in one of his speeches. Translated into English the curse went as follows: “May you live in interesting times”. Since then the phrase has spread worldwide, resulting in its origin being heavily disputed, and it now seems that there is no evidence at all to suggest that such an expression ever existed in Chinese. But perhaps more interesting than the roots of the curse is its suspiciously benevolent nature. Indeed, if not informed that it was a curse, I’m sure that many people would have thought it to be a blessing. Now, fast forward to 2020, another curse is spreading around the planet, and while politicians once again spend their time bickering over whether or not it originated in China, many of us sitting isolated at home were quicker to arrive at the more important question, that is, ‘How, if at all possible, can we turn this curse into a blessing?’ I’m not talking here about the latest Twitter buzzword ‘Eco-fascism’, nor is this another article condemning it, for Covid-19 has been a terrible curse to this planet, of that there is no doubt. The specific matter I would like to discuss here is whether or not a pandemic can uproot our habits enough so that we are able to reconsider our methods of consumption and consumerism, especially when it comes to buying the likes of music, books, and clothes. With any luck, the answer will be affirmative.
Now, you’ve all heard enough times that there is no such thing as ethical consumption under Capitalism. Indeed the billionaire control-freaks of the world are completely to blame for the slave-torturing, penguin-murdering, forest-burning chaotic bloodbath that we like to call ‘nipping to Tescos’; however that is no excuse for not doing our bit to fight against these cruelties. Another issue that plagues the world of Eco-shopping is the huge degree of elitism and the unrealistic assumption of wealth prevalent in many an Eco-warrior’s demands. Not that I am suggesting that if you can happily afford to shop at Roots and Fruits you shouldn’t, because of course you should; living an environmentally-conscious lifestyle is not only a privilege, but a responsibility should you have that privilege. However, this article is aimed to be fully inclusive, not least because I myself am a furloughed minimum wage worker, and as much as I would love to buy solely from the various packaging-free shops that have been sprouting all over my neighbourhood, I simply do not own that much Tupperware. Therefore worry not, if anything the advice you read here will only make your weekly shops cheaper (especially if you count the cost of human life eh?), and so, after over a month of adjusting to our new way of life, here are my Top Tips for Ethical Consumption under Capitalism and Covid to As Much of a Degree as is Realistically Possible…
Let’s start with music. Until recently, proud that my Oxfam Music purchases weren’t contributing to the production of more plastic CD cases, I gave very little thought to the amount (or complete lack) of money and support I was actually giving to my favourite artists. However, the rise in dubiously moral streaming sites has been bringing this matter further and further into the spotlight, and the effect that Covid has had on the arts has forced many consumers, including myself, to finally give the matter the consideration it deserves. Today I spoke with Cumbria-born Musician and Skin Decorator Natalie Sharp, aka Lone Taxidermist, aka my noisy housemate, about what streaming and purchasing platforms are best for the artists themselves.
What I learnt from her was unsurprising. Like most musicians worldwide, Natalie has had all her upcoming gigs either cancelled or indefinitely postponed, meaning her main source of income has been completely wiped out. Not only has this proved to be a massive financial strain, but the complete lack of stage performance has led her to “psychologically yearn for attention”, something that I and my fellow housemates are bearing the brunt of, as under the guise of her alter-ego ‘Quarantina Turner’ she pathologically bellows along to ‘Nutbush City Limits’.Day in day out, relentlessly, ceaselessly and sans merci. So, what can you change about your music-buying methods to help artists like Natalie and the sleep-deprived writers who live with them? Well for starters, says our interviewee, change your streaming habits. On the very long list of available platforms, in Natalie’s eyes Spotify ranks worst, paying nought point nought (cont.) one percent of their earnings to any actual musicians. Essentially, I am told, “unless you’re Adele you don’t get anything”. On the other end of the spectrum is Bandcamp, an excellent streaming service which from now until July will hold a ‘no fees day’ on the first Friday of every month (next up, June 5!). This means that with any purchases you make on that day, be it a digital download or a physical order, the entirety of your payment will go to the artists themselves.
However, if you still want a collectable, mint-quality, first-edition vinyl of some Marianne Faithful album from the 70s (see: my birthday wish-list), second hand is still a perfectly viable option. Having never done online shopping in my pre-pandemic life, Natalie recently introduced me to Discogs, and in One Fell Swoop destroyed any chances of me saving money during isolation. For my fellow technophobes, Discogs is a website/app that allows you to buy and sell CDs and Vinyl to/from other collectors and sellers all over the world, for generally very reasonable prices, and with much more information than you typically receive when buying off Amazon or eBay. As someone whose ideal day out back when we were allowed out was a five-hour rifling in Love Music Glasgow, I promise you that Discogs is very nearly almost just as fun.
Next up is books. Books are a necessity and I won’t be told otherwise, and there is simply no reason why, if bought consciously, they should come with any added guilt factor. As an avid book-buyer I have two recommendations. The first is the website ‘Abe Books’, which is essentially the book version of Discogs, though admittedly with a considerably smaller selection. Just this week I made my first purchase from the site, and it was both pleasantly easy to use, and perfectly reliable. The other option however, and I urge you to choose this one when you can, is to contact your local second-hand bookshop and ask them very nicely if they’re doing orders or deliveries. I am of course aware that we live in an era of instant gratification and high standards when it comes to having our needs met, and I know too that most second-hand bookshops will not necessarily have the exact book that you want, but if Mick Jagger’s advice is anything to go by (it’s not, but let’s pretend), despite not always being able to get what you want, if you try sometimes, you just might find that you get what you need (Did I get that right?). What I’m trying to say is that if you by any chance say maybe wanted Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell but the shop only had a BBC Hardback copy of Orwell’s War Commentaries well, just get the war commentaries, will you? It might surprise you, and turning to Amazon for solace is just not worth the strain on small businesses, nor the inhumane treatment of factory and delivery workers. We are living through a war after all, and a little commentary may well go a long way.
Finally, a quick word on clothing. The charity shops are shut, and so are those horrible vintage shops that have five rails of the same Levi’s Denim Jacket for twice the original price. Even the kilo sale shops were all the clothes smell like moths have closed their never particularly welcoming doors. Turning to Depop is an obvious solution if you want to stick to second hand, but here lies another opportunity to consider if second hand is always best. Again, I would say the key here is to look for small, local enterprises that are sourcing their materials sustainably and their labour ethically. Big companies and fast fashion should be avoided at all costs.
When it comes to anything else you may want to buy (New lingerie? A Kintsugi Kit? Dinner?) all I can say is do your best. Consider local. Consider organic. Consider necessity. And consider the fact that Jeff Bezos is a maniacal villain that must be stopped. Let your hobbies and your passions thrive, but don’t let boredom excuse mindless individualism. Nurture your artistic practices and your connection to nature, but with the minimum risk on the lives of others. This is new to all of us, and it’s a completely crazy world we’re living in right now, but let’s at least be thankful that we are living in interesting times.