Friday, June 7, 2019

On Free-Cycling and My (Really Slow) Minimalist(ish) Journey

When we first moved in to our current apartment...

Despite all my years of closet decluttering, both via KonMari method and otherwise, I've never tried reselling any of my unwanted clothes or shoes by listing items individually on eBay, Poshmark, or what have you. I'm sheepish about this too, because I know full well that there are many reasons to try reselling, from both the frugality perspective (potentially recouping part of the cost is a good thing, even if, in many instances, one's used things don't have much value) and the minimalist-ish perspective (among many other things, from a waste reduction standpoint, it seems logically sound that the best chance for an unwanted item to have a meaningful second life is by reselling it directly to a buyer who specifically wants it, rather than donating it for a highly uncertain outcome).

Regardless of all the reasons why I really should make more of an effort to resell my many items that are still in reasonably good condition, but won't get any further use in my hands, it's simply not possible for me to routinely find the time or energy for high-effort resale attempts. If, in my current line of work, I can't even reliably make time to cook a Hello Fresh meal (~20 minutes of active work and ~20 minutes of passive waiting time in most instances), I won't be finding the time to continuously keep re-listing my (not particularly exciting or desirable) items on eBay.

Plus, as someone who is semi-regularly in the secondhand market to buy the kind of clothing I'd have available for resale (mostly Ann Taylor or J.Crew-type items I barely ended up wearing), I'm well aware of how little my used things are worth, even when in excellent condition (which isn't a given; I generally tried to wear them for a while, and not all of them laundered well). If I wouldn't buy these pieces used for much more than, say, ~$35/dress, I could hardly list them for more. It just wouldn't sit right with me, I always roll my eyes so hard when I see eBay listings for unrealistic or unreasonable prices. To be blunt, the amount of money we're talking about (especially after factoring in how poor the chances are for actually reselling many of my rather unexciting things) simply isn't likely to be worth my time or energy to actively list individual items for resale.

And the things I'd want to sell generally are far less desirable or interesting than the very specific items I've previously been in the market to buy. The market for the type of run-of-the-mill, dime-a-dozen secondhand clothes and accessories I'd have to offer is oversaturated and competitive, both from other individual sellers and from ThredUp. Furthermore, given the near-constant 30% to 40%-off reductions on new merchandise and the more aggressive discounts on sale merchandise available at the stores in question (Loft, Ann Taylor, J.Crew, etc.), I'd even be competing with the retailers themselves! Incidentally, that's what makes me roll my eyes at some of those eBay listings, when people try to sell their used things for more than similar new items are going for in the stores right now. The stores even have the added advantage of mostly free shipping.

Those low prices and constant sales are, of course, symptoms of undesirable trends. These are all brands that are undeniably fast fashion in their manufacturing practices (seen partially in their frequent drops of large volumes of new products), and ones that have likely been undertaking ever-increasing cost-cutting measures (based on comparisons of the traits of current merchandise to those of typical offerings in years past), likely due to their generally well-publicized financial woes. The low prices are not, in any way, something to aspire towards. But, well, that's the market my listings would be competing in, if I made them.

The result is that things have only been leaving my closet in other ways these past few years. Even though I try to be as responsible or as ethical as I can when sending off my unwanted things, I'm very realistic and aware about how imperfect my efforts are: 
  1. My best items that I think would suit my sister are saved for her. Because I know her tastes well, the things I send her way are generally put to good use for a long time after. Some of them even become staples in her wardrobe, which is a particularly gratifying outcome. (This is one of the many reasons why having a close-in-age sister is a wonderful thing.) If I had any friends who had remotely similar tastes in clothing and accessories, that'd be another place for my nicest, but underutilized, things to go. 
  2. Over the years, I've sent many items to ThredUp. Back when it was easy to track how my things were selling, they even tended to do well! That being said, payouts for my items, mostly a mix from Ann Taylor, Loft, and H&M-type retailers, were never great for what they accepted (which was ~50% of what I sent over the years), maybe ~$4/item max, mostly less. Though frankly, I was so thrilled at how easy it was that I did not care. ThredUp's intake and payout policies have changed in the many years since I started reselling, so I'd expect significantly lower payouts now. I also have doubts about whether their business model will work long-term (if they've cut payouts significantly since they started, and are also pricing many items too high to sell, those can't be good signs) or whether they're actually better for the environment by significantly reducing waste (they started making and selling new items, which is bizarre), so I'm not sure I would continue with them as a reseller now. And anything they don't accept likely ends up in the same type of donation or textile recycling situation as item 4 on my list. 
  3. This hasn't fully played out yet, but for some of my potentially more valuable used things that my sister wouldn't like, I recently dropped them off at a TheRealReal physical store for consignment. Previously, these items had languished for years on my list for possible future higher-effort resale. Most of them I already knew I wanted to resell before I even started this blog, and I certainly haven't worn or used them since, which means they've been sitting around collecting dust for a half-decade or longer!
  4. Everything else has been going to the donation and textile recycling collection points closest to wherever I've lived in NYC. And yes, I'm painfully aware that donation is generally not a route to used clothes being put to good use by someone else, due to the extreme volume of donations constantly being made in the US. But I may be at a loss for a better solution for what remains after I've exhausted the other options. 
  5. For the relatively few things that are in such poor condition that I know they truly have no chance of being a usable donation (like, say, the Wolford tights I shredded by accident), I do put them in the trash. Obviously, there's nothing redeeming about this, but I'm not sure I see another solution. 
Would you believe that I haven't even gotten to the main point of this entry yet? What I actually wanted to discuss today is another method I've added to the mix in recent months, though, as I'll explain, it's had little real success: free-cycling.

I last engaged in a significant bout of free-cycling when I moved out of student housing after law school, in order to send off furniture, kitchen items, and other home goods that would be made redundant when I moved in with K. I loved free-cycling back then, and a university campus is certainly an ideal place to do it. Other students took practically everything I listed, and I was pretty sure they'd happily and enthusiastically put all my things to good use, given how restrictive students' budgets often are. It felt like a great thing to do, to give away as much as I could!

Now that I'm a working adult, it's more difficult to free-cycle than when I was a student and was part of an eager community of other students who would happily go to a fair bit of extra physical effort to pick up and carry away free things to their student apartments or dorm rooms. I'm reluctant to just use Craigslist, or what have you, and potentially sharing my home or work address with utter strangers on the internet. (I also don't particularly want to spend my limited free time identifying a mutually acceptable alternate location, or to wait around to meet a stranger there either.)

So this time around, I reached out to my undergraduate institution's alumni community in NYC, via our very active Facebook group. I listed a bunch of things to give away to anyone willing to come to my home or office neighborhood and pick it up themselves, including my full-size clothes steamer (even if it takes barely 10 minutes to set up, that was too much effort for me, a fact I am not proud of; I used it only once), two pairs of Sam Edelman shoes I almost never wore because (unlike the brand's other shoes) they weren't comfortable to me, and quite a few of my nicer pieces of used clothing, most of it still in excellent condition (this Madewell sweater and silk blouse, two Grana silk shirts, and much more besides).

And well, as I said, my free-cycling efforts this time around enjoyed minimal success. Who knew it would be this difficult to give things away for free? Alas, I was really hoping to do a better job of finding good second homes for my things, with new owners that would have had a better chance of using them!

I made a fortuitous trade with one of my friends, my full-size clothes steamer for their handheld one (the full-size one was too big for me to regularly use, and the handheld one too small for their needs, so the trade suited us both). The Grana silk shirts and the Sam Edelman sandals found new homes. There was a fair bit of interest in more of my things, but ultimately not enough for anyone else to take time out of their busy schedules to swing by my home neighborhood, or even my office's more centrally located neighborhood, to do a pickup. Obviously, I know that my used things aren't exactly that special, or nice enough to be worth all that effort; that time is money; and that it can be a real hassle to get around NYC thanks to the trouble-prone nature of the MTA. But I was still maybe a little surprised, and a tiny bit disappointed, that free-cycling wasn't a bit easier this time around.

I keep writing about how I think my new Pinterest board shopping list tracking method is helping me be far more thoughtful about my purchases this year (and that's saying a lot, given that I've been documenting a several-years-long journey of trying to be more thoughtful about my shopping before then, mixed and unimpressive as my success often was). In actuality, however, I think this mostly unsuccessful round of free-cycling has been far more influential.

After setting aside all those items in one place in my apartment to take stock, then trying to find new homes for them (a moderately effortful process of coordinating with interested persons from the Facebook group to try and find a mutually convenient pickup date and discuss which pickup location to use), and failing more often than not, it really drove home the point to me that it's highly wasteful to buy too much. It's such a terrible waste, both of money and the resources required to produce the item, to buy and accumulate a significant quantity of perfectly fine (albeit not terribly in-demand) and almost never-used things that neither you, nor even other people who expressed an interest in potentially getting them for free, really want to take up and use.

Now that I know more deeply than before that this wasteful outcome - of languishing in a bag at the bottom of my closet for months, then years, as I try (and often fail) to figure out what would be the most responsible way to try and send it off to a new home - is what awaits my error-in-judgment purchases, it teaches me to be far more careful about trying not to make those mistakes in the first place. And good golly, I was still making a good number of such errors until well into the first few months of 2018, after four years of trying to be more thoughtful and considered about what I bought!

What I want for my new purchases going forward is my ideal outcome for everything in my closet, that I continue making good and reasonably frequent use of them until their natural death. I'd rather have as few items as possible that turn out to be mistakes and for which I ultimately need to make this kind of drawn-out decision about what to do, how to try and get them to a new owner. I'd like to have fewer opportunities for this vague guilt about how I'm just not inclined to list things individually for resale (minor and relatively fleeting as that guilt admittedly is; it's not something I'm hemming and hawing over constantly, nor is it something that's in the back of my mind too frequently, it's something I only think about once every few months, when I revisit my "to donate or resell" pile).

This experience is somewhat related to what I found so appealing about KonMari method when I first encountered it, even if it isn't really what I use on my closet. (I'm too indecisive about clothes and accessories, and too in need of certain things, like business formal clothing, that don't spark much "joy" to me. Given how many years it can take me to make final decisions about and then take action to dispatch my unused things, my closet decluttering process is definitely not KonMari-compliant!) I'm not sure I ever articulated this well in my past writing about KonMari-style decluttering, but to me that process of taking everything from each category, piling it together, seeing it all in one place, and then sorting through it item-by-item to figure out what you need or want (and what you don't) had a natural tendency to impart a sobering lesson about waste.

Specifically, by going through that process, I certainly came to the personal realization that I had only ever actually wanted or needed a small percentage of what I had accumulated just in the short time I'd been in law school. (So what was I doing, wasting all that money to accumulate those things so wastefully in the first place?) In that light, I appreciated how the KonMari method is such a gentle and nonjudgmental one because, to me, that realization, that so much of what was there before in my small student apartment was not useful to me, and was going to waste, was one that carried some emotional weight, some shame. Having extra opprobrium or judgment from external sources at that stage would not have been helpful.

I like that, with KonMari method, one is supposed to thank the items and then let go of them, in a way that says "let us not dwell on the past clutter or waste generated by having accumulated these things you didn't need and, as it turns out, you didn't want either," essentially. To me, that necessarily comes with the essential corollary of, "now that you know more about who you are, what you like, and how you want to live, please try to use this newfound knowledge to avoid accumulating unwanted, unused, and unneeded things that do not add joy or value to your life in the future." Or at least, that's the way I see it, it probably isn't something she would say in those words.

My way of thinking about these questions always does tend to sound a bit gloomier than Kondo's actual work, since I'm also interested in things a bit outside the purview of a "one and done" session of major decluttering. KonMari method, going by her book and the show, isn't really so focused on the more environmentalism-oriented minimalism-ish that I try to learn from and apply. (Though she observes in her book that, in her experience, one round of decluttering is usually plenty for her clients, they generally don't re-accumulate unwanted clutter and need to go through the process again.)

Who knew that a few weeks of trying, and mostly failing, to send off some of my nicer unwanted things would lead to so many thoughts! Long story short, I feel that my approach to shopping has changed significantly this year, and for the better. And that's a very exciting thing, in a good way. I'm certainly feeling far more serious now about wanting desperately to avoid creating waste through unwise or impulsive shopping. I'm a bit shy about declaring this too loudly though, because I don't know yet if I'll slip up. It's also likely that the outcome might still be what looks like a heavy shopping year to most others, particularly those who are more focused on frugality or ecologically-minded minimalism. It's an inherently awkward thing, I feel like, to make overly lofty declarations about your own plans to be a "better", more ethical, and more environmentally-friendly minimalist-ish. The inevitable and natural comparison is to someone who is even better at it.

Anyway, all these thoughts are certainly quite self-absorbed, in the sense that they're very focused on my reflections about my own personal values and what personal choices would be most consistent with those values, small as the implications of my actions might be. (There's a case to be made that none of the items I've been thinking about for possible free-cycling or resale were "worth" this much reflection or worry in the first place. One certainly can't unring the bell, as it were, since I've already purchased them, often years ago, and there's no taking back that original act. After a certain point, if I already know I can't easily find someone who wants them, it might just be time to send them to the donation box and be done with it.) These questions are also about how I want to maintain my own wardrobe for myself, in the context of my lifestyle, financial situation, etc. It's all so personal that these are not necessarily ideas I think would be helpful or applicable to others! 

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