This is a story of a skirt.
It hung from a clothes rack at a parking lot near our house. My neighbor was having a garage sale. Her friend who was helping out urged me to get the skirt – great for the summer, she said. From the price tag still attached to it, I learned that this never worn skirt was purchased at Matsuya department store, originally priced Y20,000+, and marked down to Y10,000+ (I can’t remember the exact amounts) which I assume was the price my neighbor got it. I could also tell that the skirt, though never worn, is a bit old since the price tag was yellowing. The skirt was of a beautiful royal purple color and was made of linen (I’m a bit of a fabric snob and linen is one of the best fabrics available – it lets the skin breathe and doesn’t shrink or stretch), but it’s most attractive feature are the embroidered eyelet flowers at the bottom of the skirt. I bought the skirt. When I got home and tried it on, it was ever slightly too small for me. Too bad.
I posted a photo of the skirt and tried to sell it at an online buy and sell group. For a while, no one seemed to want it until someone with an eye for good fabric saw it. She sent me a message asking whether I minded that she plans to make a dress for her daughter out of the skirt. I told her that she could do whatever she wanted with it. Later on, she sent me this photo. I unfortunately did not keep a photo of the original skirt but I was just bowled over by how she transformed the skirt into an adorable girl’s dress.
Back when I was teaching at university, I would ask my students, “We say ‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’. Which step helps the environment the most?” “Recycle,” they respond without skipping a beat. And I am not surprised. Of the three eco-actions, recycling is probably the most publicized. We have bins for recycling glass, plastic, paper and aluminum. When we go shopping, some products boast of using recycled materials. Recycling is also the easiest one. It gives us permission to live “business as usual” as long as we remember to sort our garbage in the right bins. Oh but to reduce and reuse… won’t that cramp our lifestyle?
It pains me to see perfectly good stuff get thrown away along with the rest of the garbage. What a waste! We sometimes joke that it might be possible to furnish a house by going “shopping” in garbage piles. We see this all the time in Japan where space is a premium and trends come and go fairly quickly. Repair sometimes costs as much as buying a new one. This skewed economics don’t reflect the energy and the ecological costs of making all this stuff (see The Story of Stuff, a short, entertaining and informative watch and required viewing in my Environmental Psychology classes).
That’s why I love recycle shops and buy-and-sell groups and flea markets. I like shopping in them – I don’t have to pay the full price of items that I need and I don’t feel ecologically guilty for giving in to my whim for “new” things. I am happy to be able to extend the life of things that would otherwise have been discarded. I find it fulfilling to sell stuff too. I feel especially happy when someone buys an item from me – something that has just been sitting half-forgotten in my closet or shelf – and tells me how much they like it or enjoy using it. These half-forgotten things still have a lot to give, maybe not to me but to someone else. As I see it, reducing by reusing is about creating value where there was thought to be none. Mottainai becomes mottai-nice.
In the US, I saw a shop called Hope Chest for Breast Cancer. It is a retail store that sells donated clothing, accessories, furniture and home decor to generate income for breast cancer related programs. It inspired in me a dream to open a similar shop to generate income for the activities of a non-profit organization that is also about mottainai but reducing loss and waste in food: Second Harvest Japan and Second Harvest Asia. Watch out for the opening of a shop called Serendipity: The HeART of Happy Finds.