A new lease on life

Buried treasure in the wasteland


Prosperous economies produce waste. Throw in rampant consumerism and a laissez-faire attitude toward the environment, and you’ve got the makings of a serious problem. Welcome to Japan. A host of treasures awaits you . . .

Though the economic high times are officially over, we’re still spending, are less ecologically concerned than we should be, and have got a lot to account for. One of the figures that isn’t balancing out is the cost of managing our ever-growing trash heap.

With the nation struggling under mountains of garbage, the government recently passed a law forcing consumers to shoulder part of the cost of recycling bulky household appliances. Where once the municipal office would dispose of air conditioners, TVs, washing machines and refrigerators at minimal cost, one must now pay an often hefty fee to have retailers cart them away.

There is a good side to this story. Dovetailing with the trend toward tougher garbage-disposal laws is the rise in “recycle shops,” some of the biggest winners in the postbubble recession. And if you’re thinking of those dusty little shops crammed to the ceiling with outdated and dubious knickknacks, think again.

Get hip to this

At D & Department in Okusawa, Tokyo, used items, including chairs, desks, kitchen utensils and electrical appliances, are stylishly displayed throughout the spacious shop. At an in-store cafe, customers can drink coffee while watching art films being screened on the wall.

According to President Kenmei Nagaoka, 80 percent of the store’s stock is secondhand. And while most is from the ’70s and ’80s, the focus is on “sturdy, practical and attractive goods that people will want to use for decades.”

A former graphic designer, Nagaoka opened the shop last November on Kanpachi-dori with some friends. Although none had experience retailing secondhand goods, business is good, and they plan to expand the shop’s space and scope. On June 9, they’ll open a second floor selling clothes and furniture, custom-made from discarded items.

Of course, not all recycle shops are as hip as D & Department, but it is a sign of the times. The industry is growing and diversifying.

Business is good

According to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, secondhand stores, including antique shops, numbered 7,452 in 1997 and jumped to 10,568 in 1999. Although the exact number of secondhand stores is unknown, the industry estimates there to be around 30,000.

The Japan Recycle Shop Union, which helps prospective shop owners start secondhand businesses and regularly holds auctions of used goods, says its membership is currently about 1,800, compared with 250 two years ago.

“So many people are interested in entering this business,” says Yasunori Numano, the union’s chairman, adding that many businesses, as well as individuals ranging “from women whose children have grown up to men who have been laid off,” are seeking advice from his organization.

For entrepreneurs it’s a low-risk investment, he explains. Anyone can easily enter the field without much capital or special knowledge about the goods they intend to sell, and, in general, secondhand businesses are profitable.

“It is not unusual to take up to 70 percent of sales as profit,” he says. “There are no other businesses that can bring you such tidy profits.”

Japan’s economic downturn has also brought secondhand dealers greater business opportunities. With the extravagance of the bubble years behind most shoppers, stores are seeing a decline in sales and winding up with excess stock. Many manufacturers are willing to sell these leftovers — even famous brand-name items — to secondhand stores at very low prices.

“[Manufacturers] used to sell their excess stock to large discounters, but it can hurt their brands’ image if new stuff is sold cheaply,” Numano says. “So they prefer selling it to secondhand shops, where it is basically sold as used goods.”

Merchandise also comes from other sources. When offices, shops and restaurants shut down, they often offer their furniture, appliances and other large items to secondhand shops to avoid paying local governments to have them removed.

Changing times

The recession has also influenced consumer attitudes toward secondhand goods. While during the bubble one was thrifty at the risk of being called a penny-pinching miser, these days it is much more accepted. Secondhand goods (which cost roughly half the price of a new item of comparable quality) are, for a growing number, being incorporated into cost-cutting strategies.

According to a survey of 2,339 people between the ages of 20 and 69 conducted by the Economic Planning Agency last year, 47.9 percent have bought secondhand books or CDs and 31.2 percent have bought used clothes within the past few years. Nearly 80 percent said they planned to buy used books and CDs in the future, while 52.4 percent were interested in used furniture and 48.6 percent in secondhand clothing.

Another telling sign of the growing acceptance of secondhand goods is one of its best sellers. Before listing TV sets and tableware as popular products, Numano cited mama-boku — the brand-name products popular among mothers (“mama”) and clothing and toys for small children (“boku”).

Perhaps due to long-held animist beliefs, in the past many Japanese were reluctant to buy the used possessions of total strangers, especially clothing and jewelry, which were thought to retain evil spirits or ill fortune. Young people today, however, seem to be less influenced by these superstitions.

Reuse it or lose it

While saving is a factor for many secondhand converts, the popularity of recycle shops does not stem solely from financial concerns. More than 10 percent of respondents to the EPA survey said they buy secondhand items in order to conserve limited natural resources.

Numano of the Japan Recycle Shop Union says that this environmental awareness first emerged after the 1974 oil crisis. Consumption had been considered a virtue during the period of rapid postwar economic growth, but the oil crisis changed all that — if only for a short time.

After the crisis, explains Hidehiko Sekizawa, executive director of think tank Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, the nation realized that natural resources, including petroleum, were limited. Around the same time, evidence of environmental pollution and destruction — the price paid for rapid industrialization — was coming to light.

But after Japan managed to weather the oil crisis and the economy recovered, the blip of environmental issues weakened on the media’s radar and the popularity of secondhand shops slowly waned.

During the bubble, interest returned slightly, primarily in recycle shops that bought and sold the castoffs of high-spenders who regularly updated their wardrobes. Now Japanese consumers, their purse strings drawn tight, shop secondhand for a broader range of goods.

Today, the industry has grown to include even large-scale retailers dealing in a variety of used goods ranging from clothing and books to electrical appliances. Numano predicts that the secondhand retail industry will grow even further in tandem with the challenges of managing our waste.

So the next time you find yourself looking for this season’s fashion, this year’s model or a brand-new anything, ask yourself “Why?” At a secondhand store, you might find a bargain from which both you and the environment will profit.