JASMINE BIRTLES: Thank you, Greta, for making preloved presents acceptable

27 December 2019

Forget the planet - probably the best thing Greta Thunberg has done for all of us is to make it acceptable to buy and, even give, secondhand

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In fact, it is not just acceptable, with some people it is now actively righteous not to buy new. They can come home with vintage clothes, preloved furniture, nearly new books, gently used soft furnishings,  and slightly worn accessories, wearing an irritatingly smug face because they know they are doing their bit to save the planet.

Not for them the environment-destroying new goods bought from selfish commercialists on the high street. No. They are recycling, upcycling and generally cycling for the planet.

It is certainly music to my ears. I grew up with secondhand everything: bikes, clothes, piano, furniture, books and… well, I’ve lost count.  I was the living embodiment of Barbra Streisand’s song, Second Hand Rose, with its lyrics: “I’m wearing secondhand hats, secondhand clothes, That’s why they call me Second Hand Rose.

I can honestly say I never felt it was a problem. I still don’t. In fact, it now turns out that I have been at the forefront of fashion all this time. I have been an eco-warrior without even realising it. The secondhand lifestyle has crept into the cool side of living.

… Well, nearly. It is still only those in the know who are embracing the recycled lifestyle. I did a report for BBC’s Inside Out programme earlier in the year about how antiques are going for a song now. Millennials mostly missed out on history lessons so they will dump a Queen Anne chair or Louis XIV table for a Beatles T-shirt that is genuinely ‘old’ for that cohort.

It is even worse for more pedestrian furniture. With our smaller, lighter living spaces, your gran’s solid oak dining table and armoire are now deeply unpopular. If it’s brown, it’s down.

However, the cognoscenti know that this cheap as chips solid brown furniture (oak, teak and the like) can work well in modern flats if mixed and matched with newer stuff. And many of them are whipping out paint brushes to remodel the old stuff to use or sell. Upcycling, beloved of such notables as Anthea Turner (who paints baked bean tins) and Will.i.am (who produces upcycled jeans), has taken Etsy, Pinterest and, of course, eBay by storm.

I am sure anyone would be happy to give a genuine upcycled jean from the king of cool himself, but is it now OK to give someone a preloved product for Valentine’s Day, Christmas or their birthday? Has Greta gone that far? Is regifting to the one you love a safe bet? Could we say, hand on heart, that the sainted Anthea might get away with it?

Well, I’ve certainly had at least one secondhand present in recent memory – a wonderful CD of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater from a neighbour who, I knew, was utterly on her uppers. It was a thoughtful present and I still play it. But would I have been as happy if said thoughtful gift had been from my wealthy college friend who has just sold his hedge fund? Even if it had a note telling me, “hey with this gift we’re saving the planet”? Possibly not quite so much, thank you.

Mazuma Mobile, which reconditions old phones and sells them in spanking new boxes, says that almost a quarter of us have previously bought a secondhand gift for Christmas. They say that 44% believe they have been given a secondhand gift and that a third of those were fine with it. Maybe this really is the future.

But would your loved one be content with a reconditioned anything as a present? Would they mind a secondhand book for their birthday (not counting a  first edition Harry Potter)? Or would you just look like the sort of person who, if he’d been at the Last Supper, would have asked to split the bill?

Hmm, it has to depend on who’s gifting whom.

One thing I have noticed is that sort of ‘helping the planet’ doesn’t always last long. Do you remember the trend for ‘giving a goat for Christmas’ through Oxfam a few years ago, with the look of barely disguised disappointment on the faces of recipients trying to be virtuously happy that a poor family was getting a goat instead of them receiving fluffy slippers?  Funny, you don’t hear about anyone doing it now.  

Jasmine Birtles is a financial journalist and founder of MoneyMagpie.com.