Flea market
Sustainable life

The eco-friendliness of flea markets and thrift stores

The first flea market I went to had been set up in the park facing the elementary school I attended. It was a small gathering of loquacious sellers and most stalls sold toys, recycled souvenirs and lonely pieces of furniture (yes, lonely is the word). I liked those toys I couldn’t find in normal shops and was fascinated by how their surface reflected the sunlight filtered through the branches above the stalls.
Growing up, I’ve had the chance of visiting several other flea markets all over the country and the continent, literally. However, my interest lingers no longer in toys but mostly in second-hand books, and the fascination I derived from the sunlight filtered through the branches has partially given space to a few complaints caused by potential sunstrokes (walking through flea markets under the Sicilian sun in July) or to the surprising discovery of my frozen curls (walking through flea markets in a windy, -4° cloudy Belgian day).
What has anyway remained with me is the feeling of giving a new life to the objects scattered all over the stalls. Today, as a young woman interested in sustainability and zero-waste issues, I can’t help but associate flea markets with one of the multiple forms of sustainable, eco-friendly activities we can practice.

Let’s see why.

What is a flea market or a thrift store?

Flea markets and thrift stores are street markets and shops that sell different types of second-hand merchandise. In particular, the former are usually set up in squares or streets crossing historical centres and, depending on the location, consist of 10 up to 200 vendors and more.

Their merchandise consists of collectables, antiques, vintage or retro furniture, vintage clothing, ancient or second-hand books, accessories, household and decorative items, local and ethnic handcraft, spare parts, and almost whatever you may be eager to purchase besides food.

The ultimate concept behind such markets and shops is that our trash may be someone else’s treasure. And if that someone else is creative enough, such trash may even be repurposed so that it acquires a new, original soul.

The environmental meaning of flea markets and thrift stores: reuse, recycle and… reduce!

From another perspective, it can be easily argued that flea markets and thrift stores have a significant positive impact on the environment. Indeed, by giving another purpose to an object someone no longer uses, any actor involved in a flea market also indirectly puts an emphasis on the value that object still has. It reassigns meaning to something that didn’t look as if it could have any meaning anymore.

It may no longer be useful for the person who once kept it, but it can still play a role in other people’s life. In so doing, vendors and buyers basically allow for the development of a sustainable consumption model that focuses on repurposing rather than meaningless disposal and pollution.

If we look at the whole spectrum of meanings of sustainability, this is first strategic in terms of environmental protection. This means that although not all buyers purposefully purchase second-hand items as a way to act sustainably (perhaps they simply appreciate a given item), their actions are small acts that help reduce waste.

As a result, day after day, the quantity of objects disposed of in landfills or all over the place decreases, and there’s a high chance they won’t have a huge environmental impact. In other words, we won’t come across the old, broken vinyl collection of our grandparents stranded on the beach we’re walking through on a shiny sunny morning, but rather, it might be acquired by another person who may creatively make a handful number of bags out of it.

Looks like my favourite stall. (Source: Pixabay)

The sustainable benefits of flea markets and thrift stores

Obviously, the economic dimension of flea markets and thrift stores can’t be ignored. While it might be difficult to come across hundreds of deals when it comes to antiques, the objects you find in the stalls are normally inexpensive while keeping a certain level of quality. This gives you the chance of saving some money or making more money in the years to come if you did come across a special deal. If we pick up the basic meaning of sustainability (e.g. capable of being sustained, to continue over a period of time), our finances will certainly be grateful.

Yet, these markets include many other sustainable benefits on a more personal level. Besides the satisfaction triggered by economic deals, one of the positive aspects all marketgoers highlight is their beneficial influence on the imagination. Why imagination? The act of buying a second-hand and/or handcrafted item may help you understand the importance of the creation and the disposal of the item itself.

Reflecting on the creation process allows you to comprehend how the raw materials to create that item were used, as well as the time and the steps necessary to assemble it. How things do not simply grow on trees.

As for the disposal, the huge number of things you can find across the stalls cannot but catch your eye: souvenirs, clothes, accessories, books, CDs, cutleries, vases, furniture, thing one, thing two, thing three. Things all over the place. This condition prompts some questions: How many things are unnecessarily produced every year? How many things do we nonchalantly throw away? Oh, and why is it so many?

But on a more positive note, imagination can be triggered on a different level, too. What about the person who used to own that item? This is obviously different for everyone depending on their sensitivity, but I’ve always found it fascinating to wonder about that. How did they get the item? Why do they no longer own it? What kind of memories and stories does it preserve? I wonder about this whenever I buy an old book and I find an inscription on the first page. Besides considering books wonderful gifts, I personally think that the act of writing inscriptions is even more meaningful, which is why they always let my imagination fly.

Also, flea and second-hand markets may have an important social impact on local communities. As we’ve seen, they usually take place in historical centres. Since some historical centres have sometimes been abandoned by locals, such markets can become a great opportunity to rediscover and repopulate them while supporting local activities and services.

Community also means networking, and visiting markets may indeed be important for enhancing your network. Sellers and other buyers may well have some expertise in a domain you are either an expert or an amateur. This gives you the chance of meeting like-minded people with whom you can exchange expertise and know-how. From them, you can thus learn something you could never imagine existed and who knows how many other opportunities may emerge from such meetings!

Normalising secondhand stuff

Despite these benefits, normalising second-hand stuff is still problematic, be it gifts or personal objects. The feedback I usually receive when interacting with people who are completely against second-hand stuff range from a “she-must-be-a-penniless” look to complete silence paired with eyes rotation disgust. And while I think it’s a biased perspective, I get it. In some cases, sensitivity doesn’t grow on trees either and we’re here to raise awareness, aren’t we? It’s something we should all work on.

Obviously, buying second-hand stuff must be properly assessed on a case-by-case basis (I still have some problems when it comes to purchasing clothes for example), but it should be normalised. I can’t see any disgusting act in buying an old book whose only guilt is its bunch of yellow pages (besides the “damage” to publishing houses of course).

Also, while it’s true that you can’t find anything you might be looking for, on the other hand these markets’ positive impact is undeniable and they truly help people rediscover a more sustainable approach to life from several different perspectives.

All in all, flea markets have helped me reassign value to things, their creation and disposal processes. To me, it’s the place where you can truly feel the history of objects and their impact on our lives and I think it might be included in what can be regarded as the “environmentalist starter pack”. 

But now tell me, what are your experiences with flea and second-hand markets?


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