Like most people, I’ve moved a few times in my life. Each of these adventures has its own excitement and feeling of renewal – not to mention a brief stop at Ikea. When I was a student I bought pine shelves there that fell apart two years later, and a desk that died after three years. Every growth spurt by my kids meant not only new clothes but also the ditching of furniture that had outlived its usefulness.
Over the years, I’ve replaced four beds, two children’s wardrobes and five sofas. During my first pregnancy I put up a wallboard partition in the middle of the house with drawers and shelves made of real – and expensive – wood. During my second pregnancy I had someone come in to tear down the wall.
We kept the drawers and shelves and tried to sell them; when we failed, we put them out on the sidewalk. In our last move, from Tel Aviv up the coast to Pardes Hannah, we doubled our living space, which required more things to fill it with. Without thinking twice I hopped over to Ikea and came back with everything we needed.
I ordered the wardrobes online and they arrived two weeks later; everything was available and convenient, and the price was a laughable few hundred shekels. I tried to buy secondhand furniture but my patience wore thin very quickly. The investment in finding a mover, not to mention the worries about taking a wardrobe apart and putting it back together, didn’t seem worth it.
Unlike my parents, who their whole lives had the furniture they bought as a young couple, I belong to the generation that replaces furniture almost like it changes clothes. It’s not that the stuff has lost its quality, it’s largely a desire to renew, ignoring the damage to the environment. Availability, ease and convenience win out over logic and morality. But in the past two years, when the pandemic changed our lives, something else might have changed.
According to Yad2, an Israeli website for secondhand items, in 2020 interest in such items grew by nearly a quarter. Views of the Facebook page of the group Pishpeshuk Yad2, which has nearly 4 million members, jumped 142 percent; for ads, the number was 118 percent. (Pishpeshuk is basically another way of saying flea market.) The number of views of give-away listings doubled, while views of the Pishpeshuk collectors' group surged more than five times.
Views of the secondhand category on a similar website, Homeless, also climbed; from December 2019 to December 2021, visitor numbers rose 63 percent for furniture, 42 percent for bicycles and 108 percent for appliances.
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On Yad 2, the greatest increase in demand was for whirlpool baths, 94 percent, and tabuns – traditional outdoor ovens – 97 percent. But these are niche categories. More interesting is the rise in demand for tablet computers (57 percent) and smartwatches (46 percent), followed by garden furniture (37 percent), bookcases (37 percent), dining sets (20 percent), bicycles (19 percent) and sofas (18 percent).
Although the sites don’t have figures on the number of deals actually closed, their data shows that the pandemic kept people at home with more time to peruse secondhand sites for bargains. Still, people in the industry say the secondhand market is nowhere near the level of the market for new items. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, consumption per person in the third quarter of 2021 rose 7 percent from the second quarter and 12 percent from the same quarter in 2020.
Not wanting to look needy
Trade in secondhand products has a key advantage in addition to the low prices: It’s more ecological and moral. All the same, it’s unlikely that the rising popularity of secondhand furniture attests to Israelis’ ecological awareness.
“The economic situation and the coronavirus are certainly major drivers, but the motives aren’t sustainability but rather savings,” says Shlomi Lahana, a strategic consultant and a lecturer at the College of Management. “Most of the products bought aren’t shown off to society but are intended for use at home. Israel is behind in terms of reuse compared to the United States, Britain and Germany, where the secondhand culture is very developed.”
Why don’t people who are aware of the damage of endless consumption buy more secondhand items or reuse things?
“The answer is largely psychological. Objects are an expression of our personality and the way we want to perceive ourselves and be seen by others. Many people consider secondhand items old-fashioned – things that don’t help me express myself as who I want to be. In a world where furniture is getting cheaper because of industries that employ workers under harsh conditions, people ask themselves – why fix something? Let’s just get rid of it and buy something new.
“That’s a conceptual problem: Most people have no problem buying a secondhand car, but a couch or piece of clothing? What does that say about me if I host people and tell them that the armchair or the coffee machine are secondhand? It conveys a message of a needy person.”
Ella Keshet, who lives in central Tel Aviv, changed her take on secondhand goods. Keshet, a lawyer, also runs a business of cooking in clients’ homes.
“Secondhand consumption is a way of life for me. Almost everything in my home is secondhand; most of it I got at no cost and some I bought. I rent out a room in the apartment and all the furniture is used; a beautiful vintage closet that I bought on a Facebook group cost me 500 shekels [$158], a beautiful and comfortable sofa cost me 1,500 shekels. These are great things that cost a few thousands shekels in a store,” she says.
“I’m now working at a law firm and I’ve received lots of tailored clothes from women who can’t fit into them anymore or are tired of them. I hardly buy anything. The clothes look great, and they’re inexpensive and ecological; what’s low-value in that? Unlike me, my parents are embarrassed by this. In 2013 they moved to Israel from France, they came from modest homes and tried to be bourgeois. You don’t want to go back to a place that was hard economically.
“So from their perspective, no way are they going to buy something from the street. They see this as a return to poverty. But that’s the way things were in the past; it’s not part of the insane consumerism of today. I’d be happy if secondhand culture flourished, if people weren’t ashamed of it. Reducing consumption is a kind of value: not to have big eyes but to love what you have.”
Do you have to work hard to find quality items?
“It depends what I’m looking for. Sometimes I find things by chance and sometimes it can take me a few weeks. Lots of things people just give away. My neighbor heard I was looking for pots for my cooking business and she gave me big, thick, good-quality stainless steel pots. A pot like that can cost a few hundred shekels.
“I also find a lot of things on the street: whole sets of dishes and cups, cool pottery bowls. I’m not ashamed and I teach my children that there are a lot of good finds out there. When they were small, that worked against me because they picked up anything they found.”
An emotional role and entertainment
The low price of secondhand products is supposedly a significant incentive to buy them, but one element of contemporary consumer culture is addiction to shopping. Shelly Ben Ze’ev Zus, a 28-year-old from Kiryat Gat in the south, says she once was addicted to online shopping for furniture. Today she works at the visitor center of the company Gadot Ecology Services and lectures in schools on consumption and ecological responsibility.
“After I got out of the army I was an obsessive buyer of products for the home, and I’d buy without thinking from cheap stores like Ikea and Max Stock, an Israeli dollar-store chain. I enjoyed changing the look of my home quickly and inexpensively; I was busy with it all the time,” she says.
“But when I wanted to go on a big trip abroad, I discovered that even though I had worked a lot, I hadn’t saved anything because I spent my whole salary on cheap things of poor quality. So I put myself on a detox plan, saved up and went to India, but there I got addicted to shopping again.
“At some point during my trip I went to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. I didn’t have a cellphone signal and there were no stores, so I could look at the crabs on the beach and the sun moving across the sky. You’re not on the run and you stop to enjoy the little things.
“I realized that I wanted to consume fewer things and more experiences; that’s the value that my money should give me. When I came back to Israel I stopped buying, this time by choice and not forced like last time. I consume used items and try to buy as little as possible.”
And what about the fun of shopping?
“The fun can be from the feeling that reusing contributes to the Earth, the environment, the future. Recycling and renewing: There’s a lot of happiness in that, finding something that somebody threw away and turning it into something beautiful and useful. It’s a place to express myself and be creative.”
According to Lahana, the strategic consultant, “It’s estimated that about 5 percent of the world’s population is addicted to shopping, typically young people, especially young women. It stems from deprivations that lead people to compensate and treat shopping like comfort, a feeling of extreme excitement that ends quickly and leads them – and in most cases their families – to economic problems.”
Lahana says this phenomenon has only worsened with online shopping. “Research shows that ... when you physically spend money from your pocket, it activates the pain center in the brain, but when the digital system records the price using a credit card, buyers don’t feel like they’ve spent the money and they spend more and more,” he says.
“Another reason for the increase in addiction is social media: Young people buoy their self-confidence with their number of likes on how they look. This is another impetus to shop because it shows them in a positive light.”
One reason that secondhand purchases can’t compete with the buying of new items is that our shopping isn’t functional, it’s for entertainment and our emotions. Stores and chains try to hide the environmental and moral damage behind the products, and customers seek excitement and cooperate. The popularity of vintage clothing is unusual in this respect. It provides a buying experience without the harm and exploitation; it shows it’s possible to attractively brand a secondhand purchase.
Noni and Fortuna, a cafe and secondhand store in Pardes Hannah for eight years now, is evidence of this. Customers are invited to bring over used clothes, books, games and household items. When Ohad Wertheimer, a co-owner of the place, explains the economic logic, his eyes shine.
“With secondhand items the low price drives us less and we chose special and quality things, but we find a use for almost everything that comes to us. If someone has used an object as much as possible, that doesn’t mean it has to become garbage,” Wertheimer says.
“A picture covered with dirt that we found in the flea market can become a wonderful picture that brings happiness to someone. If a torn book comes to us, we don’t throw it out, we put the pages in a vintage frame and turn it into a unique object that will be worth the price we ask for it.
“I think the ordinary retail market has no right to exist in Israel. Independent shops have no chance to survive on the double markup that’s accepted in the industry: I bought from the importer at 40 shekels and I’ll sell to the customer at 80 shekels. The big chains and online stores are big competition, and there’s not enough of a profit margin to create an economically viable business.
“And so, many small businesses close down. I’m not ashamed to say that I mark up by five, not by two. If somebody brings me a blouse, I give her credit for 10 shekels and sell it for 50, and in many cases the 10 shekels I gave her are 10 shekels that she has already bought coffee with, which cost me 3.5 shekels.
“I have high profit margins here, and I’m not ashamed of it. That’s what drives this place and allows it to be good to the community: We donate a lot of items and we also reap a profit that lets us spread this good in the world.”
Who are your customers?
“People who love beautiful and unusual things. They all love unique things and don’t want to go with the obvious. We try to focus on things that aren’t trendy but will stand the test of time.
“A trend is set by fashion with the purpose of buying more and more. We’re trying to go in the opposite direction – that people who buy something here will feel they want it for a long time and won’t replace it in five minutes. People are looking for quality, special things that remind them of their childhood and the past.
“I’ll give you an example. In the first year of the coronavirus a collection of pique blankets came to us from a man whose pique clothing business had closed down. Within a month we sold 120 pique blankets at between 70 and 120 shekels each. Pique is a romantic cloth, with colors of the past, and it apparently touched people in the right places.
Government efforts are key
Even if secondhand products are on the upswing in Israel, the environmental impact remains tiny. “It’s good that the grassroots are starting to talk about it, but for now there’s no significant change,” says Riva Waldman, director of the environmental education center at Hiriya Recycling Park.
According to Waldman, the anti-consumption trend must be translated into government action. “I don’t like the term ‘secondhand’ because the right term is reuse. The emphasis shouldn’t be on the trendy use of things, but rather reuse.”
Waldman notes the huge waste in the renovation of buildings; she says the government and the local authorities should support, for instance, centers for sorting building materials – the marble, wood and glass can be reused in industry.
“Every product whose use is extended prevents the mining and transport of raw materials at the end of the chain, the cutting down of trees and resources,” Waldman says. “But the action of individuals won’t influence the balance of waste. As long as it isn’t translated into government action and regulation, change simply won’t happen.”
People looking for optimism will find it in places where Waldman says change has begun. “Today we can say that the consumption of meat has declined somewhat; that’s thanks to awareness, but it has taken decades. Chain stores and other companies started paying a tax on packaging when a law was passed on packaging,” she says.
“Until then, I bought a small bottle of perfume in a disproportionately large package. The restriction on the use of bags began when a few people insisted on buying without packaging, but it caught on only when laws were passed.”
Lahana of the College of Management also looks to regulation for change, but he’s skeptical about the Israeli government’s ability to effect change as in countries that encourage the production of ecological products.
“When you go into a store, you don’t think about what’s behind the scenes and don’t remember the worker in Bangladesh who makes these clothes in poor conditions for a pittance. It should be the state’s motivation,” he says.
“But the state isn’t there. If they want to take an effective step where young people look for secondhand items instead of buying at Ikea, you have to change the conception, and this can come from the influencers whose agenda is to convey messages that encourage this. Companies don’t have the incentive to change, and Israel won’t do it because it has other things on its agenda.”
Not only ideology
Some consumers are attracted to the uniqueness of secondhand, and for others it’s an ideology, or even something more. Lia Maor-Becker, a 55-year-old from Pardes Hannah, is a social worker and a couples therapist who is in touch with activists who collect objects and give them to people in need.
“My grandmother, who lived in Tel Aviv, had a closet where she kept the clothes and things people would bring her, and people would come and pour their heart out. She would sit and talk to them over a cup of tea, and each would leave with clothes for their children and grandchildren,” Maor-Becker says.
“That was instilled in me, that you don’t throw things away just like that, you don’t buy everything, you make things on your own. Most of the furniture in our house we received, and I wear secondhand clothes. I try not to buy and usually find things I need around me.”
Maor-Becker volunteers at the group Pa’amonim, which helps people in financial trouble craft a recovery plan and learn how to manage their money.
“I think the main work is conceptual change and teaching people that you can buy secondhand. I was working with a family that needed feather blankets, which cost a lot, so I suggested they get them secondhand,” she says.
“They accepted this, wrote a post on Facebook, and in the end they furnished almost their entire home. They thought that the blankets wouldn’t be in good condition, but the blankets they got were in mint condition.”
Many cities and towns have a collection center for clothes and other items for people in need, and during the pandemic demand rose. For nine years Hila Kaplan, a video editor, has volunteered to help run a charity belonging to Moshav Avihayil near Netanya.
“The coronavirus certainly led to a rise in demand for help from the organization. These are people whose situation even before wasn’t good and got worse, or people who suddenly lost their livelihood,” she says.
“Also, there were many divorces as a result of the pandemic, so people needed to furnish their homes from the start. So we looked for furniture, appliances, clothing, toys. Actually, we’re a Band-Aid, because if somebody approaches the welfare department, until they approve aid – if at all – such people will have nothing.”
Kaplan says the charity receives no support from the local authorities and is based on donations of items from the public. “On Fridays I open the storeroom and sell items for a few shekels, and we use the income to buy food baskets,” she says.
“If somebody needs furniture I connect them with people who have it and take care of the shipment. We supply items all over the country. Just now I sent items to hostels for homeless people in Tiberias and Be’er Sheva.”
Shelly Kling is an independent journalist and screenwriter.