Since it’s Second Hand September, I’ve been writing about the joys of finding pre-loved geeky treasures in charity shops, thrift stores and car boot sales – the fun of discovering books, clothing and merch donated by fellow fans in unexpected places at bargain prices.
What I haven’t written about so far is why not buying new is so important, particularly in geek culture.
By now, anyone who doesn’t understand why we need to move away from a capitalist ‘stuff’ focused culture is either wilfully ignorant or has been living under a rock (in which case they probably don’t own much stuff anyway, since you can’t really fit that much stuff under most rocks). Our desire to own stuff – more clothing than we realistically need, hard copies of music or films that could be streamed instead, decorative objects that serve no practical purpose – relies on manufacturing and shipping processes which have a big impact on our environment, through use of non-renewable resources, fume- and waste-production, and transportation.
In no way is the geek community more guilty of this than any other sub-section of society – the same applies to handbag collections, replica sports kits, craft materials, make-up, and any other hobby or pastime that requires buying stuff. But since fandom is so hyper-focused on other social awareness issues a lot of the time, perhaps we as a community are in a position to examine our fixation on ‘stuff’ and ask how much of it we really need.
Merchandise has become such an integral part of our geek culture that it’s practically a culture all of its own. Buying and collecting merch is one of many ways to participate in geek culture, through buying at cons as part of the convention experience, sharing photos of our stuff on social media, wearing apparel to display our interests and signpost our geekiness to others, and through displaying collections in our homes (and in some cases in the backgrounds of our YouTube videos). It’s a way of expressing one’s identity as a proud geek, and also a status symbol to show that we have disposable income. Plus there’s the endorphin rush of shopping, the anticipation of waiting for imports to arrive in the post, and the simple pleasure of decorating one’s home to make a more pleasing living environment. Shopping is a social activity.
But just like buying the latest smartphone or handbag or replica kit, do we actually need it all? Can we separate our fan identities from our stuff?
I’m not advocating for boycotting merch altogether. Buying licensed merch shows support for creators and their work, and can be influential in the commissioning of more work in the future. After all, media is a business, and businesses rely on income. And as someone old enough to remember the music industry’s transition from vinyl releases through cassettes to CDs, I understand the value of creative add-ons like album art and sleeve notes that extend the consumer experience beyond the basics of the music or the film or the book. Having a physical thing to hold in your hands, to unwrap, to load and play or to put on display or to wear, adds value to the original creative work. For all that one might argue about sound quality and user-friendliness when it comes to digital music, there is something about hearing a disc spin in a drive or hearing the crackle as the needle hits the record, reading through the sleeve notes, and having the case on your shelf as part of your collection.
But there’s no denying that our collections are, essentially, just stuff. Stuff that has an environmental cost in its manufacture, its shipping, and in its eventual decay. After the end, when the human race has inevitably wiped itself out, will the wastelands be populated only by cockroaches and Funko Pops?
I’m guilty of stuff-hoarding. I have action figures, and plushies, and keychains and pins and tote-bags. I like displaying my geeky trinkets on my bag or my lapel, and the reactions I get from fellow geeks who spot them (I’m a total introvert, but I will absolutely strike up a conversation with a stranger if they’re wearing a T-shirt or a badge I recognise). I like sneaking a bit of geekery into my outfit at work – a Yuri On Ice pin on my lapel next to my work badge, or my Rohan Kishibe fountain-pen earrings. I don’t know if I could completely stop buying merch altogether. How would people know I’m not actually a boring work-person if I can’t wear my geekiness in public? How would I keep my flat from looking like a hotel room?
What I’m suggesting is that perhaps we look for ways to off-set our stuff-habit. Can we promote companies who use eco-friendly materials for their manufacture or shipping? Can we donate our old merch and apparel to charity shops to keep it going to landfill? Can we upcycle that T-shirt that no longer fits into a tote-bag, to minimise our plastic bag usage?
I try to live an eco-friendly life as much as possible – I don’t own a car, don’t have kids or pets, haven’t eaten meat or fish since I was a kid and rarely eat dairy, I recycle, look for eco-friendly products, and rarely buy new clothes. I know I could do much more, but I like to think that I’m at least off-setting some of my stuff-habit.
I’d love to know of any geeky creators who favour eco-friendly materials and methods. Or companies which use recyclable or bio-degradable shipping materials instead of tons of bubble-wrap. Perhaps independent fan artists and creators could be the ones paving the way in a geeky eco revolution? Or perhaps we could all make an effort to buy just a little less stuff? One keychain instead of a whole ita-bag worth? One All Might action figure instead of five? Licensed streaming sites instead of DVDs?
There’s no denying we all have more stuff than we need. But there’s also no denying that our culture, stuff-based as it is, helps us to connect with each other. If I didn’t watch anime online, I’d have to…I don’t know, talk to my family or something awful like that.
It’s why I’m a huge fan of the creative fan experience over the curator fan experience. Fanfiction and fan art can be done digitally, requiring little in the way of physical materials (if you don’t count the caffeinated drinks we need to exist as creators). Cosplay can incorporate repurposed materials. And cons have more going on than just stuff-sales.
Perhaps if we take a like-for-like approach – one good deed for one purchase. Donate a T-shirt to a charity shop for every new one you buy. Skip meat or imported foods for a week to make up for that action figure that has to be shipped from Japan. Take a bus or train to a con instead of driving or flying, and take your own bag for all your shopping so you don’t need everything wrapped in a plastic bag.
Can we start an eco-geek movement? Can we put ‘eco-geek’ on a T-shirt? Made from recycled Fair Trade cotton, of course.