Last time I wrote about the financial benefits of buying antiques, and today I would like to expand my argument with the positive environmental impact of buying old (or reclaimed) items. There has actually been quite a bit of discussion on this topic already, and for good reason. Being “green” or eco-friendly, is really cool right now. There are lovely shops opening in many major cities that specialize in organic, fair traded and sustainable products. People are looking at the true cost of their purchases, and using their money to try to make a difference for the future. Is it any wonder that the antiques industry wants to remind people that the first “environmentally friendly” business on their main street probably sold antiques?
Antiques are, by basic definition, a prime example of recycling. Pieces of furniture, housewares, even clothes, get used by more than one person (or family) over a period of hundreds of years. Each time the item changes ownership, it is used again and often for its original purpose. Use naturally causes wear and tear, but unlike many new purchases, antiques are lovingly restored and repaired. If the 150 year old dining chair develops a loose leg, you don’t throw it out. You take it to an antiques specialist who can repair the chair, or you repair it yourself. Just because something is old, or in need of TLC, is no reason to add it to the growing landfills. In fact, the thrifty nature of antique ownership is something many look at with pride. We reduce the cycle of consuming and disposing by holding on to our items for so long. If it’s special enough, we might even leave the items in our will so future generations can enjoy them!
Of course, not all antiques make the journey through time intact. Some are no longer useful in their original form, and this is where repurposing (or reusing) antiques is a great idea. Remember when you were learning about the three “R”s in school, they showed you how to reuse a milk carton to make a bird feeder? Well, many industrious antique dealers and enthusiasts do this all the time. They take reclaimed hardwood from a destroyed building, for instance, and construct a kitchen island. Or find an old door and attach legs to make a table. Reusing antiques can be a simple as repurposing Mason jars into vases! There is really an amazing assortment of ideas out there to give you inspiration. Many people find new and inventive ways to use old things. Because damaged or incomplete antiques are often a deal, you are sometimes only limited by your imagination.
Now, no argument is without its thoughtful critics. Some have questioned if antiques are really green as the travel to find and sell antiques causes its own carbon footprint. I think shows like “American Pickers” kind of illustrates the idea of travelling many miles to find an item and then schlepping it back – often burning lots of gas in the process. In my experience, however, the carbon footprint of the average “picker” is pretty small. In my family my parents drove about 10 hours to Quebec to find stock. My parents had a giant Bell truck and we would pack full to the roof before we turned around for home. My parents were very conscious of the added cost of travel to their business and each trip had to be efficient. Quebec was pretty much the farthest they travelled, and as the years passed they moved to more Ontario and locally sourced stock. They generally sell locally as well in their shop, or online through Collectivator where shipping through the mail is still an efficient use of resources. Antiques are a business that requires watching every penny and maximizing all returns. You don’t go for joyrides and burn gas for no reason. I think if you compare the journey of an antique to the huge, world spanning travel of millions of “flat pack” new items you will find that antiques are still the environmental choice. Especially if you consider that once that antique does find its new owner, its life expectancy is often much longer than poorly made new alternatives.
In the end, I think antiques are really an embodiment of all three “R”s. They reduce the need to purchase new items by being built to last for many years. They can be reused in new and creative ways when their original purpose is over, taking advantage of their high quality materials. And they are recycled over and over again, providing utility, beauty and historical interest to each successive owner. Next time you need something new, be green and buy something old!
For more information on Antiques & the environment check out Antiques are Green by John Fiske, as well as the Antiques are Green campaign.