What to do With an Old Pair of Shoes?
Daniel Altman is Big Think's Chief Economist and an adjunct faculty member at New York University's Stern School of Business. Daniel wrote economic commentary for The Economist, The New York Times, and The International Herald Tribune before founding North Yard Economics, a non-profit consulting firm serving developing countries, in 2008. In between, he served as an economic advisor in the British government and wrote four books, most recently Outrageous Fortunes: The Twelve Surprising Trends That Will Reshape the Global Economy.
Today I went into my closet and realized that I had an old pair of shoes that I no longer wore. The shoes are still pretty serviceable, so I’ve been wondering what I should do with them. To an economist, this question does not have an easy answer.
Here are my options:
Throw them away. By doing this, I would probably destroy any value that the shoes might still have in the global economy. They’d just take up space in a landfill somewhere, with the attendant cost to society. That’s where organizations like Planet Aid come in.
“When you drop off your unwanted items in one of our many conveniently located yellow drop boxes, you divert them from a trip to the landfill or incinerator,” their website proclaims. “Your donated items will find new life with a new owner, who will value them as much as you did when you first purchased them.” Which brings me to my next option…
Donate them. As luck would have it, there’s a Planet Aid box down the street from me that collects clothes and shoes for shipping to countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But economists often refer to organizations like Planet Aid as part of the “Stuff We Don’t Want” or “SWEDOW” problem. It sounds like a nice idea to give the things we no longer use to poor people in other countries, but sometimes our gifts can be more trouble than they’re worth.
If we deluge poor countries with free used clothing and shoes, we’ll cripple local sellers and manufacturers of those products. Moreover, the money we spend to ship the SWEDOW overseas might do more good in the pockets of the people we’re trying to help. To figure out whether donating still makes sense, Scott Gilmore of Building Markets made up a handy flowchart. In many cases, the flowchart recommends selling the SWEDOW and sending the money to help poor people to buy products locally or use it as they see fit. Which brings me to my next option…
Sell them on eBay. Fortunately, human ingenuity has created the world’s biggest marketplace for second-hand shoes. I may be able to get some cash for these shoes, though I’m not sure how much I’d be able to charge given the cost of shipping them. If they’re worth $20 to someone and shipping is $10, then there’s only $10 left for me – and that’s before paying eBay’s fees. But I’m not sure I really want to take photos, list the shoes online, and make a special trip to the post office for $9 and change. I’m guessing my hourly rate would be better at McDonald’s.
So what should I do? Even if I wanted to donate the proceeds from selling the shoes on eBay, I may be better off just tossing them and writing a check. Of course, the situation might be different if the shoes were more valuable or if I could gain some economies of scale by selling a whole lot of SWEDOW. As things stand, though, I’m left with the uncomfortable feeling that I have no good options to dispose of these shoes – and that’s something to consider next time I’m thinking of buying a pair.
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