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Grinnell’s “Free and For Sale” culture prioritizes environmental sustainability

By Eva Hill

Within the complex network of the Grinnell College online community is Free & For Sale, the student-to-student Grinnell marketplace where posts advertise used clothing, furniture, textbooks and appliances. Some students also use the group in search of specific items, like USB cables, small amounts of flour or oil and games or equipment to borrow for events. Along with the many yard sales that off-campus residents hold on weekends, Free & For Sale is an integral part of Grinnell’s secondhand culture and is often a cheaper and more sustainable alternative to buying commonly resold items at retailers in town.

One major supporter of the secondhand sale system is the Student Environmental Committee (SEC), a Student Government Association-run organization that works to educate students on sustainable behavior and provide resources to support environmentally friendly practices on campus. Each fall, the SEC holds a “flea market” in an off-campus church building, made up of items discarded in dorm lounges by students at the end of the previous semester.

“At the end of the year, the lounges are full of stuff,” said Duncan Ward ’20, co-leader of the SEC and organizer of this year’s market. “Some of it gets thrown out, some stuff students choose to throw out — students go around and sort through a lot of it and take what they want, but then this is the stuff that reunion workers and Chris Bair, who’s the FM head of safety and sustainability, helps coordinate and collect the stuff that they deem reusable and that students might want to use again, and they bring it to the church.”

Once the salvageable items have been collected, the SEC prices them extremely cheaply and sells them at the flea market. According to Ward, the primary purpose of the market isn’t to fundraise for the SEC, which has many other revenue sources, but to divert the discarded items toward people who need them.

“Any way where things that students don’t want any more aren’t being translated into landfill space – that’s great, that’s a great solution. If we can get it back into the hands of people who need it, at a price that they can afford, that’s mission accomplished,” Ward said.

Nandita Banik ’20 also helped to organize a secondhand-item sale this semester. To clean up their living space, she and her housemates held a yard sale of items they no longer needed. According to Banik, the sale was moderately successful; she attributes the lower attendance rate to the fact that her house held the sale relatively late in the semester. “It’s all about timing … you’ll see a lot of people trying to sell stuff through the start of school, and right when we’re about to end school, a lot of seniors trying to get rid of their stuff … there’s this whole cycle.”

Banik has used Free & For Sale in the past and theorizes that one of the factors behind its success is the “ground level of trust” the group creates through its requirement that all users be Grinnell students. Banik considers the group to be a positive force within the College community, saying, “It’s an avenue for people from different socioeconomic backgrounds … where I’m from, Thailand, getting secondhand stuff is usually considered not okay; you’re seen in a different socioeconomic light. But I feel like in America overall, it’s fine, but more so in Grinnell specifically – everyone consumes on the same ground, there’s no strict hierarchy.” Additionally, Professor of Sociology Susan Ferguson will be holding a garage sale this upcoming weekend at her parents’ on Friday, September 13 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday September 14 from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. The sale will be held at 1333 Elm Street and both students and community members are welcome.

Grinnell students browse a variety of items for sale at SEC’s annual flea market, where environmental and economic sustainability are prioritized. Photo by Ingrid Meulemans.
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