Reduce, reuse and recycle – at no cost to safety

Everyone’s favourite (or not so favourite) pastime at the moment is finding ways to save money. From growing your own veg, to “making do and mending”, all things are considered in the drive to economise.

However, there are hidden perils in the current desire to save money: when buying second-hand goods, do you really know what you’re getting?

The recession, coupled with the rise of internet shopping, has presented new challenges to young consumers. The most obvious effect among young people is a growing dependence on second-hand goods. Pawn shops, charity shops, car boot sales and second hand retailers on and offline have thrived in the last few years as consumers (especially the young) choose to buy from them.

Often young people see buying and selling second-hand goods as contributing to a good cause, or a form of recycling, helping to save the planet as well as their pocket. They are right, of course, and people should be encouraged to do so. However, our concern is that many second-hand goods are unsafe and there is no statutory “testing” that needs to be done before they can be sold.

Electrical appliances

These are amongst the most popular products for young consumers to buy and sell, especially online via sites like eBay or Gumtree.

Second-hand electrical equipment must be as safe as that purchased new from shops. Examples of appliances to which the regulations apply include hair dryers and straighteners, computers and computer game consoles and televisions as well as white goods.

The biggest problem with electrical goods is “wear and tear”. By the time that they are sold second-hand these once-safe products are unsafe and the law does not expressly require an electrician to test the goods before they are re-sold (although this is best practice). And don’t forget that the instructions may be missing – and this is where the important safety information resides. Try checking the manufacturer’s website for information if you do purchase something without the packaging.

Domestic upholstered furniture

Students and young people setting up their first independent home need to be aware that some second-hand furniture can be a fire risk.

Second-hand upholstered furniture must comply with certain flammability requirements, and the only exception is for furniture made before 1950. All furniture meeting the requirements must be labelled, when new, with a permanent fire label – checks should be made for the labels, which are usually under the main cushion or on the base of the furniture.

The problem with upholstered furniture is that many people cut out these permanent labels when they buy the furniture new because they think they spoil the look of the item. When the furniture is then resold second-hand there is no way of telling whether the unlabelled product is safe or not – again, the manufacturer’s website should be able to help.


Young parents are under particular pressure economically and may well buy toys and other goods for their children second hand. The rule here is that toys should be as safe second hand as they are new. In general: they must not be flammable and should have no loose physical or mechanical parts, e.g. loose eyes or buttons, sharp edges or finger-trapping hazards. In addition they must contain no toxic substances or paint, be hygienic, and be marked with any appropriate instructions and warnings for use.

Counterfeit goods

A separate, but equally concerning area is counterfeit goods which are sold as brand new. Products posing particular risks to young people include counterfeit electrical chargers, toys and cosmetics, often found on markets and at car boot sales. Many have been found to be dangerously unsafe when tested.

Of course, for young people with less money in their pocket products that have fallen off the back of a lorry can present a much more appealing alternative to second hand goods – they are cheap, but look exactly like the real thing.

In the health arena counterfeit cigarettes and alcohol pose a serious problem for young people because they often contain dangerous levels of harmful chemicals. Young people often think that these are non-duty paid items (smuggled!) and welcome the opportunity to buy them (especially as the prices can be as low as half the price of the genuine products).

The economic downturn and shift in focus away from product safety enforcement affects us all. It affects the young especially though, as they are more naïve about the risks posed by unsafe goods and when starting out in life there is often a compromise to be made between cost and quality. It is through these compromises that young people may be putting themselves at risk. Since data collection in this area has not been funded since 2002 it is very hard to quantify the true extent of this risk.

People are not going to stop buying and selling second-hand goods, and nor should they. But buyers and sellers both have a responsibility to ensure that their goods are safe and fit for purpose.

Saving money is all well and good; but an accident or serious injury will cost far more than is saved – in money and in pain.

Jenny McWhirter and Phil LeShirley, RoSPA

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