Buy Nothing Day

Tomorrow, Saturday November 26th, is Buy Nothing Day in the UK and most of the world – in the US it’s today, Friday the 25th, the day after Thanksgiving.

Everything we consume has an ecological, resource and energy footprint. Buy Nothing Day aims to highlight the environmental and ethical consequences of consumerism. We in the developed countries (with only 20% of the world population) are consuming over 80% of the earth’s natural resources, causing a disproportionate level of environmental damage, and an unfair distribution of wealth.

The idea is to shop less and live more.

To take part all you have to do is buy nothing !

Buy Nothing Day was started by Adbusters in 1992, as a way to challenge the prevailing mantra of hyper-consumerism that affects much of the rich world. It aims to convince us to take a break from cash registers for 24 hours and reflect on how dependent our societies have become on conspicuous consumption – hopefully changing our habits in the longer term.

   

Image from Adbusters

RELATED ARTICLES – Top 10 Anti-Consumerist Must Haves, From Hunter-Gatherers to Shopper Borrowers

Some Reflections on the 100 Thing Challenge

Dave Bruno is an author and advocate of simple living, though he sometimes describes himself as ‘a restless wanderer on the way home’. Through his book, The 100 Thing Challenge, he gave rise to a movement focussed on breaking free from consumerism and materialism – breaking free from the sense of being stuck in stuff.

In the guest post below Dave reflects on the publication of The 100 Thing Challenge, just over a year ago, and the lessons learnt.

Readers of my The 100 Thing Challenge book have had at least one positive reaction, I think. Many readers have commented online or contacted me directly thanking me for my honesty. In the book and on my blog and as often as my courage does not fail me in person, I attempt to be honest about my experiences with stuff. It has not been only a story of victory over consumerism and rallying the world to a simpler way of life. We all are a work in progress and I insist on making that point in my writing and in my advocacy for simple living. Simple living is not a way of life that leads to perfection. Simple living is a way of life because we are not perfect and never will be this side of eternity.

I hope my short introduction is not just justification for any complaining I might do while reflecting on the 100 Thing Challenge experience. I do not intend to complain only. The one-year anniversary of the publication of The 100 Thing Challenge is drawing near. That prompted me to write about it. Maybe this will be interesting to those who have followed my journey. Maybe it will be interesting for those who want to publish a book about their experiences.

The truth is that I did not want to write about the 100 Thing Challenge, at least not in a book. I have mentioned this before. The oddity of the worldwide interest in my 100 Thing Challenge has never normalized in my mind. Why is an exceedingly average middle-aged man who is living a comfortable life in the earthly paradise of San Diego but without much stuff interesting to so many people? The fear I had about writing a book detailing the 100 Thing Challenge was that it seemed almost impossible to avoid patronizing my readers. People are fascinated by living with less. Why? I believe it is not because they are interested in what things I kept and what things I got rid of. Sure, there is some curiosity about that. But the real reason, I think, so many people were drawn to the 100 Thing Challenge was because they were hurting after years and years, even generations of being let down by consumerism. I hurt. And I was frustrated nearly to tears about being stuck in the cycle of endless consumerism. And I do not cry much. (Though as an aside, now that my daughters are growing older I find myself tearing up more often. And my hair is thinning. But I digress.) So I took this stand to live simply, and people paid attention to it. I agreed to write a book about it.

The moment my squiggly signature raced across the dotted line of the very long book contract, a new challenge began. As I tried to reach below what appeared to some to be the shallow gimmick of the 100 Thing Challenge and unearth my readers’ grief over bad consumer choices, my hands were switched by the editorial ruler.

Hold on. I want to make something exceedingly clear. Editors are absolutely necessary. Not just to find all the typos and misplaced punctuation and sentence fragments and the overuse of polysyndeton. Editors help shape a book. Writers should have editors. I truly believe my book was better because of my editors.

The challenge I had with the editorial ruler was not that my editors were bad editors. Hardly. It was that they had a different vision for the book. So my hands got slapped each time I reached below the surface of the 100 Thing Challenge. In the end my knuckles were bruised and probably the book was a little beaten up, too.

Now this does not mean that I would have succeeded in writing a book about simplicity on a deeper level than the spectacle of the 100 Thing Challenge, if I had no editorial intervention. Personally, I feel satisfied that I came near the goal of avoiding fluff in chapters like “Purging Things and ‘Things Past’” and “Imprecise Goods.” Both are better for the work of my editors. Yet both of those chapters and a few others were not really what my editors wanted. And we only worked through them while misunderstanding each other. At one point as we refined “Purging Things and ‘Things Past’” I felt stuck, going back and forth with an editor.

I asked, “What do you think this chapter is about?”

“You got rid of the trains you liked,” was her answer.

The chapter is about faith. It is about what we put our faith in. My publisher wanted a book about what I got rid of. The life I am wholly committed to is about what we all put our faith in. We just cannot keep putting our faith in stuff. It is killing us to do so. It has ruined the American economy and damaged America culturally. It will make the entire world miserable, if American-style consumerism makes its way across the Pacific, as is already happening. We must have faith and we must put our faith in the right things. God rest his soul, but we should never have put our faith in Steve Jobs and the hope that a more colorful iPod would be available for purchase each year. Of course not everyone did that. But too many people did that.

In the end, I suppose it is my fault. The name for my personal living project was thought up on the spur of the moment. I am responsible for that. The “100 Thing Challenge” does not sound very intellectual. It sounds kind of like reality TV. And once I started accepting calls from media, it began to kind of become reality TV.

Leanne and I made a decision a couple weeks back. No more camera crews in our house. A news station wanted to come by to interview me and film our closets. (Our house, by the way, does not look anything like the way TV reporters think the “100 Thing Challenge” looks, which is why Inside Edition never aired the segment they filmed. He says with a hint of bitterness.) But we are done with the looky-loos. The 100 Thing Challenge was never about the stuff.

I would like to invite people into our home over the years. People who want a safe place to talk about what they have been putting their faith in. People who want to talk about not being stuck in stuff – who want to break free from consumerism. We will not spend our time looking at all the things I own, less than most Americans though far more than most people on earth. But we will look honestly at our hearts. That is where the best stuff can be found.

 

Photo by Puuikibeach via Flickr

RELATED ARTICLES – Top 10 Anti-Consumerist Must Haves, From Hunter-Gatherers to Shopper-Borrowers, Clearing Out My Closet, 10 Ways to Simplify Your Life 

10 Tips for More Ethical Shopping

1 – BUY SECOND HAND

Buying used goods rather than new wherever possible, reduces both the use of natural resources in their manufacture and transport, and also waste. Ebay, charity shops, car-boot sales etc are all great places to buy used items, and if you don’t like the sound of second hand, just call them vintage or antique.

2 – BUY RECYCLED / RECYCLABLE / REFILLABLE

Most of us like to think we’re ‘doing our bit’ for the environment by recycling, but the process isn’t complete until someone buys or uses the recycled material. This is what waste managers call ‘closing the loop’, the shift from a linear economy where resources are used and then discarded, to a circular one, where things are reused. Look for common recycled items like paper, toilet rolls, bin bags etc, or type in ‘recycled gifts’ for more creative recycled goods on the web.

3 – BUY THINGS THAT LAST / YOU CAN FIX

The idea of disposable goods is fairly new – before the age of globalised mass production things were designed for utility, aesthetics, durability and affordability, but now many items are designed for short-term convenience and cheapness. Our thresholds of what we consider worth our time and effort to fix have changed as a result – we still repair cars, but no longer shoes or most clothes. Buying more durable and repairable items both uses less resources over their lifecycle, and typically is considerably cheaper in the long run.

4 – BUY LOCAL

Buying locally produced goods avoids the impacts of long distance transport, and also helps support local jobs and communities, which in turn limits people’s need to travel for employment. There are often also advantages in fostering a sense of community and building relationships between producers and consumers. Distantly produced goods may also have non-obvious environmental or social impacts (such as sweatshop labour or pollution), that locally produced goods do not – as it would generally be more obvious if they did.

5 – BUY SEASONAL

Rich world supermarkets have lost much seasonal variation of food, with many fruits and vegetables being available all year year round, thanks to global production. Food imported from around the world not only has far higher energy footprints, but also tends to have significantly more packaging and preservative/pesticide content, to maintain freshness and appearance. Buy returning to a seasonally varied diet we can avoid these impacts, eat a more varied range of food, and also reconnect with natural cycles.

6 – BUY FAIRTRADE

Buying Fairtrade helps support communities of poor commodity producers, who are typically at a significant disadvantage to rich world merchants and consumers, who can usually dictate price to such an extent that many producers struggle to make any profit, or lift their communities out of abject poverty. Fairtrade originated in the 1980s as a way of giving rich world consumers the choice to pay a little more in order to support poor producers, improving living and working conditions, promoting better environmental standards and raising levels of social awareness.

7 – BUY ORGANIC OR HIGH WELFARE STANDARD FOOD

Organic certification of foods or other goods means a limited and restricted use of chemical products (like fertilizers and pesticides) during production, and in the case of livestock imposes high welfare standards and restricts the use of antibiotics, growth hormones and similar. It is also argued that organic foods and goods typically have lower energy inputs and are more beneficial ecologically, due to the way they are grown.

8 – BUY LOW TOXICS/LOW ADDITIVE

Obviously not all chemicals are harmful or damaging, and most products for sale in rich countries should have passed safety standards, but on a precautionary basis it still appears to be sensible to limit our exposure to unnecessary chemicals – such as air fresheners, scented cleaning products, harsh cosmetics and toiletries and volatile compounds in paints, fabrics and finishes. Even if you’re not especially concerned about any potential health impacts, the production of such chemical components require resources and energy, and can involve other hazardous processes and substances.

9 – BUY FROM ETHICAL COMPANIES

It’s a fact of life that some companies operate in a more ethical, environmental and socially responsible way than others. It’s relatively easy to check whether the company we’re buying clothes, laptops or chocolate from is also profiting from less acceptable practices like arms exports, labour exploitation, unethical marketing or corruption. Many companies produce CSR (corporate social responsibility) reporting, but it’s often more revealing to look at ethical comparison websites, or publications.

10 – BUY LESS

It’s not rocket science – stop spending money on junk. Just buy less.

Photo from Wan Chai, via Flickr

From Hunter-Gatherers to Shopper-Borrowers

The Selfish Society: How We All Forgot to Love One Another and Made Money Instead by Sue Gerhart

We’ve substituted money and things for relationships, argues Sue Gerhart, and we must train the next generation of children to be different. We have become too self-centred, self-absorbed, self-interested and self-regarding, with consumer capitalism having fixated us on things at the expense of people. As a result we have weaker family bonds, weaker friendships and weaker social ties, all because we have become entranced by both our ‘stuff’ and ourselves.

Gerhart, a practising psychotherapist, also examines what makes some people behave unselfishly in certain circumstances, while others seem only concerned for themselves. She contrasts the example of ‘rescuers’, who acted to shelter and protect Jewish families during the Holocaust, compared to ‘bystanders’, who did nothing. The principal difference, she argues, is down to early childhood, and in particular the extent of emotional development and learned empathy. Amongst her other observations Gerhart is critical of the concept of ‘problem families’, commenting that it is the other families and individuals in the ‘problem community’ that have failed to be interested and provide support.

If we wish to construct a more caring, collaborative and less divided society, Garhart argues, we need to support the caring qualities that are learned in early life and can best do this by giving responsive care and attention to all our children’s wants and needs. Negative and critical parenting, along with neglect, disinterest, lack of time or attention, and family breakdown all may significantly reduce the degree of empathy in adult life, and this, Gerhart argues, will shape the future of our society. [Amazon UK US]

 

Enough: Breaking Free from the World of More by John Naish

For millions of years if we liked something, we chased after more of it – more food, more status and more stuff. In the West we now have more of everything than we can ever use, enjoy or afford. Yet we still want more – even though we’re destroying the planet in the process and it’s leaving us sick, tired, overweight, angry, unhappy and in debt.

Enough covers a lot of ground, spanning aspiration and celebrity culture, how our ownership of things defines our status, the brain chemistry of shopping and ‘buyer’s remorse’, our quest to constantly ‘know’ more information, through to how our desires can overpower our appetite, so it can’t tell us we’re full. Much of the analysis is from an evolutionary and biological perspective, explaining how our impulses for more fulfil sensible functions in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but have failed to adapt to life in our modern culture.

The book presents a compelling argument that our desires for more of everything have driven us almost to the point of planetary ecosystem collapse. Will our wiring for more force us into decline and demise, or can we learn to control our impulses ? Fortunately the book doesn’t just present an analysis of modern consumerism, it also tries to offer practical advice for ‘curing’ ourselves of the affliction, by identifying the elusive ‘enough point’ – the point at which having even more makes us no happier.

The author, John Naish, is also the man behind the Landfill Prize, an award given for the most pointless, gimmick-laden piece of junk produced that year, with previous nominess including laser guided scissors and automatic cucumber peelers. [Amazon UK US]

 

The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy by Michael Foley

Happiness is elusive, observes Michael Foley, and many aspects of modern life are making it even harder to find. Ironically the book also ponders the futility of trying to obtain happiness and meaning through the purchase of books, which often remain unread on people’s shelves !

In a deep analysis of many aspects of modern life Foley identifies several cultural preoccupations which  form barriers to our happiness. We have a damaging ‘culture of potential’ he argues, obsessively focussing on the future and not concentrating sufficiently on the present. This leads us to over-value youth and under-value experience, to obsessively travel to new destinations and seek out new experiences, to constantly desire the next thing, job or partner, which results in an belief that we’re constantly missing something.

Another of the barriers he identifies is the ‘culture of entitlement’, leading us to feel we always deserve the best, that we should be allowed act as we wish, or that we are in some way special. The expectation, status-obsession and inflated ego that this inevitably gives rise to, often struggles to come to terms with the harsh reality of life, leading to anger, injustice, resentment and depression.

Instead, Foley argues, we should work to change the way we think about the world, being more focussed on the present, more willing to find pleasure in simple everyday experience, more accepting of whatever the world throws at us and less driven to define ourselves in terms of symbols of  success. [Amazon UK US]

 

The irony of promoting books opposed to consumerism is not lost on me :)  Borrow them from a library if you can. If not, then pass on to a friend when you’ve finished with them . . . don’t just leave them sitting on your shelf.

Photo by Coolinsights

Cleaning Out My Closet

“Where’s my snare ? I have no snare in my headphones.”

It’s an interesting metaphor when you think about it – the rapper Eminem was singing about dealing with neglected emotional baggage from his past in his song Cleaning Out My Closet, and most of us can relate to that. There’s a connection between our own feelings and the shut-away and neglected clutter we surround ourselves with.

Stuff isn’t just stuff. Stuff is emotional.

Our stuff defines us. It reflects our interests, tastes, means and especially aspirations. Why we choose to buy what we do is the basis of the entire advertising, marketing and sales industries, but that’s not the subject of this article.

This article is about why we choose to hang on to our old stuff, long after we stop needing it, and why we sometimes simply hoard it away somewhere out of sight and forget about it.

It’s also about when I cleaned out my own wardrobe a couple of months ago.

I’m actually a pretty organised person most of the time, but for some reason my wardrobe has a habit of being a bit of a dumping ground for stuff I don’t have a proper place for – not just clothes, but assorted books, magazines, papers, unopened things in boxes, letters, old shoes . . . you get the idea.

I do clear it out from time to time, but I felt the need to really empty it out. I went through everything in there (and anything left lurking on my ‘floordrobe’) and ended-up getting rid of nine carrier bags of clothes, as well as a large amount of other forgotten and misplaced junk. Most of it went off to charity shops, some for recycling and one bag was destined for landfill. The photo above is the ‘after’ – I didn’t dare show the ‘before’ !

It’s not just me.

According to a recent QVC survey, the average British woman has 22 unworn outfits hanging in her wardrobe. If true, this means that across the country there are over £1.6billion of unworn clothes hanging in women’s wardrobes! If we assume men are equally as bad, then that’s a clothes rail hung with never worn clothes stretching from London to New York nine times over. That’s a lot of ‘stuff’ just hanging around unused; what would Gok Wan say! And you don’t have to be an environmental scientist to realise there’s a huge environmental footprint associated with the growing, dying, making, transporting, packaging and retailing all those clothes.

The trend in society is to live in households with fewer and fewer people, but with more and more storage for our stuff, and if we can’t cram it all in there are companies happy to rent us storage space for all our extra stuff we can’t fit into our attic! We need to reduce our constant buying of things just because we enjoy the buying part. I’m firmly of the opinion that a sustainable future must see us all buying and consuming less. If we had a better grasp of what we already own, better managed and organised our belongings, took better care of our clothes and other things, repaired things occasionally and bought new things in a more mindful and considered way, we might find our lives a little less filled with clutter and perhaps even be a little less stressed as a result. Additionally we’d save ourselves a lot of money – which we might be inclined to put to some other beneficial use, or use to buy better quality and more sustainably produced clothes. Less is more, and all that jazz.

Psychologists say the extent to which we tend to surround ourselves with clutter and junk is connected to our underlying beliefs about life, especially how we feel about the future and the past. Everyone takes some comfort in familiarity and routine, and change can be stressful, and supposedly the more optimistic we feel about the future the easier it is to embrace change positively. If you think all your best days are behind you, it seems logical to try to hang on to them. As we get older it gets harder, our worlds often shrink, he world seems more scary and being optimistic about the future is harder.

There is an mental condition known as Diogenes Syndrome, named after an Ancient Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel. It describes extreme compulsive hoarding behaviour. It’s more common than you might think, in my last six years working in an Environmental Health Department I’ve encountered it a number of times. It reflects a person’s inability to cope emotionally, and their retreat from a wider world they simply can’t cope with into a smaller existence they have more control over – often just a corner of a single room. This tendency to retreat into our own little space with all it’s comforts of routine seems to affect us all to some degree. I think it’s something we’d be well advised to actively fight against, becoming less fearful and more embracing of change, and less willing to define ourselves both by our past, and by our stuff.

I’ll be continuing with my own decluttering journey throughout the year – simplifying and minimalising wherever I can. If you’re minded to do the same it would be great to hear how you get on. There are several people who make their living as professional declutterers helping other people dejunk their lives – you’ve probably seen them on TV. If you’re after advice on decluttering your life try these websites.

There are limits though – a man called Dave Bruno has created something called the 100 Thing Challenge, to combat the Western consumerist lifestyle and promote a life of simplicity, characterised by joyfulness and thoughtfulness. I can’t see me getting even close to 100 items any time soon, but the stories on his blog are quite inspirational.

If you want to go even further you could follow the example of the artist Michael Landy. In 2001 he catalogued and then destroyed everything he owned, saying it was “an examination of society’s romance with consumerism, and the amount of raw material and energy that goes into making things”.

It might be easier for now, just to tackle your cutlery draw.

So did clearing out my closet change my life ?

Honestly . . . yes, a little bit.

 

Photo attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/puuikibeach/5208654120/