Britt’s Year of Buying Nothing New

You have approximately one million different travel mugs at home. I know this because I have previously owned approximately one million travel mugs. You buy one, it works OK, but you think maybe you’d like one with a handle, or a new one without a handle, or one from a coffee shop you visited on a vacation, or one that has a spill-proof lid (for real this time, not like the last spill-proof lid that wasn’t). Then suddenly you have a cupboard full of them in your kitchen.

You also have several pairs of pants you haven’t worn in over a year, or maybe at all, maybe a jacket you bought but never really liked after you brought it home. A chair you never sit in, some kitchen appliance that you thought was magic for the first week you had it but never used it again, a bike you thought had a place in your life but you rarely ride, a pair of skis a little too fat for most days on the mountain, maybe three extra pairs of sunglasses.

It’s easy for most of us to buy new things, mostly what we see as minor purchases. New stuff is fun, it’s sexy, fresh, and shiny. It’s harder to talk ourselves into not “needing” something, especially in a society that makes it easier to buy a new something than repair the old one.

My friend Britt has declared 2012 The Year of Buying Nothing New. Britt works in apparel design and development at Outdoor Research and is a snowboarder, mountain biker and surfer, and is trying to take a year off from our consumerist society. When I heard she was doing it, I thought it was pretty ballsy and inspiring (and totally reminded me of The Story of Stuff) — so I asked her if she would tell me about it.

WHAT INSPIRED THE YEAR OF BUYING NOTHING NEW?
It was a few things. First, I have some student loan/car loan debt, so I decided to make paying off debt the higher priority than any new acquisitions. Bit of a punishment/reward system.

A while ago I came across a story of some people who kept everything they couldn’t recycle, compost or reuse. One girl only had a pair of windshield wipers to “throw away.” Pretty inspiring.

I’ve also moved four times in 17 months. So many times I was asking myself, do I really need to keep that? There can be a lot of intention/identity in the stuff we purchase; I’ve been learning to let a lot of that go (both the physical goods and all the associations that go along with them). I just moved into a smaller place that reminds me of the vacations we took on the family sailboat as a kid. Tiny and tight, with only enough space for the necessities and the things I truly love.

SO, WHAT ARE THE RULES?
Necessities and replacement only, so I do have a few “new” things to replace the ones that were truly done. The “Purchased” list is food, toiletries, one wool t-shirt, a travel coffee cup for one I lost, a new windshield for the car, and a helmet for snowboarding because I can’t replace my brain. I’ve got a soft option on art, music, and plane tickets/travel but haven’t indulged yet.

Luckily, I’ve got everything I “need.” Even though a lot of it is old, it’s still totally functional. I can do the sports I love … though my wetsuit is currently held together with dental floss and glue.

AFTER ALMOST SIX MONTHS OF IT, WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED?
I’m really aware of the sheer quantity of goods in the world. I work in manufacturing, so I think about the life cycle of goods…quality, quantity, desirability, durability, disposability. Yes, my livelihood depends on making more stuff (and as I love design, it’s really fun) but I’ll go for quality rather than “this will do” ever again. It’s raised my standards in all areas.

Rather than get dressed from current (new) favorites I try to pull something from the back most days. I knew I was onto something when it felt better to give gear away than get more.

Shopping and new goods can often be distractions, band-aids that cover other issues. It’s refocused my attentions. Rather than think about what I lack: What can I learn? How can I challenge myself?

Also, for a certain kind of person I think minimalism is luxury. Travel and live light.

WHAT’S THE HARDEST THING NOT TO BUY?
I do have iPhone lust. I am truly hoping that my old Razr dies soon. All you people that wonder “how did I get by without this thing?” — let me tell you: It’s pretty annoying. More planning, less distraction, and a few times getting lost.

DOES IT COME UP A LOT IN CONVERSATION?
Not really. I’ve chosen to let it be an internal principle, not an external reason/excuse. There are only a handful of friends who know. Some don’t understand denying gratification and some get it.

I don’t want to come off judgmental. This is an experiment. I feel deeply lucky and believe I have more than I need — this a yearlong pause to reflect on that. Bottom line is that life is about the friends and memories we make.

It’s funny, but I’d been beginning to slip recently. I’ve wanted a new commuter bike but this has just strengthened my resolve to not cave in. I’ll keep riding the 16-year-old GT Pantera till December.

Brendan Leonard is responsible for Semi-Rad.

{ 10 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Suzanne

    I have a friend who did the same kind of sacrifice in order to be able to attend SXSW last year… She also didn’t spend money on eating out or coffee, etc. At first she was really annoyed but then it got easier. I’ve wanted to try this too, but I’m also a designer with my own clothing line, so I feel guilty sometimes when I open my t-shirt drawer and there’s about 100 shirts of which I wear 10 now. I don’t really “buy” anything new for myself very often, but I do “confiscate” new items that my clothing line bought. haha. I’ve tried to start telling myself, you don’t need more than 1 colorway of that shirt…. I promise.

  • Lama J.

    Great great great! We’re living in a similar way, only we’re sharing it with people as much as possible. We rarely buy completely new things, but mostly 2nd hand and then we give the things away we don’t need. We’ve been through closets and cupboards and asked ourselves. Do I use this, do I need this, do I love this? And I agree, it feels great to give things away that other people might need and will use/love. Recently I began arranging swapping markets. People bring what they don’t use anymore, and take home what they need. It’s a way of still getting that feeling of “new dress” “new shoes” “new pan for the kitchen”, but with saving money and the environment. Plus, here in Denmark, a lot of things are thrown away when they stil work, just because it’s sometimes easier to throw everything into a container, than going to the local 2nd hand shop. So another dimension to this is all the trash you don’t produce. A shirt might weight 100-200 g, but it takes something like 22 kg of materials and 100 liters of water to produce it. Buying 2nd hand not only saves that one t-shirt but all the extra material which was going straight to landfills unless it’s from a cradle to crale production. I hope a lot of people will get inspired buy saving things and money, and really appreciating what they have. It feels good!

  • Sam

    Winter is the best time of year to buy a bike anyway; everything is on sale!
    This is a great idea though. I went a year without buying anything new once, I think it would be good to do it again, this time by choice…

  • Bianca Williams

    “I feel deeply lucky and believe I have more than I need…” You go girl! Thank you for not only stepping outside the traditional comfort zones of buying ‘new to feel better,’ but also for sharing your story. I only wish more people out there could truly realize that we do have so much more than we need and life really should be about making memories and being with the ones you love. Period.

  • Guy

    My wife and I had to take this approach one year out of budget necessity. We don’t really need to anymore but the habit continues and I’ve only replaced a 12 year old gore-tex shell and a bike helmet since. Wearing stuff right out is way more satisfying than new and shiny can ever be. And when you’re only ‘allowed’ to replace fully worn out kit you don’t save anything for best. And when you know you’re going to get at least 5 years out of a piece of gear you may as well buy last season’s kit to begin with. And those tyres that had some life left when you swapped them three years ago and put them in the shed just in case, wear them out too.
    So many positives to this there’s no way I’d describe it as ballsy!

  • Rick

    I get it. I really do. However…when you consider that the vast majority of the world’s population lives at or just barely above the subsistence level, making the decision *not* to buy a new seems a bit thin. There are people who *can’t* buy anything, new or otherwise — not for themselves, not for their children. What’s being done here is the decision to embrace the absence of things. Sort of a Walden Pond for the latest generation. But this has been done before. Perhaps, dare it be said, more eloquently. Wouldn’t it be more interesting and useful (please — not “ballsy”) to pursue a more active approach to highlighting the relative excesses we have in the West (esp. the U.S.) in proportion to the rest of the world? Bring attention, for example, to the fact that in the 21st century, we still have vast disparities in the world’s standard of living?

    I’m hopeful this will generate a *discussion* rather than the usual internet comment section vitriol. One can hope.

  • Tom

    What you’re doing is awsome. While I’m not going to feel guilty at our good fortune and at the disparity with most of the rest of the world, and I don’t feel especially inclined to take a vow of poverty, I do feel that getting everything possible out of the things we own and buy would be a good thing for the for our society and the planet. My mom was a child of the depression era, and like many of her generation her mantra was “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”. My family lived this way for years out of necessity, and I have to say, I’m not happier now that I no longer have to. Living beyond our means has created a lot of trouble for us as individuals and as a society.

  • Aaron

    Right on! I totally admire your efforts. I need to do this in the worst way. A lot of us have way more than we need. If we worked a little less, lived a little more simply, and focused our attentions on the people in are lives rather than the stuff we’d be better off.

  • Semaj

    My girlfriend and I are doing something similar… it’s terrific to discover more people doing this kind of thing and to hear their stories. Thanks for publishing this.

    Our story is that we committed to “buy nothing NEW” in 2012 and to also purge stuff that we’re not needing anymore. The spirit of our experiment was a behavior change, lightening our load and also our frustration at how much “stuff” ends up in mini-storage and landfills. Both of us have also downsized our living spaces, and the initial report is “it feels great”.

    Buying nothing new, for the most part wasn’t that hard to adapt to. We quickly realized just how much influence our consumptive and convenience culture shaped our traditional buying habits. Like Britt, we have the exceptions – consumables, safety and “anything that touches your pink bits”, but for anything optional, we rarely buy and if we do, we go used.

    The real discovery has not been in the impact of lowering consumption, but just how hard (and expensive) it is to get rid of stuff, repair stuff and buy quality used stuff. A couple of examples:

    In downsizing, I had a very high end couch and chair I loved, but no longer needed. I decided that I would try a consignment shop. They came and picked them up and I set the price. It was my first time and what I didn’t realize, but later learned was that they could drop the price as low as they wanted. The pieces sold for 25% of the price I set, the shop took 55% of the sales price and I had to physically go to the store both to find out that they were sold and to demand a check (I was paid 5 months after they sold them). In essence, I got about 10% of what they were worth and had to fight to get my money and it took about 6 months. Next time? Craigslist.

    Last month, I needed a cooler to go camping. I checked Craigslist and eBay first, and there was nothing listed that suited my requirements. Made a couple stops at Goodwill, Pawn shops and used equipment stores (which, incidentally are dominated by new product). I finally found a 10 year old cooler and purchased it for 20 bucks. It took me about 3 hours, plus a good scrub in the tub (it was filthy)… just before hitting camp, went to buy some ice at the grocery and walked by a display of brand new coolers, same brand and size, with more features for $22.95. Still feel great about going used, but hard to justify the time/money/gas equation.

    We also got some of our gear repaired instead of replacing this season – a pair of snowboard pants that had a torn liner, a glove that had gotten melt-holes from the fireplace and a pair of ski pants that had a small split in them. Total cost – $140 (and 10 days without the gear). Could have easily bought a new pair of on-sale pants and gloves for that (it was end of season). Again, feel great we did this, but it’s easy to understand why there aren’t 5 shops that repair technical gear in every city and 24 hour turnaround. It’s both cheaper and more convenient to buy new and just throw it away.

    It’s been really interesting to really explore the used markets – consignment, Craigslist, pawn, goodwill, eBay – and to learn how inefficient and incomplete they are. There is an amazing amount of quality used stuff out there, it’s very time consuming to hunt down (but that’s part of the fun) and not as cheap as you might expect. The most frustrating thing is the inventory problem. Go to REI, there’s a 95% chance that anything you’d want is going to be in stock. Go to a used gear store and your odds of success are closer to 5%.

    One of the coolest discoveries has been Freecycle.org – it’s a 10 year old non-profit with 9 million worldwide members that operates on $140k/year. It’s an organized network of people that “recycle” their unused stuff back into the local community for $0. It’s pretty amazing. I’ve seen everything from mason jars and lampshades to printer cartridges and old laptops to queen sized beds and motorcycles swapped between members. In my city, there’s probably around 50 posts/day and almost everything is snapped up in 24-48 hours. It’s awesome to see stuff go to a good home and people engaging with each other in the local community this way. People literally swap addresses and leave stuff on the porch for each other.

    Maybe doing a full 1 year experiment/commitment like this doesn’t suit the personal situations of the folks reading this, but if the idea inspires you, why not try a smaller experiment. Maybe commit to purging a room in your house and get that stuff to a good home that needs or will use it. Or, go on a hunt for something that one of your kids really wants, but try to find the coolest used one you can find? I bet even simple mini-experiments like this will challenge you to reset the way you think about consumption and help you adjust your habits in a way that improve your life (and others).

  • Pepe

    Thank you, Britt, for inspiration. My year of buying nothing new started last September and so far I have been doing very well. I think I will prolong it for much longer ;)

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