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.