We’re drowning in goods in the U.S., so I’m trying to see if I can go a month buying only food and toiletries. Join my challenge.
I’m drowning in a sea of newly minted, primary-colored plastic. Before my son was born, I was smugly confident about my ability to resist the new-baby buying frenzy. I sought out hand-me-downs and I scoured the internet for hyper-minimalist, must-have lists.
Six months in, all is lost. I’m embarrassed to admit how susceptible I am to any product that promises added convenience, significant development or (of course) more sleep.
But watching my husband break down a mountain of Amazon boxes the other night, I experienced a wave of panic, and not just because my bank account now seems permanently stuck on red. What about the hidden environmental costs of my recent online shopping spree?
As Alex patiently popped Bubble Wrap and wrestled with packing tape, I realized I had to quit cold turkey. In a fit of penance I logged onto Facebook and declared that I would buy nothing (except food and basic toiletries) for one full month.
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Within hours, 10 other people had joined the challenge.
“It’s become so easy to buy stuff now,” says Tom Watson of online shopping. He manages a recycling and environmental-services public-outreach program for King County. “It’s just so addictive, and almost every little thing comes in its own separate little box.”
It’s no secret that Americans consume more than their global share. Recent data from the Global Footprint Network shows that four earths would be needed to support American-level consumption by every person on the planet.
But we may be witnessing some resistance against the drumbeat of endless consumption. And our region, as known for its “green” identity as it is for global consumer brands, is part of the charge.
There’s the Buy Nothing Project (inspired by two Bainbridge Islanders and now globally replicated), which uses Facebook groups to encourage neighbors to share instead of buy, and recent protests at Starbucks headquarters highlighting the company’s waste-heavy practices.
“I wanted to test myself,” says my friend Sweta Saraogi, who joined me in my “Buy Nothing Month” challenge. She adds that the experience is already starting to get her thinking more about the global impact of her daily choices. “I realize I need to be thinking bigger … I need to be thinking about environmental mindfulness, too.”
But does an experiment like this really help in a country with some of the highest levels of unsustainable consumption in the world?
Watson, also of the “EcoConsumer” column, says it’s hard to measure the actual impact of this type of “waste-prevention experiment.” He explains that governments, researchers and environmentalists are constantly debating the correct criteria to measure the impact of what we do or don’t buy.
Regardless, he thinks it’s important for more people to find creative ways to engage with the issue of overconsumption.
“I really believe that it doesn’t help to be judgmental,” says Watson, who wants people to feel empowered, not criticized. “It’s great that rather than feeling guilty and talking about it … friends do something and experiment.”
To help us with that experiment, Watson says we’d do well to think about how not to throw anything away, as well as how not to buy anything. He recommends King County residents use the Repair Cafe, which helps bring “fixers” to communities to repair everything from ripped jeans to broken smartphones.
Saraogi, who grew up in India, says she already has some practice — reuse and repair was the standard of her childhood.
“Everything can be fixed in India; you never throw anything away,” she says. “Here in America, if it doesn’t work you throw it away. Who is going to spend the time to fix it?”
This philosophy has already been put to the test in the first few days of Buy Nothing Month. Saraogi says the pedestal for her electric fan broke and started making an annoying noise. But instead of tossing it, she figured out a way to jury-rig a new stand, and now it’s humming along just fine.
“Had it not been this ‘not-buying month,’ I would have totally bought a new fan,” says Saraogi, laughing. “It’s working, Sarah.”
But will it still be working in a month? Check back mid-August and we’ll see.