Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Breaking the Consumer Habit

Living the Buy Nothing Life

by Jenny Uechi (April 20 2007)

San Francisco, 1951.

A living room fills with warm laughter and the aroma of fresh-baked goodies. Suburban housewives walk around the room exchanging smiles, telling stories. It's like any other casual gathering, except for one twist: this is a Tupperware party, everyone is here to shop.

Painting over gray decades of war and depression with bright pastels, products like Tupperware ushered in a new era of prosperity, renewal and superabundance. Consumer goods like the television set and the Cadillac became more than just necessities for life: for millions of consumers, they were the essence of life itself.

Fast forward to 2005. A group of friends in the San Francisco Bay Area are meeting over a potluck dinner. Disillusioned by the endless consumer rat race, they are here to discuss how to not shop, to put an end to needless consumption. Taking the concept of Buy Nothing Day to the extreme, they have decided to attempt a full year without buying new products. Dubbing themselves "The Compact" after the Mayflower pledge at Plymouth Rock, the group vowed to limit their shopping to food, medicine and basic hygiene products, buying used wherever they could. Since the local news began covering them, their story has exploded, appearing everywhere from the Today Show to The Times of London. Today, with 8,000 new members and 55 subgroups worldwide - from regions as varied as Singapore and Iceland - the Compact are finding themselves at the forefront of the turning tide against consumer culture.

What the Compacters are doing is neither radical nor revolutionary; millions of people around the world live this way, and have lived this way for generations. Yet the Compact threatens and challenges everything that people have come to believe about "the good life" in the industrialized world. Reactions to the movement have been passionate, ranging from applause to outrage. Compact members have been accused of being "self-congratulatory braggarts" who are "destroying America's economy". One Compacter in Chilliwack, Canada, recalls friends reacting as if she had joined a Satanic cult. Love it or hate it, the Compact has made people question and the real motives behind their daily purchases.

"I used to shop to entertain myself", confesses Lori Wyndham Jolly, an American expat and Compacter living in Berkshire, UK. "I'd go into a record store and buy a whole load of discount CDs, or into a chemist and get a lot of cheap cosmetics ... I didn't do this because I needed any of that stuff, but just to fill the emptiness. I read a throwaway line in paperback once, but it's stuck with me: People shop because they're lonely."

"We're constantly on the drive to consume more stuff", says Rachel Kesel, a Bay Area Compacter who keeps a closely followed blog about her experiences. "It becomes a habit and not necessity".

The reasons why people join the Compact are varied. Some join to cut back on spending, others to reduce waste, still others to escape materialism and focus on spiritual values. One thing they all recognize is that shopping is not the solution to their problems - in fact, it may very well be the cause to many of them.

"Money and debts seem to be ruling our life", observes Ru'na Bjo"rg Gartharsdo'ttir, a Compacter in Iceland. She explains to Adbusters that she joined the Compact to escape what she calls the "vicious cycle" of consumerism - the chronic overwork to be able to spend more; the social disintegration resulting from overwork; the environmental damage caused by consumer waste; conflict over resources to supply consumer demand. In other words, a myriad of problems loosely bound by the innocent desire for an iPod or a luxury car collection.

It is no coincidence that the emergence of the Compact coincides with the rising popularity of the down-shifting and environmental movements. People throughout the developed world have realized that, unlike our psychological desires - which are infinite - our physiology and environmental resources have limits. Our body can't handle eighty-hour workweeks on a 6,000-calorie-per-day diet, no more than our earth can handle cities like New York producing 12,000 tons of solid waste every single day, or the hundreds of millions of discarded cell phones that release cancer-causing toxins into the air. Something, someday, will have to give.

For now, most Compacters defensively state that their choice is a strictly "personal" one and that they have no political agenda. Yet they continue to stir up discontent by turning their back on a sacred ideal, the belief shared by billions around the world that "more" is better than "just enough". Marketers are hoping this is a fringe movement. The signs point elsewhere. According to recent surveys by sociologist Juliet Schor, 81 percent of Americans believe their country is too focused on shopping, while nearly ninety percent believe it is too materialistic. Newspapers such as USA Today received record reader responses when columnist Craig Wilson swore off shopping for a full year. Radical anti-consumers such as the Freegans (people who survive on discarded food and products) are proving that people can survive off the waste of affluent consumers.

Gartharsdo'ttir, for her part, speaks with some pride when people tell her that her refusal to shop will shake her country's economy. "It shows clearly the strong influence the marketing forces currently have on the nation", she says. "We should rule our lives and decide what comes first".


Compact's blog is at

Bill Totten


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