Here is the story that will appear in Saturday's paper (written by me.) It's about one of my neighbours who I've written about before -- the ever-inspiring Mary-Margaret. I secretly think she's turning into too much of a media prostitute though and might have to cut her off soon. (Her two children appeared on the front page of The Saturday Star recently for a story on homework, of all things.)
Skip to the bottom, if you want to get right to the challenge.
Not counting ingestibles, this is all Mary-Margaret McMahon bought last month: stamps, heat packs for her purple, throbbing fingers, and a book on garbage she uses to teach children in schools about composting.
Her friend Karen Ingham has her beat. The only thing she purchased, shiny and new? A cane. “Does that count, since it is a medical device?” she asks in a confessional e-mail.
They’re part of a dozen east-end friends who pledged to not buy anything new for all of February.
No new dresses. No body lotion. No Valentines Day cards.
“The motto was `less stuff, more fun,’” says McMahon, a mother of two known affectionately as the “eco-witch” of her Danforth-Woodbine neighbourhood. “Consumption is terrible for the planet. All this stuff uses a lot of energy — creating it makes pollution, selling it, then using it and disposing of it. Do we really need it? Does it make us happy?”
The neighbourhood posse of mothers is part of a growing movement around the world that’s unplugging from the consumer grid. Instead of buying green, or buying recycled, they’re just not buying.
The idea started around a San Francisco dinner table three Christmases ago. After the discussion turned to how most Christmas gifts end up in the garbage, the group decided to participate in a social experiment. They would spend a year not shopping for anything new. At all. With a few obvious exceptions – food and drink, health essentials like medication, and safety musts, like new bicycle brake pads so coming to a stop didn’t mean diving for grass at every stop sign.
They called themselves `The Compact’ after the Mayflower Compact, signed by the pilgrims arriving to New England more than three centuries ago bent on building a new pure community. But that was tongue-in-cheek. What motivated most of them was the idea of living a less cluttered, more compact life. (As in trash compacter.) And contributing less to their country’s ever-growing landfills.
“It’s not easy for me to shop and feel good about it – engaging in mindless consumption,” says 27-year-old Rachel Kesel, one of the original Compacters who two years later, is still not shopping.
The idea hit an international nerve. From that dining room, the group found themselves on the Today Show and Good Morning America – deflecting criticism of their small plan as unpatriotic. And a movement was born, with new recruits joining their small on-line Yahoo group. Today, more than 8,000 people from as far as Australia and Taiwan have joined and committed to the same principles.
The idea’s appeal, says Kesel, is it's easy portability – anyone can do it. It’s also a one-stop shop for addressing global problems – sweatshop labour, climate change, deforestation, mining, she says. “People have a lot of anxiety about the future of the planet,” says Kesel, a professional dog-walker. “The compact allows you to address your own anxiety.”
Every week, Torontonians chucked more than five kilograms of garbage each in 2006. That’s not counting all the waste we recycled and composted. Over a year, that adds up to more than 280 kilograms of trash – on average – each. Across the country, each of us fill 30 green garbage bags a year with our garbage, according to Statistics Canada.
And for every garbage bin we pack, another 70 were packed to produce all that stuff we’re throwing out. That’s right: 70. A single gold wedding ring gleaming in a store window has a trail of 20 tonnes of mine waste, according to Annie Leonard.
She’s an environmental activist who spent 18 years digging through dumps and factories in places like Bangladesh and Haiti researching the international dumping of garbage for environmental groups like GreenPeace and Health Care Without Harm.
After three years of lecturing on the destructive nature of the disposable consumer culture, she condensed her talk into a 20-minute free on-line video called “The Story of Stuff” which is has become an underground hit – averaging 15,000 new views every day.
In it, Leonard shows how most stuff we buy is made to break or seem run-down and old fairly quickly, in order to keep us buying more. She calls it planned and perceived obsolescence – terms coined first by U.S. industrial designer Brooks Stevens in 1954 — and she reveals how it’s been enshrined not only in North American culture, but economic policy since the 1950s.
“It was a combination of the government and industry groups that decided to push excessive consumerism as the defining force in American culture, which includes where people gets their self-fulfillment,” Leonard says in an interview from her office in Berkeley, California.
But instead of fulfillment, North Americans are decidedly more miserable than they were 60 years ago, she says – trapped in a culture of trying to buy shiny new versions of happiness predestined to break.
Is not shopping the answer? Most compacters say it has given them more free time.
“It’s amazing how much time it takes to buy stuff,” says Judith Levine, a New York journalist who spent a year signed off not only stores, but movie theatres and restaurants for her book Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping. “You can spend three hours searching for a new printer part.”
Leonard says instead of requiring more work, her experiment with the Compact was relaxing. “I felt like I just got rid of a part-time job. I didn’t realize how draining it was to pay attention and stay engaged in the work-watch-spend treadmill. It’s exhausting,” says Leonard, who lives in a neighbourhood that shares ladders, yard equipment and even a pick-up truck.
Many say the unexpected benefit was feeling more connected to a community.
Less time shopping means more time in parks and libraries. It also means more borrowing, which requires getting to know your neighbours.
McMahon’s experiment proved exactly that, she said. She wanted a toilet seat for a presentation on recycled toilet paper. She put out an e-mail to her group of friends and voilà, she had two. When one member of the group needed special cake pans for a photo shoot, they were offered up by a neighbour. A request went out for Velcro stickers. Sure enough, they arrived.
“None of us are deprived. We’re living very well,” says Kesel, who sports second-hand rain gear for her wetter walks. “You can even find an iPhone used now. The fact that people are throwing things out at such a rapid rate is one of the reasons we found we could do this.”
There are times you have to get creative, she admits. For McMahon, it was a birthday party her 10-year-old son Liam was invited to. Instead of buying a present, she baked a lemon-poppy seed cake, the birthday boy’s favourite. And she sent along vouchers for nine others like it.
Next year, she hopes to convince her posse to extend the consumer fast to a whole season or even six months.
“It’s made all of us more mindful,” she says.
Starting today though, she’s free to shop new again. What does she plan on buying?
“I don’t really need anything,” says McMahon, 41. “Maybe a haircut.”
The Challenge: Join the Compact for a week.
Motivation: Watch The Story of Stuff. It's a free 20-minute online video that will open your eyes to the damage of our disposable consumer culture.
Process: Don’t buy anything new – other than food, medical supplies or safety essentials. You can shop all you want at Value Village or the Goodwill, though.
Cost: Perfectly nothing.
Savings: It depends on how much of a shopaholic you are. Over the year she spent abstaining from shopping for her book Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, New York journalist Judith Levine paid down her $8,000 credit card debt.
If you think this is hard-core, check out No Impact Man. He spent a year not only not shopping, but not driving, not using electricity, not even taking the subway.
-- Catherine Porter
On Patricia's sage advice, here is the webiste for Freecycle in Toronto -- it's a kind of free Craig's List.