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A Year of Living Better

Whistler couple's no-shopping experiment opens doors to more sustainable consumption

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He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.

-Socrates

In December 2017, I happened upon an opinion article in The New York Times entitled "My Year of No Shopping." It concerned an intriguing personal project during which the author, Ann Patchett, self-imposed guidelines to limit her purchases for an entire year. I may have been joking when I started the ball rolling by suggesting to my girlfriend, Asta, that we try something similar, but when she took me up on it, we had no recourse but to commit.

We may have agreed so easily because the idea wasn't as "out there" as it initially sounded. Being curious people by nature, here was an experiment that didn't require time or money, but a subtle reshaping of thoughts about, and approach to, our relationship with things.

We knew that even for people of comparatively modest means in a relatively affluent area, it was still easy to overlook how much we actually consumed. Neither of us was an avid shopper. Nevertheless, being someone who otherwise prefers to obtain necessary items as quickly and painlessly as possible, I can also engage in collecting, while Asta is prone to occasional spontaneous purchases and "creative" browsing. Thus, like most folks, we experience a constant accumulation of items—an extra shirt here, the odd book there, more paintbrushes than an art class could ever use—leading to significant time spent purging ourselves of extraneous items that simply aren't being used.

Already advocates of the Reject (don't buy), Reduce (buy less), Re-use (pre-owned), Recycle (life after use), and Re-imagine (is there another way?) ethos, there were plenty of environmental, cultural and personal reasons to sign on to such a quest. At its core, this was a sustainability exercise ultimately aimed at making wiser decisions around consumption.

Thus, around Christmas 2017—perhaps in part because of it—we found ourselves committing to a Jan. 1 start date. It was a quiet decision: no preparations, no inventory of needs, no pre-purchases, no thinking ahead, no firing a start gun. As of New Year's Day, there would be no non-essential material purchases (keep reading to see what this meant) for 365 days.

A few days into January, our CD player/radio of a decade bit the dust, a first pair of underwear fatally failed, an arm snapped off Asta's eyeglasses, and the zipper on my daily-use laptop case unravelled into unrepairable chaos. We had decided to go for a swim in a pool of uncertain consequence.

It was going to be a long year.

Wading In

It's not as if I kept a ledger and took the money I didn't spend on perfume and gave that money to the poor, but I came to a better understanding of money as something we earn and spend and save for the things we want and need. Once I was able to get past the want and be honest about the need, it was easier to give more of my money to people who could really use it. For the record, I still have more than plenty. I know there is a vast difference between not buying things and not being able to buy things.

- Ann Patchett, "My Year of No Shopping," The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2017

When, following a friend's lead, Patchett began her quest, she'd laid out an arbitrary set of rules: "I wanted a plan that was serious but not so draconian that I would bail out in February, so, while I couldn't buy clothing or speakers, I could buy anything in the grocery store, including flowers. I could buy shampoo and printer cartridges and batteries but only after I'd run out of what I had. I could buy plane tickets and eat out in restaurants. I could buy books because I write books and I co-own a bookstore and books are my business."

Cait Flanders, an author formerly based in Squamish, embarked on her own shopping ban in 2014, turning it into a two-year project. She documented her experiences online, blogging about finances, emotional triggers for spending, and pursuing a more sustainable lifestyle. Her site gained a substantial following and she turned her experiences into the 2018 self-help memoir, The Year of Less, which became a Wall Street Journal bestseller. At the end of her challenge, she distributed a survey to readers, 379 of whom turned out to have been inspired to begin their own shopping ban. While results varied—some lasted weeks, others the full year—no one regretted the decision to try a shopping ban. Top reasons cited were a desire to: 1) become a more conscious consumer; 2) save money, and; 3) learn to enjoy what they already owned. Almost 70 per cent of respondents found the ban relatively easy to adhere to.

When we finally set down the parameters of our own effort (at about 11:55 p.m. on New Year's Eve), our blueprint was similar to Patchett's ad hoc rules, but slightly more restrictive, demanding more creativity on our parts: 1) the purchase of clothing, hardware, books or electronics was not allowed—including previously owned items—unless specifically required for work (as determined through a needs test); 2) replacements for failed items deemed luxuries (i.e., that could be done without) were not allowed; 3) batteries could be replaced, but first with those from other items not in use, until options ran out; 4) exceptions to item/battery replacements were health and safety equipment; 5) travel (transport, accommodation), eating out, ticketed events, and virtual products (i.e. apps, eBooks, software, etc. with an applied use—no gaming or entertainment) were OK; 6) toiletries (within reason) and items related to alimentation (e.g. food, drink, plants, seeds) were allowed; 7) donations were OK and encouraged (with provisos) and; 8) anything that seemed like an exception would require discussion and agreement on a case-by-case basis.

We didn't imagine we'd be consulting this litany for a while. Of course, we were wrong.

The Shallow End

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.

-Victor Lebow, Council of Economic Advisers to U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, 1955

Before we got too far into it, conversations led us to acknowledge a few uncomfortable things. First, there was inherent privilege in voluntarily choosing not to shop. We have a safe place to live, are both self-employed, older, white, and own many things that can be used. In my case, 30 years as an outdoor and adventure travel writer has meant the accumulation of review clothing and outdoor equipment, enough that I have a choice on any given day. Rather than handicap that privilege, however, we chose to see it as even more reason for actively lowering consumption—after all, gifted items still bear an environmental cost.

Taking on a project like this (and, though unplanned, eventually writing about it) wasn't intended to come across as a crusade or recommendation; it was understood that everyone lives and works in different circumstances—some dire, some affluent—that create the context within which they can act. Instead, talking about what we were doing was more about sharing the spirit of a year-long personal experiment; an adventure, if you will—and Whistlerites can relate to adventure.

Practically speaking, we had enough stuff to stop buying, but it also made emotional sense to take a pause and meet the reality of the life that was already here. With this came the implicit need to identify items already purchased and reconcile whether they were or weren't playing helpful roles in our lives. In effect, rethinking owned items built a case for not obtaining more, and for significantly culling what was there and might be more useful to others—a double win.

The first hurdle was breaking the habit of impulse or unconscious buying, even to support a good cause. Our first discussion was over my desire to support a Kickstarter campaign for an innovative musical accessory; I argued it was a donation, but that was a weak argument if one received a physical product, so it was out. On the other hand, when our radio went down in early January, there was no discussion. This was exactly the kind of test we expected; all music/broadcasts for the rest of the year were played through phones, laptops and Bluetooth accessories fortuitously already owned (privilege check); we couldn't listen to our CDs, but it wasn't hard to do without.

Gifts to others were either handmade, repurposed, consumable (wine, home canning, garden produce), or monetary—cash to start an RESP, the cost of a birthday dinner, airline points, gift cards, donations to a charity, etc.

Both avid readers, we read (and re-read) many of the books languishing on our shelves, and the Whistler Public Library saw frequent visits. I was lucky to also receive books to review for magazines and as part of my work for the Whistler Writers Festival.

The details around our own personal purchase predilections were more specific.

Asta wears a uniform while working as an RMT, a job typically hard on such clothing; fortunately, while minor repairs were made, none wore out fully during the year. Her biggest challenges were resisting the urge to purchase art supplies and workshops, or swing by the Re-Use-It Centre to see if there was anything interesting on the shelves. With the help of the Whistler Eye Clinic, she eventually had her glasses (broken in early January) welded back together in Vancouver, and so was only forced to wear one-armed glasses for six months. None of our restrictions felt drastic until her swimsuit bottoms were lost. Being in the midst of a quest for a daily swim, this was serious. Following discussion, it was clear that after two weeks of substituting underwear as bathing-suit bottoms, this wasn't a suitable (or appropriate) permanent solution and so it was agreed that a bathing suit should be purchased. She chose a single-piece from a progressive Vancouver company (Nettle's Tale) that designs and produces their own suits in the city.

Although I was encumbered by the ban on books (used as research for my own writing), less troublesome was the ban on things I bought more regularly: t-shirts (I have plenty), and flip-flops (old pairs were dragged back out and "refurbished"). But other items started to go awry at an unrecognizable rate—or perhaps at the same rate, except we were now more conscious of it. The broken zipper on a laptop case was easily solved with a flap of duct tape that could last a month or two before having to be replaced. A bedside lamp broke but instead of buying anew, was replaced with one from the living room—rendering that space a shade darker the remainder of the year. My only purchase exception also required discussion, but unlike Asta's swimsuit dilemma, it was work-related.

A story assignment involving a six-day trek along the Jordan Trail last May required hiking boots, and I hadn't owned a pair for a year and a half since donating my last to a trekking guide in Myanmar; an old pair of beat-up runners that had been a substitute for hiking around Whistler wouldn't cut it for what research showed to be a difficult hike across a scorching moonscape of broken rock and friable soil. The question: Were hiking boots a legitimate work purchase? We decided that rather than me travelling halfway around the world to find out we were wrong, the answer had to be yes; there was a safety aspect, and boots would doubtless be required for other work-related assignments and would also make a significant difference in planning recreational options over the coming years. This was a long-term strategic replacement.

Nevertheless, as the year wore on, so did clothing and other items. All were managed and only a few lamented. Someone mentioned to Asta how the stitched knee patches of her pants were currently fashionable, but after hand-mending failed seams multiple times, it began to feel like a strong wind could tear them off. Wool socks were darned, and then re-darned. Her old rain-and-winter gumboots developed a seam crack that resulted in either a wet foot or game of puddle-dodging when walking to work. For Asta, things were also starting to feel stylistically sloppy. My hiking shorts blew out completely and had to be discarded; other shorts and pants developed holes and threadbare parts but were similarly repaired or worn as was. A limited supply of underwear began to show signs of collective breakdown midway through the year—it seemed a pair had to be disposed of almost monthly, and a pack of three purchased a few years earlier all started to wear down in the same way and in the same embarrassing places. By the time our year was over, I was down to two reasonably functional pairs, with intact waistband and no personal bits hanging out.

In the end, frugal folks would be correct to say none of this was a big deal, just the normal pattern when you fully utilize an article of clothing, but it was a bit of an adjustment for people used to replacing goods before they became completely ragged.

Going Deeper

An economic conversation dominated by continuous growth fails to take account of our understanding of what motivates and enriches people, and the 'safe operating space for humanity' that we might carefully carve out within planetary boundaries. A different vision of economics is called for, where economies grow less or very differently, one that develops a more integrated picture of social and material aspects to facilitate holistic health. Such a shift is also essential for human well-being. Beyond the point at which basic needs are met, a growth in levels of consumption adds little to well-being, and even undermines it. Not only that, but a materialistic mindset has been shown to work against two hallmarks of psychological health and high quality of life: closer interpersonal relationships and connection with others.

- Kate Fletcher, U.K.-based researcher, author, consultant and design advocate

We had approached the project simply as something interesting to attempt. It felt important not to view it as a form of punishment, denial or environmental penance, but an experience of curiosity—like embarking on a trip.

In the end, the routine of making do with what we had was easier to accept than either of us had thought. Perhaps because we weren't big consumers to start, or, more likely, because it wasn't hard, didn't interfere much with life, and just plain made sense. But there were several other added, unexpected benefits.

When we started to see clearly what we did and didn't use, it encouraged us to purge even more than usual, and we were soon making weekly donations to the Re-Use-It Centre. More importantly, underneath the experience rippled the realization that no purchase, home-improvement project, or gear update would fundamentally change our lives; we had to do the personal work and create an attitude shift in ourselves in order to relax and enjoy what was already in front of us. It can be pricey to participate in Whistler culture, but our beautiful town and wilderness is also full of simple pleasures that are often overlooked; once you have shoes on your feet, hiking is free, and jumping in a cold lake is the ultimate summer (or winter) rush. Because paying for experiences was OK, we spent more time optimizing those: a hiking trip to the Sunshine Coast, a rafting trip in the Chilcotin; if there was a need to buy or rent something for trips, we simply borrowed it.

Another change: Suddenly, more important than the mechanics of not buying anything was the ethos engendered around those things we did buy. It wasn't exactly a hundred-mile diet, but we came close buying fruits and vegetables largely from B.C., with a particular focus on Pemberton. There were farmers' markets, Local Goods Company, and SPUD.ca to help; we bought our beer from Coast Mountain Brewing and preferentially drank B.C. wine and spirits. We got an extra plot at the community garden and doubled our food output. House plants weren't allowed but we propagated more from what we had, greening our house.

Like many Whistlerites, we already took our own shopping bags to the store, but we'd added washable cotton mesh bags for loose vegetables and herbs, eschewing the plastic bags on a roll that grocery stores provide (they could provide compostable bags like the ones Carney's provides for collecting organic waste in homes). Two years before, we'd also purchased reusable beeswax wraps for fruit, vegetables, and unfinished food stored in the refrigerator. We re-used Ziploc bags over and over (easy to wash). We rarely touched regular "wraps," and boxes of Saran wrap and aluminum foil in our cupboard are now three years old. Thanks to the Resort Municipality of Whistler's new waste streams and organic collection, we recycled and diverted even more, to the point where we were throwing out a grocery-store sized garbage bag only every three to four weeks.

Confronting your own consumerism is gaining momentum, with a variety of similar challenges occurring worldwide. Some are personal, others community-based. Perhaps best known is "Buy Nothing Day," which was started in the early 1990s by Vancouver artist Ted Dave and promoted widely by Adbusters as a way to challenge the Black Friday shopping frenzy (it was renamed "Occupy Xmas" in 2011). While that particular campaign is a seasonal challenge, some online communities are looking for longer-term engagement. Movements like the #ByeBuyChallenge now sweeping the ethical fashion community on Instagram encourage people to commit to a timeframe of no-shopping and engage in a certain level of self-reflection about their habits. Sites such as buynothingproject.org are dedicated to connecting members through what they call "hyper-local gift communities" where the ethos "Buy Nothing, Give Freely, Share Creatively" is encouraged. By plugging people into their town or neighbourhood through Facebook groups, gifts of talent, time or material items can be donated or requested. Whistler doesn't have a formal group yet, but perhaps soon.

The popularity of the recently released Tidying Up with Marie Kondo series on Netflix has people examining their own home and belongings with renewed interest. Does this spark joy? Not everything needs to, but it's an interesting lens through which to try and view our lives with a slightly altered perspective.

The Water is Fine—Come On In

I keep imagining a tradition I'd like to invent. After you're established in your career, and you have some neat stuff in your house, you take a whole year in which you don't start anything new or acquire any new possessions you don't need. No new hobbies, equipment, games, or books are allowed during this year. Instead, you have to find the value in what you already own or what you've already started. You improve skills rather than learning new ones. You consume media you've already stockpiled instead of acquiring more.

-David Cain, writing about his "Depth Year" on raptitude.com

We are still reflecting on our many takeaways from this experience. 

To begin, despite what all our friends thought—What are you going to buy now that you have a chance?—the urge to rush out and buy  wasn't there, or at least it is now more resistible. As of this writing, a few weeks into the year, only a Moleskin journal and a new book have been procured, both from local bookstore, Armchair Books (not Amazon!). The new Re-Use-It-Centre on Nesters Road was visited to replace Asta's pants, and a trip to Squamish in the near future will take care of my notoriously irritating underwear. 

Although we didn't do this challenge for financial results, Asta's savings rates grew to roughly 50 per cent of her annual income. Not shopping wasn't as challenging as we (or others) expected, and, in fact, felt liberating. The desire to square up actions with values bled into other areas of life, and it all felt great. There's a long way to go and always more to learn, but we are fully embracing the idea of conscious consumerism as we make future purchases, buying local when possible and supporting companies whose standards of practice we can stand behind. And we will go deeper into the questions and conversations this topic brings up for us. That might be the new theme. And it also seems to be gaining momentum.

When raptitude.com writer David Cain posted an article about taking on a "Depth Year," he wasn't expecting the huge public uptake it engendered. Yet the guiding philosophy of "Go deeper, not wider"—drilling down for value and enrichment instead of fanning out—seemed to hit a nerve that drew many to attempt their own challenge.

With accountability, a full stop to buying was the easiest part of our own project, but browsing online and in stores also proved a habit that needed breaking. When Asta found herself filling up virtual shopping carts in mid-November and then dumping them for fun, it offered opportunity for introspection. Why do this after 10 months? Rainy-day boredom and a casual desire for something new? Hard to say, but it made one thing clear: By reducing your shopping, you naturally reclaim time spent making decisions, entertaining yourself, researching, physically shopping, and the occasional regret-return cycle.

Tim Kasser, professor, psychologist and author of The High Price of Materialism, offers these tips to people wanting to shift away from a consumerist lifestyle: 1) limit exposure to advertising, unsubscribe to company catalogues and emails and unfollow personalities who are trying to sell you anything; 2) shift your viewpoint on advertising to acknowledge that their end goal isn't necessarily to improve your life but to influence you to spend money; 3) focus on developing other values; materialism has been shown to suppress pro-social values such as altruism, sharing, volunteering, helping, caregiving and cooperation. 

After all, regardless of what tradition we were each brought up in, aren't those things that we've all been taught to aspire to anyway?

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