Used stuff: Could you buy nothing new for one year?

Online editor Kristy Woudstra reflects on her experience of retail redux.

Photo; Ryan J Lane/iStockphoto

“Mama, is everything in this store new?” In 2010, this was a common question from my then-five-year-old daughter, Rory. I had committed to buying nothing new for the year. So, any time we entered a retail space, Rory liked to establish if she could even ask for something.

Her reaction was less than enthusiastic when I first proposed the idea. Actually, she looked at me as though I was a lunatic. “But we need things, Mama! Maybe we can do this next year. Or maybe somebody else can do it?” Most of all, she wanted to know why. As in: What on earth gave you such a crazy idea, and why are you making me do it, too?

My inspiration
Well, two of my friends had bought nothing new the year before (one even had a newborn!), so I knew it was possible. But for me, it wasn’t about saving money or being kinder to the environment. To put it simply: I needed to put my money where my mouth was and be a conscientious consumer. At that point, I had been working for an international humanitarian organization for 10 years, writing stories about the nearly three-billion people worldwide who survive on less than $2 a day.

In Niger, I interviewed a single mom of eight whose hut was collapsing, and she couldn’t afford to fix it. I watched barefoot children play with a ball made of plastic bags in Uganda. I believe we’re all connected, and I knew I was consuming goods that were likely made by those who had as little as the people I was writing about. Did I even need all this stuff, anyway? I wanted to put the brakes on the endless cycle of consumerism.

How we did it
Now, try explaining that to a five-year-old. Rory only started to warm to the concept when she understood the rules. Other than food, safety (helmets, car brakes) or hygienic items (makeup, toothbrush, underwear), we could only buy things that had been previously owned. So we could still buy stuff. It just had to be used stuff.

I thought the biggest challenge was going to be finding clothes. But I discovered an underground community of clothing swaps, bartering and garage sales, and a gold mine in a phenomenal Value Village where much more stylish people than me donate their cast-offs. I actually think we ended up dressing better than before!

I started to really enjoy the hunt, too. Sure, it took longer, but the search made the finds more rewarding than going to the mall. We moved to a house that had a serious lack of closets, so I spent hours on Craigslist trying to find furniture. It took a while, but I found it all: a gorgeous teak bookshelf for my office, a cute antique hutch to hold our linens and some dressers to store my daughter’s toys. I even met a lot of interesting, kind people in the process.

I also started making more stuff. Everyone got homemade birthday cards that year. I found a cheap wrought iron outdoor table and chair set that desperately needed a paint job. A friend gave me his leftover Tremclad and voila: We had a lovely dining space in our backyard for $50 and some elbow grease.

There is a downside
Did I cheat? Trust me, I was tempted. Some things are just really hard to find used, like salt for the walkways or an eyelash curler. (The idea of stealing that stuff even crossed my mind. After all, I wouldn’t be buying them.) Truth be told, we did cave once: for window air conditioners.

There was one downside to this whole experiment, though. Over the year, the monster I constantly have to subdue came out in all her glory: my inner pack rat. She froths at the mouth when she sees a cool vintage item. She gets all giddy at a great deal. And she comes out most often in second-hand stores and at garage sales. Suddenly, I realized I was consuming more than ever before. Sure, everything was used, but I was putting too much importance on things. What kind of example was that for my daughter?

Toward the end of the year, I set new rules. We were only allowed to go to second-hand stores once a month, and I could only buy things that were absolutely necessary.

I even considered a new resolution for 2011– a buy-nothing-at-all year. It didn’t happen, though. Even I knew my resolve could only go so far. Plus, I still needed that eyelash curler.

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