Was It Worth It?

March 21, 2012

Wrapping Up, Part 3

“I wonder whether cutting back my personal consumption will do anything more than make me feel better. Is not buying part of the solution—to anything?” Judith Levine, Not Buying It

“You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” William Blake

I spent some time last week scanning through my posts from 2011—which, with the engagement, wedding, and trip to France, turned out to be a pretty big year for me. In addition to all that fun stuff, I learned a ton. I learned about the outrageous quantity of pesticides sprayed on imported cut flowers. I learned where to find used stuff in my community. I learned how to be a courteous bike commuter. I learned about the growing, mining, and manufacturing involved not just in food, toiletry, and cleaning supply production, but also in packaging, clothing, electronics, furniture, and media production. I discovered new ways to avoid food waste. I rediscovered my interest in writing. I evaluated my use of time, set new priorities, created a calendar, and stuck to my savings plan. And all because of the No Stuff Experiment.

Above I quote from Judith Levine’s book, Not Buying It: “Is not buying part of the solution—to anything?” I’d say, yes, it is. For me, the No Stuff Experiment was a solution to consumer apathy. It was at times a wake-up call (like when I researched cotton farming), at times a refresher lesson (the cleaning product post). It forced me to take a hard look at my values and priorities and to make choices accordingly. Yes, I cheated here and there, and yes, the NSE rules were more lax than are rules for other shopping fasts. As a discerning reader, you are free to fault me for the flaws of my experiment.

And, yet, in spite of those flaws I came away with some important life lessons:

I can’t force my lifestyle onto other people—nor should I. Although, by the end of the year, I was alone in my commitment to the rules of the Experiment, I did this thing with the help and support of many of my closest friends and family. And I think it wore on some of them. I know it wore on Channing. I probably asked a little too much of him in the beginning. I asked not only that he not buy me gifts but also that he not by anything new for our shared home. I told him we couldn’t buy firewood for warming the living room on cold winter nights (remember when we used to have those?); I told him he couldn’t buy me roses for Valentine’s Day; I told him we couldn’t get a new couch. He was displeased but bore with me—for the first few months, anyway. Then the whole engagement thing happened.

Well, eventually, I stopped reminding/nagging Channing (and everyone else) about the Experiment. Shoving the responsibility of respecting my wacky rules onto others just started to seem rude and generally made me unhappy. I rediscovered that the best way to influence others is not with force but with information. Although ultimately none of the readers I’ve spoken to are interested in doing their own shopping fast, every one of them has found tidbits on the blog that convinced them to change one or two tiny aspects of their lives—or that at least made them think about their own consumer choices. That’s pretty huge.

I have way, way, way too much stuff. In December I borrowed a book from Melissa titled Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston. This book is full of practical advice, a lot of which I’ve heard elsewhere, and yet it completely rebooted my thinking about clutter. About halfway through Kingston’s book, I realized I had a lot more decluttering to do, and I made this known to Channing. He said, “Haven’t we gotten rid of a lot of stuff already?” Yeah, we have. But…

Think for a moment about all the stuff in your house that you haven’t touched in a month or three months or six months or a whole year. Channing and I have tons of stuff like this—including stuff we haven’t even thought about since we moved in, in 2010: the plastic utensils collected from takeout orders in a kitchen drawer, the extra cheese grater, the serving trays we never use, all the pens and rubber bands in the office (you know, the office I just cleared out in October), the gigantic box of memorabilia from my trip to Australia in 2001—2001!

I know the husband and I won’t get around to clearing this stuff out anytime soon. And you know what?  That’s OK. I am happy, though, that thanks to the Experiment I have become aware of the abundance available to me in my own home. This awareness has made trips to stores like Target, Michael’s, and Office Depot a lot less frequent.

It’s my life. Based on the conversations I had with my Voluntary Simplicity group, I don’t think I’m alone in occasionally feeling like I have no control over how I spend my time. It used to be that when professional, social, and personal commitments piled up, I would either get angry or break down. But these days it’s easier to take a step back and examine why I’m overbooked (the Google calendar helps with this too). Which activities do I want to continue, and which are no longer aligned with my priorities and values?

At the start of this year, I had planned to tackle two major projects: train for a half Ironman and expand my freelance editing business. I quickly realized that spending ten or fifteen hours training every week would not allow much time for the editing business. I am still working a full-time job, after all. So, I had to make a decision about which activity was more important to me. The No Stuff Experiment prepared me to do just that. (For more about the time issue, see my earlier posts in this category.)

I will do this again. OK, so I successfully completed the No Stuff Experiment when I had few responsibilities outside of putting in eight hours at the office every day and paying some bills. What would this thing look like if I were a bit older, lived in a different city or a bigger house, had a kid or two? What would I learn if I gave up the restaurant meals, movie tickets, and consignment shopping in addition to new nonessential material goods? The No Stuff Experiment is something I want to come back to every few years, like a detox or cleanse program for my inner consumer. I’ll have to tweak the rules to accommodate lesson #1 above, of course, but I’m sure I can come up with some new guidelines that will similarly stimulate creativity, problem-solving skills, and self-reflection. Seems like a useful tool for the future me.

Thanks, everyone, for your attention and patience these last fifteen months. I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did. I’m looking forward to starting my new blog project, The Rosy Skillet, in the fall of 2012, and I hope you all will join me there. I may also post on No Stuff Experiment every now and again as I come across new information about consumption, clutter, and stuff.

(Or At Least for Several More Years)

The other day I read a short article about the projected 2012 release of the iPad 3. This new iteration of the iPad sounds pretty fabulous: sleeker design, better graphics, wireless charging and data transfer technology, etc. I thought to myself, “Hey, I’ll be buying things next year; maybe it’s time for an upgrade.”

Then I remembered my green values—and this short video on electronic waste by Annie Leonard.

Not only does Apple release newer, faster, better versions of its iPods, iPhones, and iPads with astonishing frequency, but it also makes these devices somewhat difficult to maintain. A month ago I took my iPod Mini to the recycler because I couldn’t figure out how to change the battery, which (as most of you probably realize) is sealed inside seemingly impenetrable casing. To be honest, I didn’t even think of replacing the battery until I started researching this post. I’m just that accustomed to the idea that consumer electronics are meant to be replaced, not repaired. Shame on me.

You see, folks, I have grown up in a country where planned obsolescence is the norm. Consumer electronics manufacturers design products or time product updates so that consumers continually spend money on their wares. This strategy is a big problem because most TVs, personal computers, tablets, cell phones, music players, and e-readers are full of various hazardous chemicals, such as lead, PVC, mercury, arsenic, and flame retardants, which have been linked to reproductive disorders and several cancers.* The more gadgets we buy, the more of these chemicals we introduce into our homes and offices—and the more e-waste we create by replacing our obsolete machines.

Twenty-five million tons of e-waste is generated every year. More often than not, this waste is dumped or burned, so in the disposal process all those toxins are released into our air, soil, and waterways. “Well, I recycle my old electronics,” you say. When you choose an electronics recycling program, make sure you do your research. About 70 to 80 percent of the waste given to e-cyclers is shipped overseas, where workers mine the machines for precious metals and then burn the rest. To ensure that your old gadgets are disposed of properly, choose a recycler certified by e-Stewards or conduct your own investigation using this list of questions.

In addition to the problems of toxins and disposal, we must consider the resources consumed as manufacturers create new machines to replace the obsolete ones. As The Daily Green put it, “Our insatiable appetite for stuff drives carbon emissions and pollution.” According to the Product Policy Institute (PPI), the provision and use of products and packaging accounts for 44 percent of U.S. global warming emissions (this statistic covers all consumer goods, not just electronics). The bulk of these emissions occur during the production phase, from materials extraction to manufacturing. PPI concludes that reducing consumption—by repairing broken items, going without, or steering clear of whatever hot new product is making your own stuff look outdated (you do not need that iPhone 5!)—offers the largest opportunity to combat global warming. Well, isn’t that interesting.

On that note, it turns out that a quick Internet search would’ve illuminated the process of changing my iPod Mini battery for myself. Had I known that five years ago, when the thing mysteriously stopped working, I may still be rocking a cute, pink, 4GB antique (or maybe the battery wasn’t the problem?). I will keep this in mind when my replacement iPod (which, at four years old, is still going strong) and my iPad start getting wonky on me.

I don’t mean to single out Apple as the only company—or consumer electronics as the only industry—that indulges in planned obsolescence. The practice has been around since the 1930s, and even light bulb manufacturers do it (see item 9). I don’t think any of our light bulbs have burned out this year (although Channing may have replaced them on the sly), but I have experienced planned obsolescence in the fashion arena. Recall that post in the spring about my urge to update my wardrobe with some newer styles. And then there’s Channing’s continual search for a fast and shiny new car and a bigger TV.

Still, with the constant barrage of updates to computer operating systems, phone networks, gaming systems, and sundry gadgetry, it’s hard not to isolate the electronics industry as an egregious offender. Once again, I’ll close with the moral “Think before you buy.”

Unless otherwise cited, facts are from Annie Leonard’s The Story of Electronics. If you have ten minutes to spare, please consider watching this video and sharing it with your friends.

For (excellent) tips on repairing various household items, see The Daily Green. While there you might also check out this list of things you didn’t know you could rent.

*Apple and other companies have started monitoring and reducing the amount of toxins in their products, as my friend Sarah pointed out in a comment on an earlier post. See this link.

Checking In

November 18, 2011

Although I haven’t been writing much lately, I have been thinking a lot about the No Stuff Experiment. This year has been full of what-does-it-all-mean moments. What am I actually getting out of this shopping fast? Am I happier or more productive or more conscientious? (Is being happier, productive, and conscientious inherently good?) Has this endeavor been worth it?

As you might gather from the nature of these questions, my motivation has been waning of late. I’m still anxious to simplify, to limit the number of advertisements I see and the amount of crap I bring into my home or office, but my “I can’t; I’m not buying anything” excuse is starting to feel less enthusiastic and more like a burden.

In the last six weeks or so, I’ve ripped a couple pairs of hose and broken the handle off my flat iron. The flat iron still works because none of the internal wires/cords were severed (in fact, these cords are what’s keeping the handle attached to the iron), and so I’ve continued use it, though this requires a little finesse. But if I were buying things, I would replace both the hose and the flat iron—and I probably will replace them next year—which, when I think about it long enough, inevitably leads me to the question, If I’m just going to replace them anyway, why not do it today? Hence my dwindling enthusiasm.

But yesterday afternoon I came across a Matt Taibbi editorial about Occupy Wall Street in the November 24 issue of Rolling Stone that, despite its clichéd title (but who am I to judge?), reminded me why I wanted to do this thing to begin with. Here’s the relevant text:

Occupy Wall Street was always about something much bigger than a movement against big banks and modern finance. It’s about providing a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything. This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. . . .

There was a lot of snickering in media circles, even by me, when I heard the protesters talking about how Liberty Square was offering a model for a new society, with free food and health care and so on. Obviously, a bunch of kids taking donations and giving away free food is not a long-term model for a new economic system.

But now, I get it. People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something. It may not be a real model for anything, but it’s at least a place where people are free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along, beyond auctioned ‘democracy,’ tyrannical commerce and the bottom line.

OK, clearly this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Although shopping fasts seem to be more and more popular these days, the No Stuff Experiment is currently a one-woman operation with limited press coverage and influence—even among my own family and friends. Plus, I don’t necessarily agree with everything Mr. Taibbi (who seems very angry in general) has written in his piece.

Still, just as OWS is about more than big banks and modern finance, this shopping fast is about more than limiting consumption. I jumped at the chance to join Melissa in not buying new stuff because I was anxious to step out of my comfort zone, which, to paraphrase Jane Adler in It’s Complicated, wasn’t actually all that comforting. I wanted, for six months (and now one year), to make for myself a place where I was “free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along.” I wanted to do something different, make some sacrifices, find inspiration, and improve my life in some meaningful way.

Even though the No Stuff Experiment isn’t a sustainable lifestyle for me (nor is it as easy as I expected it to be), I have satisfied most of these initial wants. This exercise has forever changed the way I interact with money, the marketplace, aluminum foil, and even the people around me for the better. Over the last ten months, I’ve significantly reduced not just my level of consumption but, more importantly, my desire to consume. Note I wrote “reduced” and not “eliminated.” I still want things, stuff, crap, but at the same time, I’m cognizant of and grateful for the plenitude already around me. My monthly expenses are down, my deposits in savings are up, I’ve paid off all debt and stayed debt-free, and I’ve convinced Channing that rushing into a thirty-year mortgage is not worth it (he actually came to this conclusion on his own, but I think it was my influence).

So, since it’s that time of year, I think I’ll take a weeklong vacation from beating myself up about the Experiment’s relevancy and meaning. Instead, I’ll focus on my rekindled appreciation for the people, experiences, and comforts of my life.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Six-Month Re-Up

June 30, 2011

Inspired by a trip to Mint Condition in Old Town Alexandria this weekend, I have decided to go whole hog: I’m opting in for six more months of not buying anything new.* For one thing, I’m convinced there is enough lightly used stuff out there to fill nearly all of my shopping needs (with the possible exception of underroos). For another, the obstacles that the second half of the year will throw at me—namely, the wedding, my birthday, and the Christmas season—just might make the lessons of the No Stuff Experiment sink in a little deeper.

I’ll confess up front that I anticipate having to make a few exceptions:

1. Wedding stuff: I found a perfect white linen dress at Mint Condition, so hooray! No new wedding dress for me. However, Channing and I do still plan to buy wedding bands (brand new from Brilliant Earth) and I’m also considering decorating the buffet and bars at the party with cut flowers, which I’d like to pick myself at a local farm. All the other stuff at the party (we’ve started calling it the “unity celebration”—makes me laugh every time) will either be a rental or food, so I’m expecting rings and flowers to be the extent of my wedding-related cheats. Well, except for . . .

2. Gifts: Much to my chagrin, I’m going to have to relax my rules on gifts. As many times as I politely request that people not buy us anything, I can’t control the generous whims of our friends and family. Channing and I will probably have to accept a few new material goods into our homes come August. We will do so graciously.

3. Trash bags: Ugh. Channing bought kitchen trash bags a couple of days ago. I didn’t stop him because, frankly, I have not had the time to think up a mutually agreeable alternative. (Is it just me, or are time and convenience the biggest obstacles to living in an environmentally responsible manner?) We use reusable bags whenever we head to the store—grocery or otherwise—so we don’t generally have on hand paper or plastic bags large enough for the kitchen receptacle. Regardless, the damage is done; the bags have been purchased. We started the year with fewer than twenty bags, and we ran out the last week of June. Not too shabby. I figure we can make this recent purchase last equally long, and maybe I’ll come up with a nonplastic or repurposed alternative in the meantime.

Other than these three exceptions, the rules will remain the same: no new unessential stuff. I’m doing just fine without the aluminum foil, parchment paper, freezer bags, and cotton balls. And, I have a new Northern Virginia consignment shop circuit and charitable friends and family to rely on if I find myself needing clothes, shoes, or kitchenware. (My wish list, by the way, has dwindled to only two items: (1) a bike jersey with pockets or a little saddle bag and (2) fingerless bike gloves. If you know anyone looking to unload these items, please send them my way.)

I also have about a dozen ideas for posts bouncing around my noggin and a couple interested guest writers. So, here’s to six more stuff-free months—and a more lively blog in the coming weeks!

*And you all thought this was going to be a wrap-up post. Ha!

Getting Creative

April 8, 2011

When the group of us did this experiment for three months in 2009, one of the participants shared a story about how she avoided buying a new personal calendar for the year. She created her own—using a spiral notebook she had on hand, some printed calendar templates, and a gluestick.

At the time, I didn’t have any similar stories to share—expanding one’s wardrobe by hemming pants and reaffixing buttons isn’t particularly creative. But in the last month or so, I’ve encountered a couple obstacles that required improvisation.

First was that knit-in-the-round project I mentioned in an earlier post. Like I said, it was my first knit-in-the-round—a handbag—and so I didn’t have any stitch markers (for those who don’t knit, these are little plastic rings that mark the beginning of rounds or where a stitch change is needed in a row). I put off the project for several weeks—it was supposed to be a Christmas present and was already well overdue. I thought I would eventually ask a knitting friend to borrow a handful of markers (I needed four). But when I kept forgetting to ask, I realized I had to just dive in and figure it out as I went. I considered using safety pins, but the needles I was using were too big, and the pins wouldn’t fit around them. At the end of my first row in the round and desperate for a solution, I reread the description of stitch markers in my copy of The Chicks with Sticks Guide to Knitting: “…they basically serve the same purpose as tying a string around your finger to remind you to do something.” Hello, lightbulb! I could tie scraps of yarn in contrasting colors around my needles to mark the corners of the bag pattern. This simple solution worked just fine, and the bag came out beautifully.

I encountered another obstacle when I visited my fabric pile to find material for an apron I wanted to make for a friend for her birthday. I discovered that, although I have a ton of fabric in a variety of styles, colors, and patterns, I don’t have much of any one thing. I thumbed through my pattern books until I found what was basically the smallest possible apron (that wasn’t for kids, anyway). The pattern called for one yard of fabric, but after examining the pattern pieces I decided I could do it with less. I dug up two coordinating fat quarters that screamed “birthday girl” to me and (as Tim Gunn might say) made it work—by eliminating a couple frivolous aspects of the design. Oh, I also had to make do with the thread I had on hand, which didn’t quite match (but brought an extra touch of whimsy to the thing). In my unbiased opinion, the finished apron was perfect, and the great thing about it is, although it’s small, it has one huge pocket, which should come in handy for my friend, mother of a small kiddo and pie baker extraordinaire.

With only three (or maybe nine—who’s with me?) months to go, I’m starting to think about life after the experiment. I’m hoping to make a habit of looking for these kinds of simple solutions before I go out on a whim and purchase what seems like a necessity. Becoming a more conscientious consumer is what the No Stuff Experiment is about, after all. Why buy something new when I already have what I need at my fingertips? Finding purpose (or re-purpose) for the scraps, the trash, and the clutter has so far been the most fulfilling aspect of this endeavor for me.

When It Rains Indoors

March 16, 2011

Some serious unpleasantness struck the Kimmelhorn household last week. Around 2:30 on Thursday morning, we awoke to the sound of a steady stream of water dripping from above the bedroom closet door. Only the one area of the bedroom appeared to be affected, but on further investigation, we also discovered a puddle forming along the back wall of the living room downstairs. Yikes! Thirty panic-stricken minutes later we finally determined the source of the flooding: our upstairs neighbors’ busted water heater.

Eventually the deluge behind the walls subsided, and we were able to get some sleep. When the sun rose Thursday morning, we assessed the damage: Upstairs and down, the carpet, though soaked, appeared to be salvageable. Some obvious wet patches had appeared in the ceiling in our bedroom and in the living room. And, aside from some dampness on the arm of our couch, all of our furniture was fine.

Clearly, it could have been a lot worse. Well, tracking down someone to help us was a bit of a chore. Our landlords had left for Morocco the day before and had not told us whom to contact in their absence if we had trouble. But, eventually we got a handyman out to the house to appraise the situation and determine a course of action. By Saturday afternoon we had carpet padding air-drying on the deck and three of the loudest fans on earth targeting the remaining problem areas.

Nearly a week later, the incessant noise from the fans has us both on edge and things still aren’t quite dried out, but I’m counting my lucky stars. The last time this condo flooded (late fall 2007), our landlords gutted the place. They bought new carpet, new drywall, new appliances, and new light fixtures. This time around we should be able to save almost everything from the landfill. The ceiling will need some patching, and the landlords may want to replace some portion of the carpet padding, but Channing and I have escaped this mess with all our stuff functional and intact.

Keeping the rules of the experiment in mind, I’m not sure what we would’ve done had a dresser or couch been ruined by the flooding. Found a used replacement on craigslist or in the Old Lucketts Store? I would’ve had a hard time convincing Channing that we could make do with someone’s leftovers—or that we could make do without a dresser or couch at all. And what if the landlords had had to replace the carpet? Could I have convinced them to choose something repurposed or recycled? What choice would I have had as a tenant?

Channing’s Thoughts

While the deluge remains an unpleasant distraction from the tranquility of home, it has brought my attention to a few things that make our lives more pleasant that I would not have otherwise noticed. First, when it doesn’t sound like an airplane hangar, our home is very quiet. Yes, we can sometimes hear our neighbors, but despite being surrounded by other people, it’s one of the quietest homes I’ve ever known. Second, I have no interest in owning a condo. From what I’ve been told by owners, condo fees are a headache, but dealing with a neighbor’s busted water heater is an altogether different beast. I’ll never want to handle both. Third, the event caused us to change the layout of our bedroom (to accommodate one of the fans). I like the new arrangement, and it gives me reason to go through a chest that holds many of my clothes. I’d like to Freecycle the chest so we have more room, and I think I can give away or donate many of the clothes inside.