Wrapping Up, Part 1

The No Stuff Experiment officially ended when I purchased a crepe pan on January 3, 2012. My new pan, a 10.2-inch De Buyer, is awesome and has already seen good use. So far, I’ve tested two of the four crepe recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as well as two of the numerous crepe filling ideas therein. And once I tire of crepes—which, let’s face it, probably won’t happen—I can use the pan for omelets, frittatas, pancakes, and the like.

Other than the crepe pan, which I bought in a flurry of post-vacation excitement, my purchases have been pretty tame. I bought underwear, socks, and hose to replace the pairs I wore out (or destroyed) in 2011. The new socks, in particular, brought me joy I didn’t expect; walking to work on that little extra cushion where bare threads used to be is downright delightful. I bought parchment paper to make halibut en papillote, and when I couldn’t find a suitable reusable alternative, I caved and bought (organic) cotton balls. (Happily, this’ll be the last time for the cotton balls; a little additional Internet hunting unearthed this alternative.)

And, finally, I’ve been buying gear for triathlon training. I have registered for two triathlons in Reston this summer, and so, earlier this month, I borrowed The Triathlete’s Training Bible from the library (along with A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen—a great cookbook). I had already been planning to replace my running shoes, which I buy every six months, and my swimsuit, which is wearing uncomfortably thin in the gluteal region. But, inspired by the advice in the Training Bible, I also invested in a couple of multisport extras: a reflective vest for running and biking in the dark early morning hours and a pair of fins to make swimming drills more bearable (for both me and my lane-mates).

Now that I write it all out, this seems like a lot of shopping. And all I can say in my defense is, thanks to the Experiment, I am a more thoughtful consumer than I once was. For one, I’ve stopped carrying my credit card, and based on the advice in Your Money or Your Life, I’ve ditched my budget in favor of a careful record of daily expenses. If I don’t have money for a purchase in my bank account, I don’t buy it. So, for example, I won’t be buying that $1,000+ power meter the Training Bible recommends unless I can find a heavily discounted used version on Craigslist and a local bike mechanic to install it on the cheap.

For two, I shop with a list—a meticulously edited list of immediate needs based on what I now know I prefer not to live without—and more importantly, I stick to it. The list keeps me from going into a store for hose and coming out with hose plus three new shirts, a sweater, and a pair of pants. Impulsive shopping has been a problem for me in the past—and given the crepe pan purchase, I’m thinking it might still be. However, I’m not as drawn to the fashion on store racks these days, especially after successfully and happily spending twelve days in France cycling through the same three or four outfits, so I think I’ll be better this year about keeping impulses in check.

For three, when I shop, I look for more sustainable or equitable options for each item on my list. This means buying or borrowing used goods whenever possible; buying recycled, repurposed, reusable, local, fair trade, and/or organic, if used isn’t an option; and buying industrial new as a last resort. Duh.

But enough about shopping, buying, and spending money and resources. Let’s talk about what I’m planning to continue going without:

Aluminum foil, plastic baggies, and plastic wrap. I’m done with this stuff—or at least, I’m going to avoid investing my hard-earned money in it. Without my asking, my mom decided to start setting aside aluminum foil scraps for me, and over the year, I also collected a few scraps of my own from takeout meals and the like. I use the scraps on the rare occasions when I can’t find a foil alternative, and this works for me. It’s enough.

Next time I run out of plastic baggies—which should be a few months away, thanks to the small donation Mom gave me over the holidays—I will replace them with Lunchskins. I’m not sure these reusable bags will help with December’s cookie-freezing dilemma, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

On the plastic wrap front, I recently received a pair of silicone lids from some family friends that have greatly reduced my need for the stuff. I actually use the lids far more often than I ever used plastic wrap; they are extremely handy.

Oh, and as an aside, we still have a few kitchen trash bags in the box from June, and I’m hoping to keep our trash bag use to a minimum again this year.

Physical books, DVDs, and CDs. I haven’t bought a CD in a few years, thanks primarily to iTunes—and now Pandora and Amazon and all the other online music purveyors. My home VHS and DVD libraries have never been that big, but starting this year, if for some reason I want to own a movie, I plan to download it. No big deal.

The more difficult transition in the physical media category will be to ebooks. My husband and I were both English majors; he studied linguistics for ten years and I found a career in book publishing. Clearly we are big readers and even bigger book lovers. But, at the end of last year, both Channing and I decided it was time to embrace a book-lite lifestyle. I put a handful of free ebooks on my iPad for the trip to France, and after Channing finished the second installment of Twilight (his new favorite book series) our last night in Nice, I passed the iPad to him. He was halfway through Jane Eyre by the time we landed at Dulles.

So I think we are ready for the ebooks. I know we’re ready to unload more of our current library. Since we’ve returned from overseas, we’ve emptied an entire bookcase and sold our discards to the local used bookshop for a cool $50 (thanks for the tip, Sarah!). Now we’re only one bookcase shy of freeing up kitchen space for a butcher’s block and some much-needed counter space.

Pouf bath sponges. I had to toss my pouf early in 2011 because it was falling apart and grody. I have since been using a washcloth—and wondering why I ever switched to poufs in the first place. I can throw my washcloth in the laundry every week so it’s always clean, and I probably won’t have to replace it for years. Poufs, in contrast, lose their shape after only a few showers and need to be replaced every few months. It’s a no-brainer.

New furniture. Of the items on this short list, this one is sure to be the toughest. Finding new furniture that suits both my husband and me is a chore; finding used furniture that we both like will probably be close to impossible. Still, Channing’s agreed to shop used first for the several items on our furniture wish list. We’re looking to buy a butcher’s block, couch, coffee table, and dining room table. If you have any leads, let me know.

More wrap-up posts to come…


On Thursday Channing and I leave for our vacation on the French Riviera. I’ll be continuing the No Stuff Experiment there—only food and wine expenses for this traveler*—and then I’ll write a series of two or three wrap-up posts in January. For now, let me leave you with a handful of year-end tidbits that didn’t quite make the cut for full-length blog posts.

First, I must confess that I did a little pre-vacation clothes shopping—at consignment shops, of course. In mid-October, Channing announced that he would not be wearing jeans while we were overseas; I looked at my wardrobe the next day and panicked. (For the record, I think this ridiculous proclamation had everything to do with our recent viewing of the first four seasons of Mad Men, an AMC series with an extremely well-dressed cast. Oh, the dangers of television: it can turn keeping up with the Joneses into keeping up with a fictional 1960s advertising genius and his numerous pocket handkerchiefs.) I had been meaning to hit the used clothing circuit in hopes of picking up a few basics that would help me streamline my wardrobe, so now I decided to look for pieces that I could wear for both work and vacation (think comfortable clothes in neutral colors). Long story short, I spent some time at Chic Envy, the new consignment boutique at Fairfax Corner, and then made the rounds at the vintage shops in Alexandria. I ended up with a couple skirts, a cocktail dress (for office holiday parties and Christmas and New Year’s Eve dinners), and a couple blazers to dress up slacks or jeans.**

Second, to continue my kitchen disposables saga, earlier this month I ran out of plastic wrap and freezer bags. These are two disposables I don’t use a ton of unless I’m displaying baked goods on platters (rather than storing them in Pyrex), transporting food to parties on platters, or freezing stuff (in this case, cookies). The plastic wrap problem isn’t too dire. We have a roll of Glad Press’n Seal under the sink that I’ve been using as a plastic wrap alternative—although the stuff kind of freaks me out. Glad’s website says the seal is made with “the primary [FDA-approved] ingredients typically found in chewing gum” and assures customers that Glad products do not contain phthalates or BPA. I remain skeptical and avoid letting food in contact with the sticky side of the wrap. Oh, I’ve also been reusing the last couple pieces of regular plastic wrap like crazy. And when those scraps aren’t big enough and the Press’n Seal won’t do, I find creative solutions: I took cookies to the office potluck in a shirt box lined with festive tissue paper. Party guests took home cookies in gift bags from our stash from holidays past.

The freezer bags were more of a problem. I wanted to freeze a several dozen cookies over the course of the month and didn’t have enough Pyrex containers to hold them all. So, I took a few bags from Mom’s gigantic resealable bag stash. The woman has an entire kitchen drawer devoted to Ziplocs of various sizes and weights, plus another shelf full of them in the basement. As grateful as I am for Mom’s stockpile (the cookies froze beautifully), it seems a little excessive, no?

Third, I started a post on Freeganism last month, but I haven’t been able to finish it—in part because I wanted to go on a dumpster dive and write about the experience. I keep checking out the dumpsters behind Whole Foods whenever I’m at Plaza America, and there appears to be loads of good stuff out there, but I can’t bring myself to start rummaging. For one thing, all the dumpster-diving tip websites suggest wearing rubber gloves, which I do not own and cannot buy. For another, they suggest going at night with a buddy, and I have been unable to convince Channing that helping me dig through trash is an activity worth his time.

In any case, the primary reason the Freeganism post has not seen the light of day is I can’t write it without making Freegans sound like moochers or freeloaders. They aren’t moochers; they’re resourceful. Freeganism is exciting, terrifying, daring, and maybe a little bit gross. You can read up on Freegans and their philosophy here, here, and here.

Finally, I have started to brainstorm my next blog project, The Rosy Skillet. It’ll be about good meals and the stories they inspire (and how to host a dinner party for sixteen when you have only eight plates in the cupboard). I hope to have the first installment written by March 2012.

Happy holidays, everyone! Thanks so much for reading my musings this year!

*Plus plane and train tickets and hotel stays, but we’ve paid for that stuff already.

**For every item I added to my wardrobe during those trips, I put at least one item (and often two or three) in the donate pile.

A No Stuff Christmas

December 9, 2011

I started avoiding the shopping mall at Christmas three years ago, shortly after completing my first Voluntary Simplicity group in the summer of 2008. I had always enjoyed the mall during the holidays—the hustle and bustle, the seasonal décor, the shoppers’ enthusiasm—but buying a bunch of stuff from chain retail outlets no longer seemed to jibe with my values. Plus, that summer I had acquired my very own sewing machine and two good pattern books. It was time to put my skills as a seamstress to use.

I’ve made many, many Christmas gifts in the years since—lap quilts, aprons, smocks, coasters, scarves, shawls, handbags—but as rewarding as it is to shape raw fabric or a ball of yarn into something useful, taking on a bunch of craft projects at the end of the year can make December extremely stressful. So this year, with Channing’s support, I’ve devised a different strategy:

1.   Give experiences. This Christmas everyone on my “shopping” list is getting a gift card for some experience or another: a meal at a good restaurant, a day at the spa, or a museum membership, for example. All but two of the cards/certificates I’ve bought are for small businesses (even the little guys allow you to buy gift cards on their websites or over the phone). Not only does this approach avoid cluttering a loved one’s home, but it also saves me a boatload on postage and time. I finished my shopping a week ago having made no trips to the mall or the post office. What’s more, for the first time in our six Christmases together, Channing and I have pooled our resources: we’re giving nearly everyone on our mutual list one gift from the two of us—meaning we’ve been able to give folks tours, trips, meals, and memberships that we wouldn’t have been able to afford on our own. I have to say I’m pretty stoked about some of the gifts we dreamed up this season—maybe because I would take a nice restaurant meal or a guided tour of anything over a new pair of jeans any day (I just hope our family feels the same way!).

2.   Bake cookies. Without those trips to the mall and post office, I’ve freed up my time for baking. And nothing puts me in the holiday spirit quite like cranking up the Christmas tunes, pulling out my stand mixer, and making an organized mess of flour, sugar, butter, and eggs. I tend to overdo it with the holiday cookies—I’m currently six batches into a fourteen-cookie dance card—but I know baking isn’t everyone’s thing. May I suggest, though, that you schedule some time to bake with family and friends this year. Baking cookies with my mom every Christmas is a ritual I don’t plan to give up anytime soon. Not only is cooking with Mom fun, but we also end up with plenty of extras for giving away as impromptu gifts for colleagues, party hosts, and neighbors.

3.   Host a party (or two). No time like the holidays to schedule QT with friends and family. Since Channing and I will be out of town on Christmas Day (see item 4), we have planned special celebrations with our families over the next two weeks. Unlike the usual Christmastime festivities, these dinners will be quiet affairs, during which we can actually enjoy one another’s company without the usual gift-exchange hullabaloo. Plus, next weekend we’re hosting friends who live locally for a big festive dinner. We’ve opted out of Christmas cards this year (because I’m not buying cards or supplies to make cards), so we thought a party would be a great alternative way to spread holiday cheer to our nearest and dearest. To prepare for the dinner, I plan to spend several hours in the kitchen, but if cooking isn’t your thing, you can still invite friends and family over for a merry catered meal or wholesome potluck.

4. Take a Christmas vacation. Channing has been talking about spending Christmas out of town for at least two years, and now, using our honeymoon as an excuse, we’re going for it. On December 22, we’re flying to Nice to spend the holidays in the French Riviera. Sure, traveling overseas is not the simplest option for avoiding holiday-season insanity. It’s expensive. It requires a lot of planning. Jetting across the Atlantic is not exactly environmentally friendly. But the trip has forced us to reconsider how we give gifts (see item 1) and what is most important to us this time of year (see item 3)—lessons we hope to recall when we plan for future Christmases.

At thirty-one, I have not spent a Christmas away from my family until now. Pretty crazy. But breaking traditions every once in a while is a good thing, I think (especially when palm trees are involved, right?). In addition to prompting us to reevaluate how we celebrate, I’m hoping this trip will provide some perspective—so that in the coming years we don’t become complacent or take for granted this annual occasion for feasting and family time.

I’ve seen a lot of buzz about the second annual Small Business Saturday on Facebook in the last couple weeks. For those who aren’t aware, Small Business Saturday, falling the day after Black Friday, is a marketing ploy by the folks at American Express to encourage consumers to shop at independent and locally owned stores in order to boost neighborhood economies. It’s a pretty great idea, but it does seem a little odd that the day was dreamed up by some folks at a large corporation and has a number of corporate sponsors, right?

Well, regardless, Small Business Saturday overlaps with one of my personal guidelines for the No Stuff Experiment: when buying necessary material goods, like groceries or toiletries, or going out for dinner or to the movies, choose local and independent sources over big corporations.

I haven’t stuck to this guideline like glue; in fact, in the last few months, I’ve been a little careless about it. I’m flying Continental/United to Florida for Thanksgiving tomorrow. We stayed in a Holiday Inn in Huntington for Marshall University Marathon weekend.* I regularly buy dry goods, dairy products, and cleaning supplies from Whole Foods.

But, earlier this month, I renewed my buy-local efforts when I found out that a new MOM’s Organic Market had opened just down the road, in Herndon. MOM’s is an independently owned chain of organic grocery stores that started in Beltsville, Maryland, in 1987. Since then, it has expanded to eight locations, two of which are in Virginia (one more VA location, in Merrifield, is due to open in 2012). For such a small space, the selection at the Herndon location is fantastic, and I found nearly everything on my grocery list (save white vinegar in cleaning quantities and plain cow’s milk yogurt). MOM’s has a decent local wine selection and shelves full of organic nut butters, but what’s even better is they have the Story of Stuff playing on a loop on one of the aisles.

It’s pretty darn exciting when a business that shares your ideals—with the mission “To Protect and Restore the Environment”—opens up your neighborhood. I am looking forward to giving MOM’s my business this winter.

But since I will be in Florida visiting family for the weekend, I will not be stopping by my new favorite grocery store on Small Business Saturday. Instead, it’s more likely I’ll participate in twentieth annual Buy Nothing Day, which coincides with Black Friday and this year has an OWS theme. I wonder if Occupy St. Pete will do something for the occasion.

*Got my PR by 22 minutes, by the way: 4:24:00. Woo!

Alternative Marketplaces

August 17, 2011

Spring/Summer Shopping Series Part 3

In July I accompanied my mom on a trip to the mall. That’s right, readers: I aided and abetted a shopper. Mom wanted new outfits for the wedding ceremony and subsequent party, though she had a dress and a skirt in her closet that she could “make work” if necessary. Of course I groaned when she first told me this and then proceeded to show me the two perfectly appropriate garments, but at the same time, I could completely relate to her situation. After all, Mom is the woman who taught me not only how to shop but also when it’s desirable to buy new stuff.

She also taught me to be picky. Five hours after our arrival at Tysons Corner, she had only a handful of new items to show for herself: a pair of shoes, a wrap (to go with the dress already in her closet), and a sundress. I walked away with nothing other than a belly full of the tuna salad I had for lunch. Not that I wasn’t tempted. The brightly lit, expertly styled window displays made the sundress I was wearing—one of my favorites—look a little worn (from three summers’ worth of wash cycles). But I stuck to my guns and even declined Mom’s offer to buy me a skort that would’ve been ideal for my bachelorette weekend at Lake Anna (and guess what—I didn’t have to go naked).

I know a lot of people who don’t like the mall and nearly as many who avoid Tysons Corner in particular. Malls can be big and crowded and overwhelming. Parking is a chore; traffic is even worse. Prices are high. And think of the resources used for all those plastic clothes hangers, not to mention building materials for the mall itself and the individual stores, plus water usage in the restaurants and restrooms, plus energy usage for heating, cooling, lighting, etc.

I could go on about the problems with malls, but instead I’ll just suggest two more eco-friendly brick-and-mortar alternatives.*

For those who like the convenience of having everything in one place, there are independent markets. It seems like every city I visit has a fun, open-air, independent arts and crafts market these days. In the DC metro area, the big one is Eastern Market, but many other communities around here have them, including Reston, which hosts an arts and crafts market every Saturday at Lake Anne in conjunction with the farmers market. At first glance the little Reston market seems like a Podunk affair with a tiny selection of niche items, none of which may actually serve your present need. But I’ve taken notice the last few times I’ve walked through (on my way to the farmers market), and you can actually get a pretty huge variety of stuff, from clothing and toys to furniture and throw pillows to soaps and detergents. There are even at least two alpaca yarn vendors for those who prefer DIY.

The best part of the independent craft market concept is direct access to artisans. Customers at markets have a huge say in vendor offerings. Requests for things like organic products or goods made from repurposed materials are much more likely to be heeded because we’re often making those requests of the person who actually handles buying and manufacturing and within a small, local customer base one voice carries a lot of weight. Plus, if you can’t find exactly what you are looking for at one stand, you are mere steps away from someone who can probably help you out, either by agreeing to take a custom order or by pointing you in the direction of a vendor who offers what you need. You can’t get service like that at the mall. And, sure, it may cost you a little extra, but in most cases the quality will be higher than what you might find in a retail store and thus the product will last longer, if not because it’s handmade, then because the seller or artisan is directly accountable to his or her customers.

For many of us, though, cost is an issue, and so secondhand shopping is probably a better eco-option than the independent market.** In her book Made from Scratch, Jenna Woginrich extols the fun and utility of shopping at flea markets and antique shops for furniture and other household goods. She writes that older products were made to last; in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s manufacturers weren’t yet planning obsolescence. In particular she tells the story of buying a heavy old metal cheese grater that had, as she put it, “been through a world war and was still going strong.” On her advice, I’ve decided to consider only secondhand citrus reamers when I finally get around to replacing the glass juicer I broke in January. I’m also trying to convince Channing to take a trip with me to the Old Lucketts Store to find the butcher’s block he wants for the kitchen (and maybe that “new” couch he’s been whining about for the last two years).

Secondhand stores are also excellent sources for clothing. I discovered this in June, when my friend Nan and I went to Alexandria to hunt for wedding dresses on consignment. Having had some less-than-satisfying experiences in thrift stores as a teenager, my expectations for this trip were extremely low. Little did I know, Old Town Alexandria has a good number of consignment boutiques within walking distance of one another. The two I visited, Diva Boutique and Mint Condition, stocked high-end merchandise and mimicked the experience of traditional retail stores—meaning they were well organized and easy to navigate. Clothes were displayed by color and style, everything was freshly laundered, and prices were one-half to one-third of the original retail cost. I looked only at their dress selections but noticed they had business attire and jeans as well. Labels ranged from Vera Wang to J. Crew.

No mall-based retail therapy can match the feeling of finding the perfect wedding dress—or anything else, really—in a store full of other people’s discards. I’d highly recommend it. To find secondhand stores and craft markets in your area, Yelp is a pretty great resource.

*Even more alternatives abound on the Internet, but sometimes it’s nice to touch stuff before you buy it, right?

**Secondhand shopping is also the only option for those of us doing the No Stuff Experiment.

What I Buy

May 10, 2011

Spring Shopping Series, Part 2

Next time I enter Ann Taylor or flip through the Patagonia catalog, what will I find? Clothing, shoe, and accessory manufacturers have a variety of textiles to choose from: natural, renewable fibers, such as cotton, rayon, linen, wool, and silk, and synthetics, such as polyester and nylon. And the cultivation, manufacture, and distribution of all of these materials have a pretty huge impact on the earth.

I’ll start with cotton, which makes up the lion’s share of my everyday wardrobe. (I’d guess it makes up a pretty good portion of yours too.) Cotton, which has been cultivated for use in clothing for thousands of years, is native to the tropics, but today it is grown in China, the United States, India, Uzbekistan, Australia, and some African countries. Two and a half percent of the world’s farmland is devoted to cotton, and 25 million tons of the crop are grown every year. It is one of the world’s most heavily irrigated crops and also one of the most heavily fertilized and sprayed: a third of a pound of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are required to grow just one pound of cotton. In 2000 84 million pounds of pesticides were sprayed on cotton, making it the most heavily sprayed crop behind corn. These chemicals find their way into our waterways, killing fish and birds, and even into feed for cows raised in factory farm lots. (Beef and dairy cattle consume about 3 million tons of cotton meal annually.) And, in the United States hundreds of cotton farm workers suffer from pesticide-related illnesses each year.

By 2003 nearly 80 percent of cotton grown in the United States (which is the second-largest producer of cotton in the world—China is the first) was genetically modified (GM). There are 131 million acres of GM cotton in the world—it is everywhere except in the poorest countries in Africa and Asia, where farmers can’t afford the fancy, expensive seeds. Monsanto developed the two kinds of modified cotton seeds popular today: one is Roundup Ready, i.e., bred for herbicide resistance, and one is insect resistant, i.e., bred to repel the tobacco budworm, the bollworm, and the pink bollworm (but not the infamous boll weevil). So, one type of seed encourages the indiscriminate use of herbicides, but the other reduces the need for pesticides. Huh. There are numerous cons to genetically modified products, even those that don’t find their way into our food.* For one, growers who have purchased GM cotton seeds from Monsanto’s distributor, Delta and Pine Land, have been required to sign a contract saying that they will not save and replant the seeds the next season, which obviously increases the financial burden on the farmers. For an outline of additional cons of genetic engineering, see the Center for Food Safety website. (If you want to hear both sides of the story, also visit the Monsanto website.)

Among the other popular fabrics in my wardrobe are wool (sweaters) and synthetics (exercise clothes). Conventionally grown wool comes from sheep raised in inhumane conditions, on small, overgrazed pastures. Because these conditions increase the sheep’s vulnerability to parasites, the animals are regularly doused with pesticides. The raw wool is again treated with pesticides before it is spun into yarn in order to kill any remaining ticks, lice, and mites. Organic wool is a more eco-friendly option; it’s free of inorganic pesticides, hormones, and dyes, and probably comes from sheep that have generally been better treated. And, like conventional wool, it is naturally fire-retardant, durable, and wrinkle-resistant.

Synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon, are made from petroleum by-products in an energy-intensive process. A variety of pollutants, including nitrogen and sulfur oxides, particulates, carbon monoxide, heavy metals, and carbon dioxide, are emitted during production of these fabrics. I choose running shorts and shirts made with synthetics because they’re quick-drying and wick sweat away from my skin—which makes for a more comfortable run during Virginia’s hot and sticky summers. These fabrics are also pretty durable. I’ve been wearing the same couple pairs of running shorts since college! Of course, this means that once I toss them, they’ll sit for another few hundred years in the landfill without degrading—and once they start degrading, they’ll leach additional chemicals into the soil and groundwater. The good news is some bright minds out there have developed synthetics made from recyclables, like soda bottles. I even have some long underwear made from recycled polyester. You can buy recycled-fiber clothing from Patagonia and other members of the Textile Exchange.

More eco-friendly fabrics to consider incorporating into your wardrobe are hemp, linen, and bamboo rayon. Hemp and linen, both derived from plants that grow quickly and require few pesticides and herbicides, are in some ways the most eco-friendly fiber choices. But, neither hemp nor textile-grade flax (the source of linen) is grown in the States, so all hemp and linen clothing you find in stores here has traveled from countries such as China, Romania, Hungary, and Poland. Like hemp and flax plants, bamboo is quick-growing and requires few fertilizers and pesticides during cultivation. Plus, it is naturally antimicrobial and moisture wicking, meaning finished clothes don’t need to be treated with additional chemicals to introduce these properties. The downsides to bamboo are, first, turning stalks into textile-grade fiber is energy- and water-intensive and, second, as the demand for bamboo has increased, farmers have begun to cultivate it in monocrop fields, which endangers biodiversity and degrades the soil.

Creating finished clothing from any of these fibers requires a host of energy-sucking machines: machines that prepare the raw product for shipment to factories, machines that turn the raw product into thread, machines for weaving and knitting the thread into fabric, and, finally, machines for sewing and assembly. In addition to the energy use are the myriad additional chemical inputs. Fabrics are dyed in a multistep process, involving scouring (in an alkali) to remove impurities and bleaching (with hydrogen peroxide or chlorine) to prepare the garment for dye. The dying itself usually involves benzene, heavy metals, and formaldehyde. Then the fibers are treated with more formaldehyde to make them soft, wrinkle-resistant, stain and odor resistant, fireproof, mothproof, and antistatic. (Formaldehyde, by the way, can cause respiratory problems, burning eyes, cancer, and allergic-contact dermatitis.) Lucky for us, most of the toxic chemicals used in the production of clothing are rinsed or leached out by the time the products hit the stores. So, only the low-wage workers in the textile factories (i.e., sweatshops) and anyone who drinks from water sources nearby are affected by the toxicity and the waste.

Just to put the amount of chemicals in perspective, here are some stats from Stephen Yafa’s Big Cotton: 3/4 pound of chemicals are applied to every pair of jeans and 1 1/4 pounds are applied to every set of queen-sized sheets. Oh, and here’s another crazy stat for you, this one from The Story of Stuff: A single cotton t-shirt generates at least five pounds of CO2 before it gets to the retailer. Distribution and care for the t-shirt over its lifetime will likely double that number.

The best way to limit the impact of your clothing is to make do with what you already have or buy used or recycled. Talk to your neighbors about good consignment shops in your area. Check out your local Freecycle. There are even a bunch of vintage clothing stores online: Etsy, Posh Girl Vintage, Rusty Zipper, to name just three.

*Make no mistake, though. Cottonseed oil made from GM cotton seeds finds its way into a wide variety of processed food products sold in American grocery stores. Check your labels.

Sources and Related Reading

Solvie Karlstrom, “Guide to Greener Fibers,” NRDC Smarter Living, November 20, 2009.

Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health—And a Vision for Change (New York: Free Press, 2010).

Shanti Menon, “Green Fashion: Beautiful on the Inside,” NRDC Smarter Living, February 11, 2010.

National Labor Committee, Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti: Walt Disney and the Science of Exploitation, Parts 1 and 2, YouTube video, from a documentary filmed in 1996, posted by “nicnet,” January 26, 2010.

Andrew Olsen, “Problems with Conventional Cotton Production,” Pesticide Action Network, May 2, 2011.

Stephen Yafa, “The Shirt on Your Back,” in Big Cotton: How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map (Viking: New York, 2005), 270-304.

Why I Shop

May 4, 2011

Spring Shopping Series, Part 1

It’s warm outside. The trees are in full bloom. The birds are chirping. Momma ducks are escorting their babies in and around the lakes. Spring has sprung, and I’m ready for a new wardrobe.

What did I wear last May? All of my warm-weather clothes look tired to me. I’ve been hanging onto many of my t-shirts and blouses for several years now. And what happened to all those skirts I thought I had? I’m in need of what one New York Times blogger termed “the modern-day ritual of renewal.” She was specifically referring to Christmas shopping, but I’d argue that just about any kind of shopping can serve to rejuvenate the spirit—if only for a short while.

Don’t get me wrong. I still have at least one foot in the anti-consumerist camp. But lately I have been noticing all the good things about shopping (namely, new clothes!). I guess you could say I have “consumerist ambivalence.” This is the term used by Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist who wrote a book about the evolution of the modern-day consumer, Spent. He writes, “Consumerist capitalism produces almost everything that is distinctively exciting about modern life and almost everything that is appalling about it.”

In his book about the history of shopping, I Want That! Thomas Hine writes that buying material goods is a way for people to express and empower themselves. Through shopping, consumers exercise their freedom to choose—and their ability to forget what they have and keep choosing. We can alter our identity with new clothes and new gadgets, which in turn fill our cravings for progress, excitement, and accomplishment. In the market or mall, we can commune with our peers and get a sense of what’s popular. What goods are available? What are others buying? Most often we purchase stuff that’ll help us blend in with a crowd, or to indicate that we are part of a particular crowd. Hine describes this as “creating a community of taste.” He writes that by choosing certain fashions we are exercising the privilege of participating in culture, in history. How are you going to convince anyone you lived in the 80s, if you don’t have the jellies or neon leg warmers to prove it?

Miller argues that we don’t actually need the jellies. In Spent, he writes that we buy particular goods and services in order to display desirable personality traits, such as physical attractiveness, physical health, mental health, intelligence, and personality. These are the traits we’ve found best attract the support from kin, friends, and mates necessary for our survival. But, in fact, we have evolved to glean evidence of these traits through observation and conversation, without taking stock of a person’s historical wardrobe. Miller calls this the “fundamental consumerist delusion”: Consumerist capitalism “makes us forget our natural adaptations for showing off desirable fitness-related traits. It deludes us into thinking that artificial products work much better than they really do for showing off these traits.”

It seems like Americans are falling prey to this delusion. Hine writes, “Most people are able to convince themselves, at least temporarily, that it is absolutely crucial to buy items they don’t really need. Indeed, our economic health depends on shoppers’ ceaseless lust for the inessential.” That “lust” is certainly what prompts me to hit the mall. I’ve witnessed so much rebirth, regrowth, and renewal in these first weeks of spring that I’m anxious to participate in the most reliable way I know how: acquiring new stuff.

Of course, I will not actually go shopping—at least not for new stuff and not at the mall. And, in the next two months, I will certainly find some other, creative ways to satisfy my yen for freshness and novelty. (I do have strawberries, asparagus, and English peas to play with all of a sudden.) All I really mean to say in this rambling post is that shopping, buying, and consumption aren’t inherently or entirely bad. In fact, as Hine put it, “Making material choices is a privilege, a responsibility, and an essential activity of modern life.” As such, we should take our choices and our participation in the consumer economy seriously. We should pay attention to what we buy and why.

Relevant Reading

Thomas Hine. I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Geoffrey Miller. Spent. Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. New York: Viking, 2009.

Juliet B. Schor. Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. New York: Scribner, 2004.

Juliet B. Schor. The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999.