Sometimes online I come across people initiating a ‘buy nothing new’ challenge. For a whole year, even. The intention is to counter our consumerism and slow down our rampant over-use of resources. So far so good. But it has serious drawbacks, and I don’t believe it’s the most constructive way to limit the forces of Mammon.
A more helpful strategy (or so it seems to me, anyway), is to simplify one’s life until it becomes spacious enough to properly consider all one’s purchases, and then go about choosing judiciously and in a considered manner what to buy, how often and how much. Remember: ~
For myself, the second-hand purchases I make are either for items otherwise beyond my budget (eg cashmere sweaters, quality cast iron cookware, linen curtains), or mass-produced items (t-shirts, underwear) that I wouldn’t care if they went out of production.
But in spending money it’s important to have a vision for society as a whole and a strategy for putting it in place. A good way of imagining this is a concept I’ve heard described as ‘the journey of a pound coin’ – that is, thinking through the track your money will roll along when you spend it.
So, for example, if I go to Great Park Farm to buy my cheese and milk, my bread and vegetables, I will be helping to support Sussex dairy farms, market gardens and bakers. Not only that, but the owners of the farm shop live locally, employ local people and source goods from local suppliers (eg bread, cakes). So the money I spend there will go towards supporting the livelihood of several local people, some in the shop and some working from home – perhaps including mothers who want work allowing them to stay home with their young children. The ethos of the shop is such that I feel confident the people who run it will also spend their money in local businesses – maybe an upholsterer, an accountant, a carpenter, a newsagent. That means the money I spent there will have gone to enrich and bless the community where I live.
If, on the other hand, I buy my cheese and milk, my bread and vegetables at a big chain supermarket, though a percentage of what I spend will go toward employing managers and cashiers from the local community, a substantial proportion will leave our neighbourhood, some to finance goods imported from a distance, some to pay for that transport and storage, some to pay for managers and other employees from a completely different part of the country. Importantly, a significant proportion of what I spend will go to company directors and shareholders who are already rich and don’t need my support; and in order that they may be further enriched, suppliers will be kept on very short rations indeed.
So I need to think carefully about how I spend my money, because I am choosing to bless something and someone each time.
We don’t buy everything from small local businesses. For example, we buy organic meat, cat food, frozen fruit, Ecover cleaning agents, and various plant milks (almond, oat, coconut – all unsweetened) that are not stocked except in the big stores. So we make a weekly trip to the big chain store, and it makes me happy that we are influencing them to sell organic produce and earth-friendly products.
Several members of our household are makers – writing or working on a variety of crafts and arts. We absolutely rely on people buying what we offer I order to eat. If everyone chose to buy nothing new for a year, they could bring to an end a writing career, a small publishing house, a craftsman. Buying nothing new is not a thought-through strategy.
I do buy secondhand books. I think working as a second-hand bookseller is an honourable and friendly way to earn a living, so I am happy for my money to go to people who do that. I’m glad the books are passed on, read, enjoyed, not wasted. But when I’ve read them, if they are good I review them – that will help to boost the sales for all that writer’s work, both used and new copies. I also try to buy new when I can afford to. I generally get e-books (Kindle) when I can, so I can create a library without accumulating objects in my living space. I like my life to be as small and portable as possible. The same goes for music – I buy music, but on i-tunes so the only tangible object needed is my laptop.
I also like to buy services. In days gone buy, work was shared out among the community more freely. People certainly cooked at home, grew their own vegetables, cared for their own children; but they would pay for a tailor, a decorator, a mechanic, a window-cleaner, a gardener, much more readily. In more recent times, people have sought to save money by doing everything themselves. Instead of eating out, buy microwaveable ready-meals. Instead of maintaining the garden, pave it or cover it with decking. Buy off-the-peg clothes. But paying for specialist services builds and enriches local communities, encourages the development of expertise, and allows the dignity of work to people who might otherwise need welfare benefits. Eating out, for example, is a happy, enjoyable experience. How much better than mass-produced ready-meals with their plastic packaging – for the Earth and for the local community. I’d much rather eat the delicious naan bread that Lakshmi has just that minute made in her tiny, well-planned restaurant kitchen, than buy vacuum-packed supermarket equivalents to heat up at home. The objection is often made that it costs more. So it does, but I find that if I live simply and own less stuff, it’s possible to keep overheads down by either sharing a home or living somewhere small and inexpensive, and so have some money left over.
Having clothes, furniture, plates and bowls, fire-irons, pictures on the wall, books, all made by people you know – this brings a special joy. It makes ordinary things precious. The ways of Mammon have robbed us of so much that is lovely, beautiful, delightful. It’s surely time to take our lives back, and living simply allows us to do that.