You Don’t Need It

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I’ve read that within a given day the average American will see several thousand brand logos and advertisements. And while thinking about how ridiculous that is, I also realized that I was wearing a tshirt with a logo on it. I thought it was awesome to find a shirt with a Wheatsville Co-Op logo on it at the last Really, Really Free Market, but am I actually contributing to the problem of ad fatigue?

Fortunately, using billboards to display art instead of advertising is gaining popularity. And there are even a few instances like this bus stop bench which serve as a good reminder that it’s okay to ignore all of the other advertisements out there. Maybe I could make my own “you don’t need it” shirt and see what happens.

Everything Has Value

Every time I see a beverage can littered somewhere, I think of can collectors. Yes, the men who would go around collecting cans in a large cart or large bag to take to the cash-for-cans machine. Why don’t I ever see them anymore? Why are so many areas totally littered with cans? Is it because they no longer have any value? Is there too much other trash to wade through everywhere? Or is it just not convenient enough to be worthwhile?

When I was younger, my family used to save our cans and take them to a cash-for-cans machine at the supermarket. We saw it there regularly, and the big “CASH FOR CANS” sign made it obvious that cans had value.

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An ugly version of the cash-for-cans machine

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen one of those machines in a long while. These days cans are just a nuisance and once they’ve served their purpose they all too often get tossed into a trash bin, on the ground, or even in the creek. 😦

How do we make it obvious again that things have value and shouldn’t just be thrown away? Should I start a business with these cash-for-can machines to drive awareness? Maybe those states that have a deposit fee are on to something?

Anyhow, my point is that everything has value. If something is laying on the ground, it can still have value. Even if most people can’t see it, those cans are valuable resources. The plastic bottles too. Even the polystyrene foam cups.

… Although even I don’t bother trying to find a recycling home for those. If it’s foam, I just throw it in the trash can. I may feel a twinge of disappointment, but that’s my limit at the moment.

But to close on a happier note, I’d like to share the story of one resource whose value I have done my best to honor. I have previously shared some examples of reusing old tshirts by means of tshirt yarn creations, but I’ve since learned to take it one step further.

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Disassembling the seams

By practice disassembling tshirts to make tshirt yarn, I’ve discovered that there’s a way to undo the hem such that you can often salvage longer threads for reuse. And I now have several different colors in a baby food jar either for necessities or for embroidery practice.

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Bonus thread!

Just this week I used some of my tshirt thread to hem up my most recent jeans acquisition. Sure, these little pieces of thread wouldn’t have maxed out the landfill but being able to find another purpose for them sure felt good.

Book Review – The Moneyless Man

Over the past couple of years I’ve gotten pretty good at not buying things. But what if I couldn’t buy internet service? Bus tickets? FOOD? That’s exactly what Mark Boyle tries to do in his book The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living.

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This wasn’t the first time I had heard of money-free living, but it’s the first time I really listened.

“Money is a bit like love. We spend our entire lives chasing it, yet few of us understand what it actually is.”

Boyle begins with the story of money being introduced into society which he leads naturally led to banks and the practice of lending out money that wasn’t theirs. Let’s say five people each put $50 in the bank. Then the bank would loan out $50 to someone else even if none of the money they had was their own. (It sounds great at first. The bank and its customers get some interest as the borrower pays back the $50, and the borrower was able to get the cash when he really needed it.)

“For most of us, money represents security. As long as we have money in the bank, we’ll be safe.”

What I had never considered before reading this book is that banks are strongly incentivized to loan out as much money as possible, making the foundation not only shaky but also pushing loans on people and encouraging them to buy things that they could otherwise do without for a while. This process leads to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer buying things they can’t afford and paying interest on it all the while. Taken in that perspective, money-free living finally makes some sense.

So Boyle decides to see what it would be like to live without even touching money for a year. He spends months in preparation figuring out how to live without money. Oddly enough, he starts by buying some supplies like solar panels. Other things he acquires for free, like a caravan that someone didn’t want. He finds a place where he can put the caravan and live in exchange for his labor, and learns about humanure and rocket stoves for moneyfree defecation and cooking respectively. And finally, it’s time. He sells his houseboat, gives the proceeds to a charity he set up, and embarks on his new life.

Boyle recognized from the start that to live without money, he’d also have to rely on community. His charity is all about skill-sharing so he can have more skills to barter with. He performs odd jobs in exchange for foodstuffs or other goods. He relies on strangers to give him a lift while hitchhiking to visit his folks for the holidays. He goes dumpster diving with acquaintances, and even brings in the whole community a couple of times to throw and enjoy feasts created from food that would otherwise have been disposed of.

One of the common complaints about this book was that Boyle is still using money fairly regularly, just not his own. Using a phone line that someone else paid for. Living on land that someone else is paying for. Relying on someone else’s trash to eat. It wouldn’t be sustainable if everyone were to suddenly embrace his way of life.

But I’ve got to give him credit for purifying his water, doing manual labor when he could have opted for a lazier option, rescuing food from going to landfill. There are some ideas in this book that anyone interested in green living can learn from. And most of all, it promotes the idea of thrift.

“When you produce anything of your own, you don’t waste a drop.”

While I’m still not sold (ha!) on the idea that money is inherently bad, I may do a bit more research into what banks I do business with. Perhaps I should also donate more instead of aggressively planning for solitary retirement?

As for Boyle, what’s he up to these days? Well, he’s still living mostly “moneyless”, but not quite. If you’re really interested, you can find out more from his articles for The Guardian.

I’ll leave you with one final thought, though, because it’s something I at times need to be reminded of myself:

“Activists often talk like they ‘want to save the earth’. The earth will be fine, in time; it’s humanity that may need saving. But who do they want to ‘save’ it for? Only other activists? Only for activists and the working classes? Or for everyone: executive bankers, environmentalists, police officers, human rights activists, and politicians alike?”

 

Things I Didn’t Buy

Because I have better things to do than make another trip to the store. Because I want to be more respectful of the things that I do own. And because I don’t want to waste more of the Earth’s resources than I already do.

A Lawn Refuse Bag

After some lawn cleanup this weekend, we had a large pile of grass and weed clippings. Some folks around here buy lawn refuse bags, stuff them full of grass or leaves, and let the city collect them in huge trucks for municipal compost. No way! I raked it onto a piece of burlap to get it over to the compost bin, dumped it in, and someday it’ll be beautiful compost.

A Book

With a lot of book clubs, every member buys a brand new copy of the book. (And sometimes don’t even read it!) But like many participants in the Talk Green to Me book club, I checked out a copy from the library. The library website shows that someone else has a hold on the book and is waiting for it, so I’ll make sure to finish and return it by the end of the week too.

Random Crap

I’ve been near Goodwill stores a few times recently and have resisted the urge to go in. There isn’t anything in particular I need, so it’s likely if I go in that I’ll come right out with some impulse buy that I’ll soon regret.

Jeans

I posted earlier about patching up an old pair of jeans that were getting worn out. Apparently, I should have done symmetrical patching because before I knew it an actual hole had developed in the other side. No worries, because I had a needle and thread and some scrap denim and now have another almost entirely invisible inner patch to keep those jeans fully functional for a while.

A Bathroom Vanity

The bathroom vanity in our new house isn’t the most beautiful thing in the world. For a while, every time I looked at it, it tempted me to replace the whole thing. My husband was even more convinced that it had to be trashed. But now after a coat of (recycled) paint, it looks decent enough that I no longer have to deal with that temptation.

A Car

No temptation here. I have a monthly bus pass which gets me anywhere I need to go beyond walking distance, and I can read my library books on the way. I may be able to get places a little faster with my own car, but nah, I can live without the cost, the maintenance, and the stress of driving around in busy traffic.

Book Review – Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

A few months ago in book club, we read Elizabeth Cline’s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, which focused on what makes cheap clothing so cheap (shoddy construction, labor outsourced to overseas countries, mass production, etc.) and how not just this but treating clothing as disposable commodities hurts us in general. Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture continues the story for everything else out there–cheap furniture, cheap houses, cheap food, cheap everything.

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Shell references the following IKEA commercial as a prime example of how sellers would like us to look at potential purposes.

If a better lamp exists, why not purchase it? You can always leave the old one out on the curb. And if you get tired of the new lamp after a while, nothing’s to stop you from upgrading again. Of course, with this kind of mindset, it’s not so simple for anyone to be happy with a purchase anymore, because they’re always anticipating a newer, better thing from the moment they get it home.

Cheap illustrates how the very fact that the item being purchased is cheap lowers its valuation in the mindset of the buyer.

“Discounting plays many tricks on the human mind, and among the more intriguing is the influence of discounting on our relationship to the purchase itself. Although almost everyone seeks bargains, most of us make the tacit and often unconcious assumption that doing so involves a trade-off of quality for price: Regardless of what the tag or brand claims, we perceive things bought on sales or at a discount as less desirable or efficacious or durable than things for which we paid full price.”

 

In one referenced study, one group of students bought an energy drink at full price, and another bought it discounted at half price. Even though it was the same exact drink, the students who paid half-price got nowhere near the energy effect of those who paid full price. The same was found to be true of discounted painkillers. They had a far less powerful effect on pain than the same ones at full price. So maybe cheap and discounted goods aren’t always such a good deal after all.

Like OverdressedCheap also describes how quality is being cut across the board. Items to be sold are designed to meet a certain price point. This is nothing new, as this book describes the first discount stores and how they really came of age in the 50’s and 60’s. Originally, these were stocked with random items that could be bought cheaply for resale, and then as globalization really picked up stores were able to custom-order anything they wanted to sell, themselves shopping around for the lowest-priced manufacturing even if the materials and labor were a bit suspect. Continuing the IKEA example,

“[IKEA] designs to price, commissioning its suppliers to build not a mug, per se, but a custom-designed 50-cent mug; not a kitchen table and two chairs but a custom-designed kitchen table and two chairs for less than one hundred euros. Every year IKEA challenges its suppliers to lower their prices, and every year it challenges its designers to dream up still cheaper objects to sell, whether new ones or updated versions of classics.”

Another target for selling products with reduced quality are the factory outlets. According to Shell, “Factory outlets are America’s number-one tourist destination, the fastest-growing segment of not only the retail industry but also the travel industry.” The stories of people going on vacation somewhere and then using up much of their precious trip just to shop somewhere and save a couple of bucks is insane. Even with the brand names, she says, most of these outlet stores are no longer places to buy overstocked goods or those that didn’t fully meet quality standards. Instead, they’re selling products that are custom-created to be cheaper varieties of what the name brand represents. It’s like going out for orange juice and ending up with Sunny Delight (which can be cheaper because it contains little actual juice).

Personally, for a long time I wondered how Target could sell Converse shoes at half the price of other stores, before finally realizing that they weren’t the same shoes as all.

“Hundreds of other brands from Levi Strauss to Mercedes-Benz slice and dice their offerings for various markets, selling different products in different types of stores for different prices under the same brand. This practice is pervasive at discount retailers. Chains such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, and Home Depot have items manufactured “to their specifications,” meaning that the brand name is almost devoid of meaning. A television with a model number available only at Best Buy or Wal-Mart is–no matter its apparent brand–a Best Buy or Wal-Mart television.”

Of course, in my case, I never took a really good look at the shoes in question. I couldn’t have recognized quality shoe construction if it was staring me in the face. And unfortunately, according to Shell most other consumers are just like me thinking that they’re getting a bargain when it’s really something entirely different. And even though the cheap cost adds that devaluation mentioned above.

Shell closes with a call-to-action for all of us to take the true cost of goods into account and to ensure that those true costs are fully disclosed for easier decisions.

“Bargain hunting is a national pastime and a pleasure that I, for one, will not relinquish. But knowing that our purchases have consequences, we can begin to enact change. We can set our own standard for quality and stick to it. We can demand to know the true costs of what we buy, and refuse to allow them to be externalized. We can enforce sustainability, minimize disposability, and insist on transparency. We can rekindle our acquaintance with craftmanship. We can choose to buy or not, choose to bargain or not, and choose to follow our hearts or not, unencumbered by the anxiety that someone somewhere is getting a “better deal.” No longer slaves to the low-price imperative, we are free to make our own choices. As individuals and as a nation, we can turn our attention to what matters, secure in the knowledge that what matters has never been and will never be cheap.”

As for myself, the next time I come across a $5 frying pan at the supermarket, I’ll be much more confident in passing it up and holding out for quality when I actually need one.

Book Review: Not Buying It

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Judith Levine’s book Not Buying It: My year Without Shopping was one of the my earlier influences towards taking frugality to the next obvious step of wasting less money on things that I don’t need. After an overwhelming holiday (a.k.a. shopping) season, she and her husband decided to take a break from shopping in 2004–no new clothes, no processed junk food, not even greeting cards. This book is a journal of her experiences throughout the year–shopping withdrawl, social pressures, political pressures, activities to fill time that was previously spent shopping, Buy Nothing Day, and after many months something approaching non-shopping nirvana.

Their non-shopping year in 2004 was not so far removed from the September 11 attacks and the aftermath of politicians sharing economic concerns, and the politics of shopping runs a strong vein through this book. Levine notes:

“It was impossible to remember a time when shopping was so explicably linked to our fate as a nation. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the U.S. gross domestic product, and if the gross domestic product is what makes America strong, we were told, the marketplace is what makes us free. Consumer choice is democracy. A dollar spent is a vote for the American way of life. Long a perk and pleasure of life in the U.S. of A., after September 11 shopping became a patriotic duty. Buy that flat-screen TV, our leaders commanded, or the terrorists will have won.”

Or while planning out a home improvement project that was already underway and exempt from the no-spend rules:

“After dinner, I take out the paint chips I have been collecting and spread them across the kitchen table. Engrossed in the pure, flat colors, grouping them in twos and threes, placing them in light and in shadow beside fabric swatches and blocks of wood, I forget global warming, the war in Iraq, the egregious George W. Bush and the only slightly less egregious John Kerry. As I make a note to bring home several cooler grays from the hardware store–Benjamin Moore alone must have a hundred–it occurs to me that I have better choices in paint than I do in presidents.”

But non-consumerism results in more for Judith than just asking friends to meet her for a walk or a picnic instead of going to the mall or to a restaurant. There are times where the best alternative to buying something new is to ask to borrow it from someone else. This is something I have trouble with myself but am encouraged by Judith’s experiences.

“Not buying has forced Paul and me to feel vulnerable and to ask for help, an almost un-American behavior. But the ability to ask for help might be a good skill to cultivate. Today I asked, and got service and a smile…. [W]hat I need is some non-consumer confidence.”

Sadly, early in the book I was secretly cheering when Levine gave in to a purchase or allowed someone else to treat her to a restaurant meal because it allowed me to feel self-righteous that I wouldn’t stoop to that level (although that may not be entirely true). At other points I felt guilty about aspects of their project that “beat” my own such as the fact that I rarely make it a full week without going out for lunch with my work friends. But it’s not a competition, and what’s right for each person will be different. I could learn much from Judith’s moment of nirvana the first time she goes into a store without feeling tempted to purchase anything.

“And just as I realize I am free of the desire to shop, I also feel free of the desire to judge others who desire to shop. I can condemn overconsumption and the systems that support it and it supports, but I don’t have to condemn the shopper.”

This is one of those books that gets me excited, and honestly there’s still a bit of an instinct there to go out and immediately buy a Buy-Nothing to satisfy my excitement. 🙂

But it’s okay. I take a breath and realize that not buying it is about giving me more control over my life and freeing up my time for other interests. I might start some veggies for my fall garden, relax with some yoga, or (very likely) curl up with another good book from the library.

A Graduation Celebration, Or “The Day I Totally Pigged Out”

My oldest nephew graduated from high school today! I still remember him best as a small child, and it’s so strange to see him now ready to fully embark on the journey of independent life. He’s a lover of animals and a vegan, and has a beard the likes of which would definitely have kept him from walking back at my high school graduation (although it’s nothing compared to his dad’s).

Deciding on a gift was easy. My husband and I gave him cash. He recently earned an honor for Economics, so there’s some hope that he may use it wisely. 🙂

We didn’t go out and buy a five dollar greeting card for him. I could have made him a card from some nice paper that has printing on only one side, but I still had a pack of generic blank greeting cards that I picked up at Goodwill a while back. As it turns out, another family member needed a quick card, and we did make that one out of a sheet of paper that was laying around and some markers. It was a fair decision because later on, the graduate was happily counting all the cash he had received while the various cards were laying about totally neglected.

My cousin (his father) hosted the celebration party at their house. Many other relatives were there, and even my grandmother made it in to town for the festivities. But we were nowhere near enough people to eat the smorgasboard of food that unfolded before us. We started with crackers and hummus dip and chips with pico de gallo. There were vegan cookies. Someone brought chocolates. Then food started coming into the house from the grill. Burgers and sausage. It was surprising that with a vegan graduate there were no veggie burgers, but I was hungry and immediately gobbled up the beef delight before me. By that time, more food appeared and fortunately included many fruits of which I ate some pineapple, strawberries, and grapes. A batch of veggie kabobs made their way in, but those were specially for the birthday boy and not enough to go around. The trays kept coming, though. Some chicken kabobs. Shrimp kabobs. Being surrounded by food, I helped myself to a sausage burger. Within one hour I had eaten more meat than I would normally eat in a week! Then veggie burgers appeared, only after I was stuffed enough to avoid any more entrees. More veggie kabobs appeared, but those again were just enough for the graduate. So much food around me! One of the chicken kabobs also somehow disappeared into my mouth. After that, I kept nibbling for the duration of our stay, barely managing to stick to strawberries and grapes.

Oh, but it wasn’t just the excess of meats. (Or the fact that the kabobs were probably store-prepared and excessively wrapped on foam with plasticwrap in addition to the kabob stick.) The drinks that were available at the party were canned sodas and bottled water. I had considered bringing my own, but the auditorium where the graduation was held had a no outside food or drink policy and I was afraid they’d confiscate my favorite water bottle. I drank from the water fountain at the arena, but I was out much longer than anticipated and needed something more. Since bottled water is so repulsive to me, I opted for the soda. Full corn syrup. Full caffeine. Full plastic-lined can. In retrospect, bottled water is still probably better than canned soda in every respect — for the environment, for my health, for the wallet of my hosts.

So, there you have it. My confession of how I succumbed to the pressures of the day. It’s not so bad though. Another time, I might have eaten multiple burgers or several chicken kabobs. I might have really pigged out on the individually-wrapped chocolate candies instead of filling up on fruit. I could also have partaken in the cake and ice cream. This was moderation and progress. I can only hope that the ton of food left over also left an impression that maybe less food should be bought for the next time. Then again, in our family I’m not sure if there’s ever been a celebration where we didn’t all leave with achingly full bellies. We haven’t learned yet.

The Totally New Refrigerator

Our house came with a refrigerator from the previous owner.

It kept our chillables cold and our freezables frozen. But there were a few problems with it.

  1. At 25 cubic feet of storage, it was simply way bigger than we needed.
  2. It had an ice maker that didn’t work. I’m sure it’s fixable, but manually filling ice trays solved this problem nicely.
  3. A layer of fuzzy frost would quickly form over our manually-filled iced trays and anything else in the freezer.
  4. The couple of times that we stored veggies in the bottom drawers in the fridge those also froze, even though the custom temperature settings for those drawers were on the warmest setting.
  5. As a proponent of simplicity whenever appropriate, I’d strongly prefer a fridge that is not connected to the water supply.

And then a week ago, I woke to discover a small puddle in the kitchen. The bottom of the refrigerated section was full of water. Whether this was melted frost or something else, I had no idea. Normally this would have been the time to investigate what was wrong with it or hire someone to come fix it, but my husband was unwilling to tolerate this fridge any longer and started telling me again about the fridges he’d seen recently at Fry’s Electronics and Home Depot. If I wanted a happy marriage, repair wouldn’t suffice this time.

So we started our homework on new fridges. Unfortunately, the less expensive (and therefore more appealing) ones he’d looked at actually weren’t Energy Star. (He thought all fridges were energy efficient these days, but sadly it’s not true.) Off the bat, we eliminated fridges that were over a thousand dollars, had a bunch of bad reviews, didn’t have the Energy Star rating, or were 15 cubic feet or larger. It’s amazing how quickly a huge number of choices will narrow down.

I ended up picking out this fridge–10 cubic feet of storage, two-thirds in the upper refrigerated section and one-third in the bottom freezer section with drawers.

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After browsing various shopping sites, I found one with a few floor models of this refrigerator for sale–the perfect option for the reluctant consumer who hoped at least for “not new”. Better yet, we would save over a hundred dollars. Unfortunately, this option fell through because the only shipping method would take about 3 weeks and that wait time was not acceptable.

Just a few days later, we had a brand spanking new fridge. It came wrapped in plastic with a huge cardboard box, several large plastic foam blocks, plastic film over all every drawer to protect it, and tons of tape to keep each bit of film and anything else secured. We carefully removed all of the packaging piece by piece, managed to create a reusable roll of tape from the pieces painstackingly removed, and left the fridge doors open for a day to air out some of that new fridge smell. (Who would have thought that one day a new fridge, a new car, and a new pair of shoes could all smell so similar!)

After plugging it in and letting it pre-chill for a couple of hours, voila, here is our new fridge in action. It may not be glamorous, but it is absolutely everything we need in a fridge.

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So, what to do with the old fridge? My hubby’s given up on it and wants to send it off to appliance recycling heaven as soon as possible to do with what they will (even if it means that it’ll actually end up in landfill). But I’ll be listing it on the free section of Craigslist. Fingers crossed that there’s someone out there that wants a fridge like this and would rather pay the smaller amount to get it fixed than to buy a new one.

This purchase may more than offset any of the greenish lifestyle changes that I’ve adopted in the past year, but it’s no reason to stop trying. It’s just a reason to love and care for this new fridge so it can serve us well for many, many years to come.