A few years ago my family and I embarked upon a year of Buying Nothing New. I bought nothing new for a year and as cliché as it sounds, it totally changed our lives. It didn’t just change how we shopped and the things we bought, it changed how I see my place in the world too. It taught me that one person’s actions really do make a difference.
One of the first questions that people usually ask when they hear about our year is “Why?”
And honestly, I’m not entirely sure what made me want to do it.
I do distinctly remember a trip around town when our eldest was three, attempting to negotiate the magazine aisle with a double buggy whilst trying to ignore his very vocal demands for one of those toddler magazines adorned with all manner of ‘instant landfill’.
As I left the shop I was suddenly struck with the realisation that at the tender age of three, our son had already picked up the message that more ‘stuff’ would make him happy. He seemed to have an inbuilt desire to acquire, and I started to question where that came from.
The idea to spend a year Buying Nothing New was, I confess, not an original one. I read an article in a magazine about a lady who was part way through a ‘Second-hand Safari’ and felt a buzz of excitement. The idea instantly grabbed me, and I started to wonder if we could do the same – spend a whole year without buying anything brand new!
I excitedly suggested the idea to Ben, my husband. Ben is quite used to me and my ‘amazing ideas’ and has learned that the best response is a non-committal “hmmm”, safe in the knowledge that I usually forget about it when the next idea distracts me.
But for some reason, I wasn’t going to be distracted from this one, and I raised the idea with him again a couple of days later. Ben also realised that this wasn’t going away so we sat down to work out some ‘rules’. These rules were pretty simple: we had to buy everything second-hand except for food, toiletries and medicines, and shoes for the kids (I wanted to make sure they fitted properly).
We also drew the line at preloved underwear (I don’t think I need to explain that one) and decided that we could buy new parts to fix things that were broken.
We nearly came to blows over Ben’s attempts to bend the rules so he could buy a newspaper once every couple of weeks and I possibly should have graciously allowed this one small luxury, but at the time I was on a mission, and wasn’t going to make exceptions!
I quickly learned about all kinds of ‘alternative retail outlets’ from the more obvious ones like charity shops and car boot sales, to plucking up the courage to visit my local auction house.
I was surprised at just how easy it was to find everything we wanted second-hand and also at the sheer amount of pre-owned ‘stuff’ there is. We have all stuff looking for new homes, and yet every minute of every day, more and more new stuff is being produced.
For a while I was like a kid in a sweet shop, excited at the things I could still buy. Far from feeling constrained I think I probably shopped and bought more during those first few months. The fact that most second-hand goods are significantly cheaper than their new counterparts freed me from the guilt I would usually feel about indulging in a new dress for example, and I quickly ended up with not just one, but four new dresses in my wardrobe.
But, as the novelty of guilt free shopping began to wear off, I started to think about all the items I had bought. Where they had come from, and where they would end up… I started to question the sustainability of our modern Western society and the disposable culture we now have.
With a little bit of research I learned that here in the UK we are using up 2.4 planets worth of resources every year. Problem is, we have only one.
We live in what appears to be a time of such abundance here in the developed world. On every high street there are shops bulging with clothes and gadgets and all manner of ‘things we never even knew we wanted’, and all at lower and lower prices.
We are so far removed from the manufacture of our products now, that it’s easy to forget that all of this stuff is made by someone, it uses up resources, and it all has to go somewhere when we are bored with it or no longer need it.
Our year of buying nothing new taught me that we all make choices every day and that by taking responsibility for those choices we can change the world.
Every day we choose what to wear, what to have for lunch, what to buy. And so many of these choices are almost sub-conscious. Most of the time we give very little thought to the things we buy, other than where we can get it cheapest.
With huge issues like climate change and resource depletion it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and like our individual actions are futile. But they aren’t.
We can all consume more thoughtfully, more consciously, choosing to repair rather than replace, buying less but buying better. These are all simple easy steps that gently challenge the status quo. And they can change the world.
I encourage people now to try out their own Buy Nothing New experiment. It doesn’t have to be for a year, a week or a month can be enough to get you thinking about the things that you are buying and whether you actually need them. And you get to make up your own rules to suit your own circumstances.
Top tips to get started with your buy nothing new experiment:
1. Avoid the shops!
It sounds simple, but I found that if I didn’t go into my favourite shops, or even browse the window displays, it was much easier to avoid temptation.
2. Unsubscribe from mailing lists
This avoids temptation via your inbox!
3. Hit the charity shops
Get to know your local charity shops. Some shops will be better for clothes, whilst others might specialise in electrical goods. Getting to know where they are and popping in whenever you are passing will increase your chances of finding the things you need.
4. Join your local Freecycle or Freegle group
You can post any items you are de-cluttering and people will come to your house to collect them, saving you a trip to the charity shop. AND you can post wanted ads for things you are looking for. You will be amazed what people get rid of, and are happy to let you have for free.
5. Browse online sales and auctions
If you really need something specific, then sites like eBay and Pre-loved are great. Simply search for what you want and set yourself a budget. Just remember to tick the ‘Used’ box in the search options, otherwise you could end up inadvertently buying something new!
6. Make a list
Because you can’t just pop out and buy whatever you want or need, I found it useful to keep a list of the things I was on the look-out for. Then the next time I was doing a round of the charity shops, I could consult my list to see if there was anything I could cross off.
7. Learn to sew
This is such a useful skill, and allows you to make a whole heap of stuff, and mend lots of things too! If you don’t have a machine, keep your eye out of Freegle/Freecycle, or post a WANTED, or ask your friends/family if anyone has one taking up room that they no longer use.
If you have no idea how to even thread the machine, or what the heck a bobbin is (this was me 6 years ago..!) consult The Sewing Directory for beginners classes near you, or again, just ask! If you ask around, you may have friends who could show you the basics, or join your local Streetbank group, and you may find someone happy to do a skill share/swap.
8. Come and join our Make Do and Mend Life community over on Facebook!
It’s a fabulous bunch of people, sharing their Makes, and Mends, and top tips for Making Do. It’s a great place to ask for help with anything you are struggling with, and everyone is warm, friendly and very lovely indeed!
9. Borrow don’t Buy
There are now so many ways to borrow what you need, rather than having to buy it. Edinburgh is home to the UK’s first Tool Library, and both Frome in Somerset and London now have their very own Libraries of Things. For the rest of us, sites like Streetbank facilitate the borrowing and sharing of stuff between neighbours.
10. Enjoy it and have fun!
Be kind to yourself, and don’t beat yourself up if you slip a little every now and then.
Find out more
Jen Gale spent a year with her family buying nothing new. It changed the way she sees the world, as well as her own place within it, and taught her that the choices we make everyday really do have the power to change the world. Jen is now bit of a sustainability geek, and helps to empower people to make simple, easy changes to their everyday lives that reduce their environmental impact without changing their quality of life. She firmly believes that it’s the little things that can make the big difference.