As part of Marketplace’s series of stories on the American consumer economy, they did a short piece on a family of compacters, people who have sworn off buying anything new for a year.

My family is doing that this year. Nothing new, save a few exceptions like food and hygiene products. We’ve officially been at it since June, though we actually started about a month earlier. From our compact, which borrows from others’:

We plan to follow the principals of the San Francisco group, as follows:

  1. To go beyond recycling in trying to counteract our negative impact on the environment.
  2. To support local businesses, farms, etc., reducing resources used for transportation.
  3. To reduce clutter and waste in our homes.
  4. To simplify our lives.


  • Don’t buy new products in stores or online. (Exemptions: children’s pajamas, socks, underwear, swimsuits, and common sense items such as food, hygiene supplies, medicine, cleaning supplies… Use the “fair and reasonable person” standard. You’ll know in your heart when you’re rationalizing a violation.)
  • Borrow or buy used items as needed (resale, garage sale, antiques, free internet…)
  • Services: barter or support local businesses (plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, veterinarians, dry cleaners, house cleaners, etc.) and encourage used parts (rebuilt transmission, salvaged headlight unit…)
  • Gifts: give used items or “experiences” (museum memberships, massage, classes, charitable contributions…)
  • Plants: perennial exchanges, cultivate from free/shared cuttings or seeds. If necessary, purchase from local businesses, farmers markets (not the Home Depot Garden Shop)
  • Arts and Crafts: First line of attack: Artscraps! When absolutely necessary (for the professionals and talented amateurs in the group), buy from local businesses and use as you go. DO NOT STOCKPILE!
  • Magazines, newspapers, books: no new subscriptions or renewals — read online or from the library, buy used books, share.
  • Movie rentals, music downloads: Both OK. Used CDs are OK – or buy directly from artists.

Why are we doing this? Mostly for environmental reasons, to lessen our impact by consuming less. We also have in mind the idea that we can reduce the clutter in our small house. We certainly have clutter aplenty! One of the reasons that we bought a small house in the first place was to limit the amount of stuff that we accumulate. I don’t want a bunch of crap lying around. Buying less new stuff helps, or at least should. We have to be on guard not to buy more old stuff instead, while trying to get rid of things we don’t need.

Buying nothing new might seem extreme. But to tell you the truth, it hasn’t had much impact on our lives. We already bought most things used, including clothing. Yes, other people’s pants. Kiara sews and knits a lot (and does a whole lot of other things), so it’s not like we ever buy mittens. We already used cloth diapers. We used cloth bags at the grocery store when possible. That sort of thing.

The compact has helped clarify a couple decisions, like whether or not to subscribe to a newspaper. We occasionally get tempting offers right around when we realize that we’re not keeping up on the news, but we don’t really need to have a lot of paper dumped on our doorstep every day.

It’s raised interesting and sometimes difficult questions: what about school supplies? Do we send a bunch of used crayons? What if we can’t find used uniforms that fit Owen?

We’ve discovered resources for finding used things. Craigslist is obvious and useful, but there are thrift stores that I never knew about, and the Twin Cities Free Market. Sometimes cities or counties make wood chips available for mulching. Friends and neighbors have tools that we can borrow, and to whom we can loan what we have. There are resources out there in the community if you just look for them.

The biggest sacrifice for me has been books. I buy a lot of technical books, the sort that don’t turn up in local used bookstores or libraries. I’m an early adopter, so they’re often the sort of books that are out of date as soon as they’re published. Sometimes I can get an e-book, but often not. For now, I just make do without. With all the information now available online, many question whether technical books are even necessary, especially on cutting-edge technology. Maybe they’re right. I’ve come to admit that I’ve bought books that weren’t strictly necessary, but the books sure were a hell of a lot easier to read on the bus than a web site.

Overall, though, I feel like the compact isn’t quite the right response to our effort to reduce, simplify, and declutter. I know that we could be doing more. Inspired by the efforts of No Impact Man and, more locally, Riot for Austerity, I wonder if striving to do something else like reduce our energy usage by 50% wouldn’t be more in line with what we’re really trying to do. Reducing consumption is a good step, but it focuses on consumerism rather than a broader range of issues, of things that we do that impact the environment and complicate our lives.