Holiday season is upon us, and the festivities are accompanied by shopping sprees on adrenaline. Consumerism really seems to have become a new religion with the Black Friday and Cyber Monday as its holy days. In the past, I too would have gotten caught up in the frenzy. This year, however, I am surviving relatively unscathed as I am halfway through a year-long experiment of buying nothing but the essentials. I am not completely immune as friends and family members around me are still participating.
I used to pride myself on being a conscious consumer, a bit of a minimalist even. My kitchen is full of mismatched glass jars used for drinking water and storing leftover food. I have resoled my favorite pair of boots multiple times. My winter coat has gotten me through almost fifteen New York winters. Heck, I had even gotten married in borrowed saris. Yet, when we were moving two years ago, I realized how much stuff I had accumulated. I came to the U.S. with two suitcases worth of clothes and personal items, almost all of my possessions in the world. Here I was two decades later, getting rid of more than that in a week.
How did I get to this point? Online shopping was definitely a culprit. I ordered more than I needed thinking I would only keep what I really liked, but I got too busy to think about return deadlines. I also got addicted to finding deals, buying multiples to unlock the savings. I bought outfits for special occasions that were worn once at most. The unused items got shoved into the dark corners of the closets, and remained forgotten — until I started to pack and move.
Since I was moving to a smaller place, I had no choice but to shed some of the excess. However, I did not want to add to the pollution, so I donated and recycled as much as possible. I made multiple trips to the Salvation Army thrift store. I carefully sorted paper and plastic and metal, and deposited them in appropriate bins. I felt I was doing the best I could to be a good global citizen, until I started to fully understand the perils of fast fashion; how much of donated goods end up in landfill anyway; the U.S. recycling crisis and how triple-washed peanut butter jars are ending up in incinerators.
I decided to tackle the problem at the source and become more intentional about what I buy. I started out by implementing zero-dollar days, when I did not spend any money, including on grocery. Using what I already had in the pantry, I created some interesting recipes. These sporadic moratoriums on buying did not help much since I could simply defer purchases and splurge the very next day. Therefore, I decided to make a longer term commitment to intentional buying. Earlier this year on June 21st, I decided to embark on a year-long journey of buying just the essentials. I chose the day of the solstice to mark a turning point.
I am aware that I am operating from a position of immense privilege that I can undertake this experiment without really impinging on the quality of my life. I also do not have to worry about a child outgrowing their clothes. It is a luxury not available to everyone, including many family members and friends. Additionally, my ban on buying is only limited to things, and not experiences like travel and restaurants.
Six months into the experiment, I have fared fairly well. I have not added anything to my wardrobe, or home decor, or kitchen utensils. When I had to accompany out-of-town friends for shopping trips, I have found deals that I could not have resisted in the past. A lovely sweater for less than $20. A velvety soft full-sleeved button down shirt. But I was able to walk away without buying anything, every single time. When I travelled, I did not buy souvenirs and gifts. I have made exceptions a couple of times and bought a few items of clothing as gifts. However, I specifically chose each piece with exact recipient in mind, unlike in the past when I would buy things that would eventually migrate to the box labeled “gifts” and remain there for years.
Books have remained in a grey area. I am not sure if they can be labeled as essential items in the same vein as food, soap, and medicine, but if I have a book in my hands, I can forget about everything else. So, I have bought a few books in the past six months. Also, to my defense, when you find George Orwell’s Burmese Days in the streets of Yangon, how do you pass it up? Buying books has always been my weakness; however, even books, I have bought sparingly.
Since I embarked on this experiment, I have re-discovered the joy of things I already own. I have worn clothes I have not worn in years, including some whose existence I had forgotten. I am fixing things, and getting things fixed. For minor rips and missing buttons, I can fall back on the skills I learned from my grandmother. Changing zippers and resoling, I needed professional help. But with these fixes, many items have been salvaged from reaching a landfill, at least for a little bit longer.
Some things I could not save, but I have been careful about not replacing them immediately. When a toaster stopped working, instead of buying a new one, I started using a cast iron skillet. I enjoy the more hands-on preparation, and now have one less gadget taking up valuable space on the kitchen counter.
With the bonus time I am not spending on scouring online deals for things I do not really need, I am reading and re-reading books I already own. When I am in need of different reading materials, I am raiding friends’ bookshelves. After many years, I have also renewed my Queens Library card, a passport to more books than I can ever read in my lifetime.
I am fortunate to have a support system of close friends in the neighborhood who have made this experiment of not buying so much easier. We have long been borrowing and lending more than just books. Sometimes, we lend each other clothes for special occasions or give away the ones we are no longer wearing. Sometimes we show up at each other’s doors to ask for a bowl of sugar or to give a quarter of a winter melon. When I recently decided to serve soup at a party without owning soup bowls, my sister-friend saved the day with six matching bowls — the same bowls she had used as decoration at a party I had helped plan earlier in the year.
I know that I have difficulty parting with things (and people). So, I am not planning to Konmari anytime soon. I also do not like that minimalism itself has become commodified — however, that is a conversation for another time. For now, I am doing what I can — not bringing things into my apartment, and my life, that I will later not be able to let go.
(This is the first part of a series of reflections on my year of trying to become more conscious about consumption and look critically at the consumerism culture.)