I made a new year’s resolution this January to buy no more than one new thing a month (or 12 things in the year). Like many new year’s resolutions, the intention was to give myself a challenge. I challenged myself to reduce my personal consumption – and to really think about whether I need the things I might otherwise impulse-buy.
Why did I choose this?
Researchers at NTNU’s Industrial Ecology department (together with many others) have written extensively about the problems associated with over-consumption. The lead author of a recent study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, Diana Ivanova says: “We all like to put the blame on someone else, the government, or businesses. But between 60-80 per cent of the impacts on the planet come from household consumption.” Her research shows that consumers are responsible for over 60 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and up to 80 per cent of the world’s water usage.
The footprints of a number of countries were compared in terms of carbon, land, material and water, importantly showing the much greater impact of industrialised countries compared to the world average. Unsurprisingly, a reduction in our consumption habits, Ivanova says, can have a drastic effect in reducing our environmental footprint.
Before the end of January, I had convinced another three friends to join my challenge, and we began to think about the practicalities of such a resolution.
Some ground rules were drawn up:
1. ‘New’ things exclude any second-hand purchase (this promotes reuse)
2. Certain items that cannot be found second-hand are not counted as new purchases: undergarments, bedding, new edition textbooks etc.
3. Items that provide a safety benefit are excluded from the challenge (such as bicycle brake pads or smoke detectors – although used purchase is encouraged if the safety criteria are met)
4. Tools or materials required to fix broken products (since repair is far more desirable than disposal)
5. Consumables are not counted as ‘things’ – such as food & drinks, hygiene products and other things that don’t last very long. Certain ‘consumables’ like batteries were excluded if rechargeable models were purchased.
I was lucky in many ways given I had moved into a new apartment the year before, and had already acquired many of the things that I needed (admittedly this included considerable amounts of new things).
The resolution started out quite well and I was under my one-item-a-month budget leading up to the middle of the year. However I soon went over budget again due my poor preparedness for a summer camping trip in the Hardanger national park. After refraining from new purchases in autumn, I am finally back on track, and have recently made my 12th (and hopefully last) new purchase for the year. The full list is shown below:
1. Handmade item of pottery as a gift
2. Wall clock
3. Cooking pot
4. Fishing lures (I actually purchased many, but since I lose them when I go fishing I only counted them once, since they are a kind of consumable)
5. Book as a gift
7. Hiking boots
9. Casual shoes
10. Tea box as a gift
11. Bicycle (price error meant 70% reduced – too good to pass up!)
12. LED lamp
One of the main changes I had to make to my purchasing habits was spending more time wandering around second-hand shops and flea-markets to try and find the things I wanted (or on classifieds websites – in particular finn.no in Norway). But this was actually a pleasant surprise. There is really a wealth of things to find preloved, and in some cases in as-new condition. Here’s a list of the things I purchased used this year:
• Desk and chair (finn.no)
• Wardrobe with mirrors (finn.no)
• Pillow and sheets (Salvation Army – unopened from Ikea)
• Bed (from a hotel that was closing down)
• Cooking utensils, cups, bowls, plates, pots, pans and cutlery (from a friend who was leaving and Salvation Army)
• Christmas lights and decorations (finn.no)
• Fishing reels (friend and finn.no)
• Suit jacket, shirt and shoes (a variety of opportunity shops in Australia when I packed light for a wedding)
• A couple pairs of pants, shoes, a backpack and a sweater (flea-market)
• Kitchen and bathroom fixtures (flea-market)
Now if I were to be harsh on myself, I would say that purchasing things second-hand is still a form of consumption – which it is. But it has benefits in two keys ways compared to new purchases:
1. The products purchased used have already been produced. Purchasing these compared to new products does not lead to a factory somewhere needing to produce another such product. The parent company of classifieds website finn.no has estimated that their customers “potentially saved 0.5 million tons of carbon dioxide when shopping secondhand” – equivalent to the removal of 10 months of traffic emissions in the city of Oslo. Of course second hand marketplaces existed before the internet, so finn can’t claim all the glory, but it’s good to know that there is a significant impact in taking this action!
2. Purchasing used stimulates the circular economy – where well-made products can maintain value after use (a good example is cars). Knowing that the things one buys can have a value after purchase can lead to the stimulation of better quality and longer-lasting goods. The cheap and often poorly made counterparts do not maintain such a high resale value, and subsequently become less attractive.
The circular economy is something gaining a lot of attention in sustainability circles, with some startups of the last decade beginning to really shake up the established industries (such as Uber with taxi transport and airbnb in the hotel industry). But it’s not just about sharing economies and product as a service ideas. Re-use, maintenance, remanufacture and recycling are all a part of the bigger picture too.
The Ellen Macarthur Foundation has made a nice infographic explaining the circular economy. The nearer the circles are to the user/consumer, the better the environmental outcome (i.e.: maintenance is much better than recycling). My challenge fits into the second inner circle on the right side: Reuse/redistribute. Products that are no longer fit for purpose for the original owner, but are still in usable condition and can be sold via various forms of marketplaces. The item can have a new life in the hands of the second owner without ever having to be recycled or remanufactured (and the second owner doesn’t have to purchase a new product – saving money and the environment).
Keeping products in these loops for as long as possible avoids the linear system of traditional manufacturing (at the bottom of the infographic) where goods end their life in landfill or incinerators. It means less raw materials are required to sustain our economies, and less energy input in the production processes (since energy is maintained in products like recycled aluminium).
If you’re wondering: ‘but what about Christmas presents?’ then there are luckily plenty of alternative options to new purchases. Although I ended up buying three gifts in my budget of 12 new items, I had to be a little bit creative come Christmas. My solution involved creating gifts (I am making a few drawings, but for others it might be a knitting project or a song) or purchasing experiences rather than physical gifts: such as movie tickets or dinners.
Lastly, it should be mentioned that my new year’s resolution is in a way a light version of this type of challenge. There are a number of bloggers who have had complete stops to their shopping habits (admittedly these are usually people who own more material possessions at the point they begin their challenge). I was lenient to myself (and fellow challenge-takers) in that I allowed myself 12 new purchases new and also allowed unlimited used-purchases. But it’s been an overwhelmingly positive step for my conscience, wallet and the environment, so I’m going to keep up the challenge for 2017 too!
This blog post was written by PhD candidate Ray Pritchard, Department of Urban Design and Planning, Faculty of Architecture and Fine Art