When John Perry and a few San Francisco friends created the Compact, a yearlong agreement not to buy anything new, they were just trying to take a personal stand against rampant consumption and waste. But as news of their idea spread, it drew more than a thousand participants worldwide--and some angry critics. Read about members' strategies and exemptions for essentials like food at groups.yahoo.com/group/thecompact.
Q: What do you make of the backlash you've received?
A: We've been told shopping is patriotic. Part of the promise of success in America is that you can buy lots of stuff.
Q: What's been hardest about living by the Compact?
A: I was a recreational shopper, especially in thrift stores. So it's been challenging to think about what I need instead of just shifting my consumption habits to secondhand goods.
Q: How has your family's daily life changed as a result?
A: We have more time and money to spend hiking, taking classes, going to performances, and eating with friends. Life gets richer and more oriented toward experiences.
(Photograph by Chris Sommers)
10/29/07 UPDATE: Other Compacters share their experiences, after the jump...
Erin Barrett, age 39
Freelance writer and founding member,
the Alameda Compact
Q: What was your motivation for joining the group?
A: I grew up in Hong Kong, where everything was so cheap, so being consumerist was easy. But I also grew up in a religious home, so it felt very vacuous at the same time. When I read the article [about the Compact] in the San Francisco Chronicle, it really resonated with me. I thought taking the pledge would keep me honest and onboard for at least a year, but it has infiltrated my entire way of thinking.
Q: How has your life changed as a result?
A: One time, I was having a really low day and I thought, I could really use a trip to my favorite clothing store over in Berkeley. And then I realized, I can't do that! It was really humbling to realize that I had been using my purchasing--spending my hard-earned money--as a means to lift my spirits. It's changed the ways I deal with my moods, my emotions, the circumstances of my life. It's also freed up a lot of my income to focus more on things like good food--on buying organic, and from small farms, which is more expensive.
Q: What do your family and friends think about your commitment?
A: My 12-year-old daughter is definitely not happy--even though we’ve talked about it, it's hard for her to understand why we're doing this--but my 14-year-old son is right on board. For my birthday this year, he actually went to local antique shops and found some wine glasses he thought my husband and I would like. Everyone in my life knows what I'm doing, and I've gotten a lot of support, even from acquaintances.
Q: Why does the group make exceptions for things like gifts, art supplies, and media? What about expensive consumption of travel, restaurants, movies, gym memberships, and other non-products?
A: The whole point of the group was to reduce stuff, to keep stuff from the landfill. So even if you do choose to go to concerts, or do some travel, it keeps stuff out of the landfill. It's going back to the World War II-era idea of "use it up or do without." It's not about not spending your money. Every time we get a new wave of people coming in, there's a big discussion about exceptions. You have to figure out what's doable for you. The Compact was never meant to deny you from living, the whole point is to live more fully.
Q: What kind of support do members provide to each other? What kinds of questions or problems come up most often?
A: The listserv group is the main line of support--people post tips, ask questions, offer suggestions. Without that, I'm not sure I would have made it this far. A lot of groups have split off, like our Alameda Compact. Every two weeks, some of us meet at an organic tea shop here and talk about local food issues. We have a plot in a community garden that we garden together and we do garage sales together. We stay in touch regularly and have our own East Bay listserv, which gets less traffic but is a better resource for a lot of us locally.
In terms of questions, the problem of finding construction materials comes up a lot, as well as feminine hygiene products, cosmetics, underwear--some people feel strongly that underwear shouldn't be exempt--gifts, and shoes. There's a tutorial on the listserv about how to go without toilet paper. I have not done that one. There's another one about how to go without shampoo. I haven't done that, but I have become conscientious about packaging. I use a shampoo bar [wrapped in] compostable paper.
Q: Is this movement something that could become mainstream?
A: I'm not sure that we’ve hit that point yet, but I think we're headed there in the near future. There's something really fulfilling about the idea of not wasting—thinking more carefully about things is appealing on a spiritual and emotional level. Even my parents have suddenly become very interested in these issues, and they're not like that at all. They're very proud of me.
Q: What about the negative feedback I've read about in the media--what about this idea threatens people?
A: The idea of spending is pretty rampant in the culture--we're rewarded even for spending money we don't have. When you’re talking about people who work really hard and don't get a lot of money, going back to ideas associated with poverty is a scary thought. Other people are angry because they think we're trying to collapse the economy. But a few thousand people can't do that. Hopefully enough people will do this to get industry to change--in terms of their packaging, in terms of the amounts made, in terms of creating problems just to create markets.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the pledge?
A: Be kind to yourself. Only go so far as you think you can go without causing extreme hardship. Use the resources that are available.
Q: How about someone who isn't ready to go all the way, but wants to downsize their shopping? What are some good first steps?
A: A good small step is to go local. Try to buy things made locally and support the local economy. Try to stay out of larger corporate stores, even though they're cheaper. Try to cut out one thing that you can live without.
Shawn Rosenmoss, age 50
A single mother who works for the San Francisco department of the environment, Shawn Rosenmoss talked to Sierra about living under the Compact:
"Everyone who does this has their own motivations--trying to get back to a simpler lifestyle, trying to make an environmental statement, etc. It's not hard for me because I'm pretty creative about reusing and rebuilding. It's not like we were Wal-Mart shoppers spending every weekend at the mall. It's been a little difficult for my 12-year-old. She's committed to it, but she's entering adolescence, getting invited to birthday parties and all that. It's just an indication of our middle-class-ness that that's our biggest problem.
"There's so much that we can do that's not about 'let's all live in the woods and grow our own grain and make our own bread.' That makes people feel like 'if I can’t do that, I might as well buy an SUV.' It's just really just fun to have this group of people, to be a part of this community. We have potlucks once a month and I get these crazy emails about things people want to borrow.
"A lot of times we'll get new people who are sort of hesitant about whether they can really do it. They wonder, 'how hardcore do I have to be?' But none of us is perfect. We're just trying to be a little more mindful about what we use and what we consume. You have to get to a realization that [shopping] is not what's going to make you happy--it's time with friends, time with family. And you have to get into the habit of questioning your purchases, of asking, 'Do I really need this?' 'How am I going to use it?' 'Where am I going to wear it?' 'Can I borrow it from someone?' It's hard to master, but like anything else, you just have to practice. Just because I've reached the point where I have enough money to buy things, doesn't mean I have to buy them."