Wednesday, April 09, 2014

A New Shopping Mantra

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, April 2, 2014, by Sara Jewell Mattinson

Could you go a year without buying any clothes, shoes, furniture, books, toiletries, cosmetics, gifts and cards, garden supplies, technology and hardware?
I mean, absolutely nothing but food. For a year. 
Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. Is it even possible? 
If you ask Lee Simpson, she’ll tell you not only that it’s possible, it’s easier than you might think. 
Because in January, Lee, a retired minister who lives in Lunenburg,  began her “Year of Buying Nothing” (an idea so shocking, she’s been splashed on the cover of newspapers and interviewed on television and radio).
The roots of this challenge run deep, however, reaching back to when Lee was the publisher for a group of women’s magazines based in Toronto.
“Part of my job was to promote the purchase of stuff,” she writes in her introductory blog post ( “The majority was fattening, silly, fragile, fleeting of use and unnecessary to the well-being of the reader.  I was an enthusiastic participant in a business that reduced people to their lowest common denominator: consumers.”
But the life-changing epiphany that inspired the Year of Buying Nothing didn’t happen until she  went in search of a Christmas present for her two-year-old grandson. Not having shopped for toys in years, Lee was shocked by the gender stereotyping (a girl side of the toy aisle all pink and a boy side all blue) but also by the branding.
“Do you know that it is very hard to even buy diapers that aren’t branded by a character that leads to a game that leads to a video?” she told me in a recent phone conversation. “I also discovered that it’s almost impossible to buy something made in North America.”
Lee’s ix-nay on buying doesn’t include the necessities for life, it only excludes the unnecessaries for living. Food is on her family’s “green list” but if it can’t be eaten, it can’t be purchased. That means no paper products, shampoo or cleaning supplies. While she did stockpile dishwasher and laundry soap as well as deodorant and bath soap, she now dusts with rags and a mop, cleans with baking soda and lemon juice, and uses a handkerchief instead of tissue.
“I would love to tell you that it’s really, really hard but it’s not,” Lee said. “Part of it is that I was brought up in a household where the motto was ‘Make it do, wear it out, use it up or do without’. My parents lived through the Depression and my father fought in World War II; they lived with food stamps and other wartime deprivations.”
I first heard about Lee’s Year of Buying Nothing when the magazine hosting her blog posted her first essay. Even though my knee-jerk reaction to this idea was to list all the ways in which it would be impossible, Lee’s endeavour stuck with me. Her personal challenge to buy nothing for 365 days became a chance to examine my own spending habits, especially my impulse buying. Do I really need that? Do I really need this when I haven’t used up what I bought last month? She inspired me to raise my own awareness and perhaps even experience some sacrifice by declaring April my “Month of Buying Nothing”. 
I have to admit I chose April because there are no birthdays this month so I don’t face the pain of creating a homemade birthday card or figuring out what to give as a gift. Yet Lee has the answer to that dilemma: Her son-in-law loves homemade bread so she is baking him a loaf every week.
“The things that are important to my family these days are better served by hospitality,” she explained. “My grandson is the light of our lives and my husband and I contribute two or three days a week to his care. That doesn’t require any money at all.”
But honestly, how is Lee surviving without her favourite things, cosmetics and toiletries?
“I am answering that need within my soul -- and it’s hard to admit my soul needs a bubble bath! -- by using up all those bits and bobs that have been lingering in the bottom of baskets and toiletry bags and a suitcase. Even if it’s a teeny tiny sliver of soap, that will do just fine.”
That will do. Words to live, and shop, by.

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