Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Buy Nothing New Month - The End

My first attempt at Buy Nothing New Month is over. During October, I didn't buy anything new except prescription medication. I didn't even buy any groceries, instead eating out with friends and using up items in my pantry. (I may have inadvertently stolen a banana but that is unrelated.) I made one second-hand purchase, a $5 book. I was given a vintage trunk by my aunt, which used to belong to my grandmother. Browsing through my bank and credit card statements for October, I paid for travel and transport (a hotel for next month, fuel, public transport), communication (phone and broadband bills), meals, mortgage, charity donations and membership of Doctors for the Environment.

What have I learnt from Buy Nothing New Month?

It was unexpectedly very easy. Only once did I regret not being able to buy something new - a painting at an art show. However, I don't have any wall space for new artworks (due to previous binge purchasing of art) and it was an expensive painting so it worked out for the best.

I have too much stuff. I could go the rest of my life without buying anything new and still have too much stuff. This is probably why I buy lots of gifts for my friends and family, who probably also have too much stuff.

I waste a lot of time browsing stores. This often leads to purchases. Multiple times throughout the month I passed by stores and considered going inside but decided against it. Had I not been participating in Buy Nothing New Month I probably would have gone in and ended up buying something. I found this liberating and found I had more spare time to do other things.

It is far more enjoyable to dine out with friends than to eat alone at home. I should do it more often and support my favourite local restaurants serving local, organic and free range foods. Conversely, instead of buying lunch at work I am going to use up all those leftover meals in the freezer.

I am on multiple email and SMS marketing lists for stores. I received, and deleted, multiple invitations to "secret" or short-term sales events, special events and free shipping deals. These are all local or independent stores selling ethically produced products so I'm not going to unsubscribe from the mailing lists but I will think twice about purchases and avoid impulse buying.

Instead of purchasing new (or even used) items, I should try to borrow them or source hand-me-downs from family and friends. I've lived in this city most of my life so I have a large network of family and friends that have also accumulated much stuff (especially as my parents have a tendency to hoard). I needed a phone for a teleconferences (my cordless phone only has a 40 minute battery life, which is shorter than most of my teleconferences) and instead of buying a new phone, I discovered that my parents have an old "dinosaur" model they're no longer using and could give me. I wanted a new kettle after my electric kettle died so my mother found their old stove-top kettle that I now actually prefer to an electric kettle. I needed a small piece of luggage for a week-long work trip and borrowed it from my father. My mother has since offered to buy me my own for Christmas but it's not something I'd use more than a few times a year so I declined.

Some "collaboration" websites shared by Buy Nothing New Month: share tools, appliances, musical instruments and more with neighbours find accommodation around the world free to list and free to take move stuff

When I told people (especially retail employees) about Buy Nothing New Month, they mostly reacted as if it was a hardship or punishment, consoling me with, "Oh, you poor thing!" I didn't find it that way at all. I found that it liberated my time, my money and my creativity. I definitely want to try it again in future for longer than a month.

If you'd like to try buying nothing, November 24th, 2012, is Buy Nothing Day. It requires more planning than Buy Nothing New Month but is still very achievable. More about that closer to the date!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What I buy at the supermarket & how I "Shop Ethical!"

I'm a strong proponent of voting with my wallet. This is a general post about how I do that at the supermarket. There are many product categories available at supermarkets, each deserving of its own post (or series of posts) that I'll cover in future. These include food, toiletries and cosmetics, cleaning products, pharmaceuticals, clothing and textiles, and more.

I feel the two big supermarket chains in Australia have a real duopoly. (Gosh! I just googled it and Maggie Beer agrees in this article published online 30 minutes ago.) The "big two" lure us in with loyalty programs, loss leaders and discount fuel offers. They're big pushers of tobacco, alcohol and gambling. I try to shop at independent supermarkets, farmers markets, greengrocers, butchers and other independent retailers. When I do shop at the "fresh food people" or "down, down, prices are down" I'm careful to choose brands and products that I want to encourage them to stock more - local, Australian owned, organic and fair trade products. These products are usually found on the bottom or top shelf or inexplicably (in the case of organic hot chocolate and instant coffee), the "health food" aisle.

Making choices at the supermarket can be overwhelming. Packaged products are covered with all sorts of misleading labels trying to convince us of their health or environmental benefits. Marshmallows are "99% fat free"! Likewise, many "natural" products are neither healthy for us nor the environment. Many iconic Australian brands, like Vegemite and Tim Tams, are no longer Australian-owned. You may be boycotting Nestlé but not realise that they own Connoisseur ice cream (I can attest to this; the logo is very subtle).

One tool to assist supermarket decision-making is the Shop Ethical! app or its hardware form, the Guide to Ethical Supermarket Shopping book. I used the book before I had a smartphone but I find the app more convenient. I also get less weird stares from fellow shoppers. The app allows you to search for products via brand name or category. For each product, it offers information such as ownership, number of Australian employees, any boycotts, scores on various ethical shopping profiles, environmental pros and cons, treatment of employees and other ethical considerations. For each product, there is also an overall recommendation and you can quickly scroll through these for each product category. You can "favourite" products for quick reference.

I do not blindly follow the recommendations in the guide (eg sometimes I buy Green & Black organic cocoa, even though it is owned by Cadbury) but in most cases I agree with the recommendations and it makes my supermarket shopping much easier. If you don't follow the overall recommendations of the guide, there is enough information (and hyperlinks) to assist you in making your own decision about individual products.

Further reading:

Ethical Consumer Guide - the not for profit organisation responsible for the Shop Ethical! app
Dick Smith's Magazine of Forbidden Ideas "Censored by the Murdoch Press!"
Ausbuy, Australian Owned and Australian Made
Fair Trade Association, Australia and New Zealand
Australian Made, Australian Grown
Choice magazine's survey on country of origin labelling

This blog post is purely based on my opinion. I do not have any financial stakes in any of the companies or brands recommended and I am not affiliated with them, other than being a consumer.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How I save lives (and not by being a doctor)

I recently read somewhere (I can't remember where but I promise it's true) that we should not be modest about what we donate to charity but instead share the information (and our reasons for donating) so that others are shamed inspired to also donate what they can afford.

The "Charitable Giving Index" published today by the NAB (one of Australia's "big four" banks) analysed charitable donations made by credit card, BPAY or EFTPOS. Charities were divided into seven categories, with "Humanitarian Services" charities (such as World Vision, Oxfam and Red Cross) receiving the largest portion of donations (32%), followed by "Community Services and Children/Family", "Other", "Medical Research and Services", "Health and Disability", "Cancer" and "Animals and Environment".

The analysis also looked at the average charity spend per person by their postcode, looking at donations in dollar terms and as percentage of taxable income. The top 10 postcodes (i.e. those with the highest rate of donations as a percentage of taxable income) from my state, Western Australia , donated just 0.13% of their taxable income. This was worse than any other state or territory in Australia. Obviously, there are limitations to the analysis (eg cash donations aren't included nor are donations of time or services) but at face value, we residents of the boom state of WA can do much better.

Reading Peter Singer's book The Life You Can Save in 2009 motivated me to increase my personal charitable donations. Singer argues that we have a moral obligation to help solve world poverty. The premise is that most of us would not walk past a drowning person without trying to save them, but we allow thousands of impoverished people to die through our passivity, when we could save lives by donating a proportion of our income. (The Life You Can Save website offers suggestions as to the proportion of income you should donate, based on your income and country of residence.) Now, whenever I consider a purchase, I think to myself, "Could I do better by donating this money to humanitarian causes?" I'm far from perfect as I could definitely do more, I still have many treats, holidays and frivolous purchases, and I come from the privileged position of having a comfortable income, not having student debts and not having any dependents.

Since reading The Life You Can Save I have donated at least 5% of my income to charity, increasing the amount each year. This includes regular monthly donations to five charities (including Oxfam, MSF, Red Cross, Amnesty and a sponsor child) and one-off donations to other appeals, such as for disaster relief or if an acquaintance is fundraising for a particular cause (such as One Girl's Do It In A Dress). Not all of my donations go to humanitarian causes (some are medical charities such as the Cancer Council). I also donate to arts charities and scholarships at my university but do not include these in my 5% target. Sometimes, I may feel that I'm throwing money at charities to alleviate my First World guilt (or my lack of hands-on contributions to charities) but every bit helps and even one life saved or made more comfortable makes it worthwhile.

I'll do a longer post on The Life You Can Save (and its evidence-based suggestions as to which charities you should donate) in the future but for now will leave you with these reasons why I donate to charity:
  1. I can improve more lives indirectly through supporting humanitarian charities than I can directly through working as a doctor;
  2. It is wrong not to; and
  3. It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling.

Take The Life You Can Save pledge along with 14 000 other people.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Buy Nothing New Month - Resources

Following yesterday's post about Buy Nothing New Month, here are a few links to help get started:
There are many more resources online - please share them in the comments!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Buy Nothing New Month

"We used to build civilizations. Now we build shopping malls."

"Consumers have not been told effectively enough that they have huge power and that purchasing and shopping involve a moral choice."


"Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like."


"People used to die of consumption. Then it went from being a fatal disease to a way of life"

"Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need." 


This October I am participating in Buy Nothing New Month, a movement for collective, conscientious consumption that began in Australia's shopping capital, Melbourne.  I have pledged to buy nothing new this month, with the exception of food, drink and medications. I am allowed to buy second-hand goods and first-hand experiences. There are several reasons I decided to make the pledge. Firstly, to protest the rampant materialism that infests the developed world, making us selfish and numbing us to the plight of those who have less and those who suffer producing all our "stuff". Secondly, to raise awareness amongst my friends and colleagues about our wasteful lifestyles. Thirdly, to remind myself that just because something is ethically produced, it does not give me an excuse to buy it.

As someone who enjoys shopping (I will even confess to reading the inelegantly named Shop Til You Drop magazine), I thought that Buy Nothing New Month would be difficult. (I am particularly vulnerable to anything that's locally made, fair-trade, well-designed and from one of my favourite local independent stores - a particularly wanky kind of conspicuous consumption, I guess.) However, it has proven very easy thus far. 

I thought that a weekend in Melbourne would be particularly challenging. Happily, I enjoyed my spare time dining with friends and colleagues and browsing the small galleries and second-hand stores of Fitzroy. My single non-food, non-transport purchase of the month is a 1946 edition of George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma, from antique and vintage store 84 Smith Street. I've wanted to read this play for a while (it advocates doctors being paid a fixed salary, without any financial incentive to offer unnecessary treatment to patients - more on that another time) and I was very pleased to find it for five dollars.

I thought that a friend's birthday gift might prove difficult but I found a gift that I had bought for him a couple of years ago and forgotten about (I have a drawer full of such purchases), which I delivered to him in Melbourne, wrapped in some reused tissue paper. The Buy Nothing New movement also suggests gifting experiences or second-hand goods (like antique jewellery)!

Although I have bought food when I'm eating out, for meals at home I've tried to use up things in my pantry that would otherwise probably sit there until they were inedible. Brinjal pickle with wholemeal couscous was quite tasty (although somewhat lacking in greens). 

One thing I've observed is that when I stay at a hotel I am impeccable, aided by the small number of items I have with me. For the recent weekend in Melbourne, I used a handbag for luggage. For four days working in the Pilbara, a tiny wheeled suitcase was more than sufficient. This is in contrast to my cluttered, chaotic home, which is full of gifts I've never given, art I've never hung, books I've never read, DVDs I've never watched, stationery I've never used, half-empty toiletries, clothes I've forgotten I own, unused craft supplies, CDs I've never played, alcohol that has sat on the shelves for years (scandalous, I know), and unnecessary multiples of so many items that I couldn't name them all. During a particularly decadent phase a few years ago, I would buy new clothes when I ran out of clean clothes to wear to work. I didn't even realise I was doing it until my mother pointed it out to me.

What have I learned from Buy Nothing New Month so far? I've become more aware of things I want to purchase, don't really need, but justify by telling myself that I'm supporting a small business or an ethical producer. I've become more creative with food and outfit choices. I've picked native flowers from my mother's garden instead of buying bunches from the florist that usually die within a few days. I've been catching up on some of those unread books. I've halted the ridiculous flood of gifts for my 10-week-old niece. At no time have I thought twice about something I didn't buy, or rued a lost opportunity. I haven't wasted any time browsing department stores. I chose vintage stores over the discount mall patronised by my colleagues when we were in Melbourne.

I think I need to extend Buy Nothing New Month into Buy Nothing New Quarter. That would provide a real challenge and force new behaviours, such as joining the library, using up those craft and baking supplies for the holiday period, finishing those unread books, "shopping the closet" and getting old shoes repaired. I would spend more time creating, spending time with family, making my way through the never-ending "To Do" list and not accumulating stuff.

Who wants to join me?

See Part 2 for Buy Nothing New resources

Quotations above via Buy Nothing New Month website 

Why live in the world...

Last century I had a blog called "Why live in the world..." Its name was from a line in the song  "Monday", by Pulp: "There's nothing to do/so you just stay in bed/why live in the world/when you can live in your head?" Pulp's Different Class was one of my most-played albums during my formative high school years and remains a favourite.

In my angst-ridden adolescence, I couldn't think of a decent reason to live in the world.  I've now learned that living in the world far exceeds what is in my head, and that life, and the world, can be infinitely improved through engagement of like-minded people.

In this blog I will share some of my attempts to live ethically. I tend to agonise over every decision I make - whether what to do, what not to do, what to buy, how best to ration my time, what to recommend to others. I even bought the Rough Guide to Ethical Living a few years ago. I have not formally studied ethics, save for some rudimentary lectures in university. What I write here will be based on my reading, personal experiences and constant internal struggles to decide what is right. My opinion comes from the place of privilege: the privilege of being born in Australia; of never being seriously ill; of having loving, supportive parents and sister; of attending a great (public) high school and university; of never knowing unemployment or poverty; and of always having choices.

I hope that sharing my thoughts will help me make decisions and engage others in discussions about ethical choices and ethical living.