By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 18, 2006
SAN FRANCISCO -- In the living room, the group gathers to share inspirational stories about the joy of finding just the right previously owned shower curtain. To the uninitiated, these people appear almost normal, at least in a San Francisco kind of way. But upon closer inspection, you see it: Nothing in this house, nothing on their bodies, none of their products -- nothing is new. Everything is used.
For these people, recycling wasn't enough. Composting wasn't a challenge anymore. No, they wanted much more of much less.
Attention holiday shoppers! These people haven't bought anything new in 352 days -- and counting. These 10 friends vowed last year not to purchase a single new thing in 2006 -- except food, the bare necessities for health and safety (toilet paper, brake fluid) and, thankfully, underwear, and maybe socks (they're still debating whether new socks are okay).
Everything else they bought secondhand. They bartered or borrowed. Recycled. Re-gifted. Reused. Where? Thrift stores and swap meets, friends and Dumpsters, and the Internet, from Craigslist to the Freecycle Network, which includes 3,843 communities and 2.8 million members giving away stuff to one another.
These people purchased old sheets this year. Tonight's vegetarian feast was cooked in a hand-me-down Crock-Pot. Christmas presents? They're making them, or -- shudders -- they don't give them.
They call their little initiative "the Compact," which they say has something to do with the Mayflower and the Pilgrim pledge to live for the greater good, save the planet, renew their souls, etc. And although these modern "Compactors" say they never intended to spark a mini-movement or appear on the "Today" show, that is exactly what has happened.
Since the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article about them in February, their story of not buying has appeared on media outlets around the world -- everything from Yoga Journal to Martha Stewart's Body + Soul to the London Times. Even Oprah's producers called.
It appears they've pinched a nerve. Perhaps, the Compactors suggest, many people have the same feeling that the mall just isn't working for them anymore.
"We're just rarefied middle-class San Francisco greenies having a conversation about consumption and sustainability," says John Perry, a marketing executive with a high-tech firm, and one of the founding Compactors. "But suddenly, we decide we're not going to buy a bunch of new stuff for a year? And that's international news? Doesn't that say something?"
Their user group on Yahoo has grown to 1,800 registered members, representing SubCompact cells operating across the country (including Washington), and around the planet. So they apparently live among us, biding their time, quietly not buying, like some kind of Fifth Column of . . . Shakers.
The online Compact community ( http://groups.yahoo.com/group/thecompact) spends enormous amounts of typing-time discussing things most Americans probably do not. Such as how to make soap. Or whether a mousetrap counts as a safety necessity. Or how to explain to your children that Santa Claus traffics in used toys.
"And people hate us for it? Like it drives them nuts?" This is Shawn Rosenmoss, an environmental engineer in the original San Francisco group. Some have called the Compactors un-American, anti-capitalist, eco-freak poseurs whose defiant act of not-consuming, if it caught on, would destroy the economy and our way of life.
Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters magazine, who advocates taking a 24-hour timeout of the consumer merry-go-round, has promoted Buy Nothing Day since 1992, urging citizens to resist the urge to splurge on the day after Thanksgiving, the kickoff to the holiday shopping spree.
Lasn claims that millions of people have stopped shopping on Buy Nothing Day, although he admits there is no way to know for sure. But Lasn does know that Internet discussion about the movement has grown, and so, too, the backlash -- against the backlash.
"I go on talk radio shows, and I'm amazed by the anger of some people, the Chamber of Commerce president who calls up and says, 'You're trying to ruin the economy,' " Lasn says. "I sympathize. I know you have to pay your rent, but try to take the larger view. We consume three times more than we did right after World War II. These things are connected."
"I think it upsets people because it seems like we're making a value judgment about them," says Rosenmoss, who has two children. "When we're simply trying to bring less . . . into our house."
What are the rules to this particular game? "People are really into the rules," Perry says, "as if it were a game, which it kind of is. I like that part of it. Figuring out how to do what I need to do without running out and buying something."
The rules are simple -- and flexible. The original Compactors decided they would get to vote on anything in the gray areas.
One member recalls asking permission to purchase a new toilet brush, contending that it was a health issue. Overruled. How about a new house key? Allowed. New tubes of shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen are okay, but skin bronzer would be frowned upon.
At the potluck supper, the family dog is playing with a toy, which looks like a ball of yarn. Technically, it is new, and thus a Compact breaker. "But if she eats it," points out Rachel Kesel, a professional dog walker, "then it's food."
"We all have our little weaknesses," says Kate Boyd, a schoolteacher and set designer. Her challenge was getting used bicycle shoes, plus a used helmet and pump. Three buys through Craigslist through three sellers. "It was more of a hassle than going to the bike store," she says, but more interesting, too. "You get to meet new people."
The greatest challenge of the Compact? "The strangest things," Perry explains. For example, he cannot find used shoe polish.
Then there are modern dilemmas. Is it better to buy a battery (allowed, if recycled and rechargeable) for a cellular phone for $70 or just have the company give you a new free phone if you switch providers?
Clothes? Easy, they say. Vintage stores. Consignment shops. Or more down-market, your Goodwill, your Salvation Army. Or your own closet, likely filled with outfits.
Toys? The easiest. Perry and his partner, Rob Picciotto, a high school language teacher, have two adopted children. "I take Ben to Target sometimes and we'll play with the toys and then leave," Picciotto says. The kid seems happy.
"I broke down and bought a drill bit," Rosenmoss says. The Compactors nod their heads. "I just wanted it and I needed and I did it." The group members understand. They've had their drill-bit moments.
But not a lot of them. Asked what they bought that broke the Compact, the list was not long: some sneakers, the drill bit, a map, and for Sarah Pelmas and her newlywed husband, Matt Eddy (fellow Compactors), some energy-efficient windows for the house renovation. The 1920s house, they remind us, was purchased used. Indeed, they painted it with recycled paint.
"By being so strict with yourself, you learn to take a deep breath," Kesel says.
"You learn to do away with the impatience." Boyd says, "You see that the craving will pass."
One Compactor points out that the group's members are not really denying themselves much. Boyd says that, for example, by buying less new, "I drink way better wine now." Also allowed: services. So they could buy a massage if they wanted to. They can go to movies, theater, concerts, museums, bars, music clubs and restaurants. They can fly, drive (and buy gas), stay in hotels.
Judith Levine, author of "Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping," went really cold turkey in 2004 with her husband. The couple split their time between Brooklyn and Vermont. She applauds the Compactors, but says that not buying stuff for a year is only taking it halfway. Not going to the movies and restaurants for a year -- now that's cutting back.
Amazingly, the Compactors have all decided to renew their pledge for another year. There are, naturally, things they miss, and so they've decided to give themselves one day next month when they can buy a few things they really need new.
Like? "I need a drain snake," Perry says. Is that not pitiful?
Pelmas is dying for new pillowcases. Used pillowcases, even this group agrees, are rather disgusting.
"We didn't do this to save the world. We did this to improve the quality of our own lives," Perry says. "And what we learned is that we all have a lot of more stuff than you think, and that you can get along on a lot less stuff than you can imagine."
Staff writer Sonya Geis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.