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'We have to get a grip as a society': Could you stop buying clothes for a year?

We talk to a woman who did just that – and a woman who embraces the zero waste and minimalist lifestyles.

Image: Shutterstock/Rawpixel.com

AT THE BEGINNING of the New Year, people tend to be focused on getting better: more organised, more productive, slimmer.

We don’t need to have these aims, and lord knows many of us fail when it comes to reaching them. But this year, there’s another, slightly different aim being talked about: buying nothing.

Well, not buying nothing – certainly not foregoing food, or essentials – but not buying clothes, or frivolous items, or things that are a ‘want’ and not a need.

This isn’t the first that people have heard of this notion, but it feels like a moment when the trends of minimalism and zero waste are tipping over into the mainstream, when people try to shake off consumerist aims and instead focus on exactly what they’re spending their money on and why.

Of course, talk of minimalism or buying less is usually from people who have the wallets of those who aren’t in poverty. As money isn’t an everyday worry for them, they are free to choose (for the most part) what to do with it.

But it is also an idea that appeals to people who want to create less waste, in a world where plastic is polluting oceans and there are piles of old clothes in dumps; and people who want to push back against a capitalist system that tells us to buy is to be a better person.

Writer Ann Patchett explored her ‘year of no shopping’ in the New York Times. It wasn’t punitive, she says, and was inspired by a friend who stopped shopping.

“The unspoken question of shopping is “What do I need?” What I needed was less,” writes Patchett. She came up with an arbitrary set of rules, as she puts it:

I wanted a plan that was serious but not so draconian that I would bail out in February, so while I couldn’t buy clothing or speakers, I could buy anything in the grocery store, including flowers. I could buy shampoo and printer cartridges and batteries but only after I’d run out of what I had. I could buy plane tickets and eat out in restaurants. I could buy books because I write books and I co-own a bookstore and books are my business. Could I have made it a full year without buying books? Absolutely. I could have used the library or read the books that were already in my house, but I didn’t; I bought books.

The year was not without its tough points, but it went so well that Patchett has decided to do it for another year.

Irish woman and Galway-based PR professional Lisa Regan took a similar tack to Patchett – last year, she gave up buying clothes entirely for a year.

And it changed her so much, she doesn’t want to go back to the old her.

The rules 

It was watching the documentary Minimalism that spurred Regan on. She “couldn’t stop thinking about” the challenge of not shopping for clothes for a year, so decided to do it herself.

What were her rules?

“No clothes, shoes, accessories to be bought. Anything that I could wear I couldn’t buy. I just said if I am doing this then I am doing this right. There were then no moments of ‘oh I really need this because…’. It was simple from the outset, no shopping for myself,” says Regan.

What was the hardest part of it? “The bit just after the beginning, it was like starting a diet. You have that initial high, ‘I can take over the world’ feeling, this fades fast and you realise that popping into the shops for a look was no longer on your agenda,” she says.

“I had the cravings for that ‘new clothes rush’ you get when you get a new dress, but I just denied it and looked into my own wardrobe to excite myself by reinventing looks and also wearing things I hadn’t bothered with in the past.”

What she particularly loved was that she “was no longer in the rat race of buy, buy, buy”.

The need for new fell off me and the buzz of people asking how it was going was really encouraging. It made me accountable, although they didn’t know it.

But did she miss shopping? At times, yes. In June, she was working in Dublin and popped into H&M after having a “pang”.

“I thought oh, no one will know, go on have a look, buy something… I couldn’t, I didn’t. I had no interest. Everything just seemed blah. I think I knew then I was seriously over the hump.”

As for people’s reactions, Regan said that while some people were in “utter shock”, others were nonplussed.

But as her year went on, reactions changed. “Then they started to ask more pragmatic questions other than ‘oh are you saving much?’, it was more the why and the how.

This was when I was on a bit of a crusade to spread the no shopping word as it’s really important to understand why we shop and why we feel the need to always have more.

Why does she think that people are discussing the issue a lot now that 2018 has dawned?

“There is a shift between this and also the overuse of plastic, shopping local, reusing what we have, using keepcups. Look, we have to get a grip as a society, we are over-consumers, be it of food, social media, clothing, you name it, we will use it then discard it,” says Regan.

“I think it coming from the world changing so much since 2016, and especially with Trump getting elected, if we continue to do nothing, things will not stay the same. They will get worse. We need to take ownership for our own behaviour and how as a society we can make changes.”

While not shopping for a year might seem like a small – and to some people, frivolous – thing, Regan’s experience shows that it goes far beyond the actual clothes themselves.

She learned that shopping “fills a void”. “The need for new is really more than just wanting to look nice, it allows you to avoid asking yourself pretty hard questions,” she says.

We are rarely still now, it’s all about being busy and showing that your life is incredible both in reality and online. I used to love the escapism of going shopping, getting a few nice things. But this year taught me that there are much better ways to channel this and one example is meeting a friend for coffee or simply walking with my dog. Time much better spent and the highs and comfort we get from people far outweighs the seven-second rush from getting new jeans.

It also made her realise that shopping and having nice things “does hold merit in our society, if you are stylish and dress well, you know people have regard for you”.

“When I stopped shopping and being part of that conversation and activity, I could really observe others in that mode and I didn’t like what I saw,” she says. “It’s stress, it’s keeping up with the Joneses, it’s about having stuff and things rather than maybe confronting other things that might be bothering you.”

Without shopping I had lost a thing I used to do so therefore opened up a space in my life and in my head to which I was now answerable to, not easy but a better place to be in.

The challenge changed her so much that she no longer has interest in shopping.

“I will forever be changed since the past year,” says Regan. “I do need new footwear as my runners and everyday boots literally fell apart! But I’ve changed as a consumer forever and that is not me talking a good game, my passion for fashion is gone. I’ll buy if I really need something and I will continue to look to vintage and thrift shops and to my friends to borrow this and that. It’s a great way of getting something newish, and feeling great without having an impact on our environment.”

Living the zero waste life

While not shopping for clothes for one year is one thing, there are those who are more focused on having a minimal and/or zero waste life.

Laura Cahill is one of those who considers herself a minimalist, while her “tree hugger” husband has long been an environmentalist (she says he brought a reusable bottle around with him long before it was in vogue) and into zero waste. So their home is one where the two ideas combine – think reusable items, composting, and cutting down hugely on plastic use.

As a relationship counsellor, she links decluttering the home with decluttering the mind, but says she has been a minimalist since she was a child. However, for Cahill the phrase ‘minimalism’ does not mean foregoing what you need, or living in an empty house.

While she was in her 20s, it was parenthood that shifted her into consciously exploring the zero waste and minimalist life. As she had more time at home, she had more of a chance to look at what surrounded her. All she could see was a lot of waste, and the global impact of that.

But back in 2003, the term ‘zero waste’ wasn’t used much in Ireland. “I started really slowly and it’s really in the past couple of years where I’m at the stage where I am more or less happy with things. We are not buying stuff in plastic unless it’s really necessary,” she says of her family’s shopping habits.

She joined the Zero Waste Ireland group on Facebook, and with their help promoted a visit she organised by zero waste guru Béa Johnson to Dublin. Since that time, she’s seen membership of the group grow to over 8000 people.

Cahill clarifies that zero waste and minimalism are not interchangeable terms. Just because you’re zero waste, it doesn’t mean you live a minimalist life. And minimalism “doesn’t mean you have to live in a house with white walls and no clothes”.

“Minimalism and zero waste is finding what is enough for you,” she says. It’s about “not buying extra drinks or extra food because everyone has them. You buy whatever you need”. But if you need more than the zero waste or minimalist gurus need, “that’s fine, that’s no problem, as long as you buy what you use”.

“In some ways zero waste and minimalism, even though it’s getting more fashionable and popular, for a lot of people they still think you have to be weird and masochistic and deprive yourself of a lot of things,” says Cahill.

What does she think of people giving up buying clothes for a year? “I did that once or twice and it was great. But to start with such a huge step… if someone can do it it’s great, but I think it’s too daunting.”

She urges people to start with little things:

Get a water bottle and carry around your water bottle or reusable cup. That’s a big enough thing, not to forget them. Start slowly and don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do it.
I say start with slow steps. Don’t try and change your life from one day to the other.

She believes the small steps will lead to big ones. And Cahill is aware that often, it’s those who have the most who can afford to assess what they need to give up.

“In some ways it is for the privileged,” she acknowledges. “In the west we can afford to, we all have excess so we can afford to minimise and move towards a minimalist lifestyle.”

But she adds: “That doesn’t mean you have to be rich or very wealthy.” At one point, while their children were small, she and her husband re-trained so they could both change careers. This put a major strain on their finances.

“There was one year when we were living on under the minimum wage and it was really tough, and we couldn’t have done it without zero waste and minimalism,” says Cahill. “And it really encouraged us to watch what we spend on, and spend on what we need.”

But she’s not dogmatic about it, saying it’s all about balance – especially when it comes to her children as they grow up.

‘Retailers need to notice what’s happening’

Dermot Jewell of the Consumers’ Association of Ireland says that it’s not entirely new to hear that consumers are reassessing how they are spending their disposable income.

He says that consumers focusing on spending less is “not a bad thing – we wake up to the fact that a cup of coffee is way more expensive than it was a year ago”.

As for the retailers, he says that they “need to start to take a stronger notice of exactly what’s happening”.

“The inability for a consistent amount of consumers to go out to eat, to drink, except on a very rare occasion does nothing for business,” says Jewell. He also points to people’s embracing of budget supermarkets like Lidl and Aldi as proof that Irish consumers are more than happy to shop around for bargains.

While the most popular supermarket is Dunnes, with 22.5% of the Irish consumer spend, Aldi has 11.2% of the spend and Lidl has 11.1% of the spend, according to Kantar Worldpanel.

“Rents are blindingly expensive and do not seem to be easing in Dublin for students and parents, a whole wide group, It’s not gone down in any shape or form so that’s an issue that’s going to continue,” says Jewell of the current financial pressure on people.

I can more than understand where a reining in is going to come from. It happened before when we were in trouble. While there is some positivity around, reality is biting a little bit.

Read: Zero waste living: ‘You regret not starting earlier – you see your whole life as a waste of money and time’>

Read: Bottle deposit scheme on the way for Scotland, but Irish government says it’s still too expensive>

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