Friday, January 5, 2007

S.F. group enjoys shopping sabbatical

By LISA LEFF, Associated Press
Wed Jan 3, 4:12 AM ET



SAN FRANCISCO - It began, as grand ideas often do, over a dinner — risotto, artisan cheese and wine. What would it be like, 10 environmentally conscious friends wondered as they discussed the state of the planet, to go a year without buying anything new?

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Twelve months later, the results from their experiment in anti-consumption for 2006 are in: Staying 100 percent true to the goal proved both harder and easier than those who signed on expected.

And while broken vacuum cleaners and malfunctioning cell phones posed challenges, some of the group's original members say the self-imposed shopping sabbatical was so liberating that they've resolved to do it for another year.

"It started in a lighthearted way, but it is very serious," said John Perry, 42, a father of two who works for a Silicon Valley technology company. "It is about being aware of the excesses of consumer culture and the fact we are drawing down our resources and making people miserable around the world."

The pledge they half-jokingly named The Compact, after the Mayflower pilgrims, spread to other cities through the Internet and an appearance on the "Today" show.

As it turned out, The Compact was modest as far as economic boycotts go. Several cities in the United States and Europe have communities of "freegans," people whose contempt for consumerism is so complete they eat food foraged from Dumpsters whenever possible, train hop and sleep in abandoned buildings on principle.

The San Francisco group, by contrast, exempted food, essential toiletries like toothpaste and shampoo, underwear and other purchases that fell under the categories of health and safety from their pledge.

But perhaps because its members included middle-class professionals who could afford to shop recreationally, their cause caught on. Nearly 3,000 people have joined a user group Perry set up on Yahoo so participants could swap goods and tips.

Besides thrift stores and garage sales, participants found a wealth of free or previously owned merchandise in online classifieds and sites where people post stuff they want to get rid of, such as http://www.freecycle.org and http://www.garbagescout.com.

After going through an initial period of retail withdrawal, discovering just how easy it was to score pretty much anything with a little time and effort was an eye-opener, according to participants.

Rachel Kesel, 26, who works as a dog walker, said she was astonished by how often the items she needed simply materialized — the friend who offered a bicycle seat when hers was stolen, the Apple store employees who fixed her laptop at no cost.

Similarly fortuitous timing happened often enough that group members came up with a name for it — "Compact Karma."

After postponing purchases such as a new wind breaker and a different stud for her pierced tongue — she couldn't bring herself to buy a used one — Kesel broke down only twice.

Once was when she was planning a trip to Israel and couldn't find a used guidebook that reflected current political realities. The other was after her commuter coffee cup suffered a fatal crack.

"I really found a lot of times there were things I thought I needed that I don't need that much," she said.

The pledge provided unexpected dividends as well, such as the joy of getting reacquainted with the local library and paying down credit cards. Gone, too, was the hangover of buyer's remorse.

Perry got satisfaction out of finding he had a knack for fixing things and how often manufacturers were willing to send replacement parts and manuals for products that had long since outlived their warranties.

"One of the byproducts of The Compact has been I have a completely different relationship with the things in my life. I appreciate the stuff I have more," he said. "I don't think I need to buy another pair of shoes until I'm entering Leisure World."

Over the holidays, Compact members gave homemade gifts or charitable donations in a recipients name instead of engaging in the usual Grinch-making shopping crush. Kate Boyd, 45, a set designer and high school drama teacher, visited a new downtown shopping mall and felt like she had just stepped off a flying saucer.

"It was all stuff that had nothing to do with me, yet for so many people that's how they spend their weekends," she said. "It's entertainment and it is the opposite of where I've been for a year."

Now that they know they can do it, Boyd, Kesel and Perry are ready to extend the pledge into 2007. But first, they plan to give themselves a one-day reprieve to stock up on essentials — windshield wipers, bicycle brakes and tongue studs.

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On the Net:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/thecompact