Saying ‘Enough!’ To Stuff

A local family takes a step back from consumption and consumerism for one year

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When 4-year-old Theo started pining for the sponges on display at the hardware store, Gretchen Sage-Martinson, 39, knew her youngest son’s “consuming frenzy†had gone too far.

“He wanted to buy everything he saw,†Gretchen says. “It was really amazing. And driving me crazy.â€

On May 1, 2007–one week before Theo’s fifth birthday–Gretchen, her husband Jonathan, 38, son Eli, 8, and Theo signed up for the Compact, a growing social movement in which members vow not to buy anything new for a year.

“It was a breath of fresh air countering Theo’s pleas with, ‘Remember, we’re not buying anything new,†Gretchen comments. “And then he just quit asking.â€

What is the Compact?

Gretchen and Jon first read about the Compact on the Internet and thought it sounded like an interesting idea for other families, just not for them.

“I thought that we didn’t buy much anyway, and this would cause us to have a year of second-guessing and over-thinking,†Gretchen explains.

But once the couple realized just how much a culture of over-consumption was affecting their impressionable kids, they reconsidered. It didn’t take long for their friends–who had started a local group in their St. Paul neighborhood–to get them to sign up.

The premise for the Compact, named after the revolutionary 1620 Mayflower Compact, is that members barter, borrow, or buy secondhand from places such as Goodwill or Saver’s for a year. New items relating to food, drink, health and safety (toilet paper, toothpaste, medication, wiper fluid, light bulbs, etc.) are acceptable purchases. What’s not acceptable? That pair of shoes on sale, the latest techno-gadget, or a new home appliance to replace the one that just broke down. Every family has individual exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, if it’s new–and it’s not a necessity–according to the Compact, it’s not OK to buy it.

“We justified new running shoes as a health and safety item, and we bought a few local, handmade craft items,†Gretchen says of her family’s ‘exception’ rule. “Paper is OK, but we try to get that at Artstarts’ Art Scraps.â€

The goals of the Compact, which started with a small group of friends four years ago in San Francisco and has since grown to include thousands of members across the globe, are to “go beyond recycling to counteract the negative global environmental and socioeconomic impacts of a disposable consumer culture, support local businesses and farms, reduce clutter and waste, and simplify life,†according to the group’s website.

In addition to being part of the Compact and keeping trash out of landfills, the Sage-Martinsons are “green†in that they walk and bike to nearby destinations whenever possible, buy local, and limit their household energy use. “We get outside with the kids a lot and try to have them play with natural things–like snowballs–rather than electronics,†Gretchen says.

Challenges & rewards

Gretchen’s advice to those interested in joining the Compact is to team up with a group of family or friends, and keep others in the know, to “limit the awkwardness at gift-giving events.â€

Avoiding the consumer trap wasn’t too hard at Christmas, since both Jon and Gretchen’s families have alternatives to exchanging Christmas gifts (a nice adults-only dinner on one side of the family, and donating to various charities on the other side), but it was a little tricky when it came to going in on gifts for co-workers, friends, family members, and teachers. “We always had to make sure our money was going toward gift certificates to spas, or food, or chocolate, or something like that. Or we had to skip the group gift and get something that fit the guidelines on our own.â€

Another challenge, she says, was finding gifts for birthday parties. “We’ve gotten good at making playdough and putting together art kits from Art Scraps. Used books have been great, too.â€

Gretchen and Jon willingly share their Compact pledge with others, hoping to inspire them to think twice about their buying habits. A few of Gretchen’s coworkers at Avalon Charter School are thinking about signing up. One or two extended family members have asked for more information, and some of Gretchen and Jon’s friends are considering it short-term. If nothing else, talking about it gets people to think about their consumption habits and “wants†vs. “needs.â€

And while a year of Compacting has been good for the environment, the family’s pocketbook, and simplifying their lifestyle, one of the biggest changes has been a shift in thinking. “It changes habits, and I hope we stay with the new habits,†Gretchen says. “We’ll probably buy a new thing or two in the summer, but buying used has become ingrained.†

Perhaps one of the best outcomes of living simply is that Jon and Gretchen are setting positive examples for their sons. Since they joined the Compact, the boys have stopped asking for things like they used to. They’re more creative when it comes to presents, too, preferring to make gifts rather than purchase them. 

Even Theo–who at one point wanted to shop, shop, shop–got into the true spirit of giving. He enlisted his dad’s help in making a wooden ‘sculpture’ of Theo and Gretchen holding hands, and proudly presented it to his mom at Christmas.

“I love that Theo did that,†Gretchen says. “Last year he would have wanted to get me Legos.â€

For more information about the Compact, visit http://sfcompact.blogspot.com or http://groups.msn.com/MNCompact/messages.msnw.

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