Thrifting and Decluttering - Are They Compatible?

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As Buy Nothing Day approaches, it’s time to look at two movements that both aim to change consumer shopping habits but seem diametrically opposed.

Out of the ashes of the GFC and the continuing economic malaise have risen two huge consumer movements that are now burgeoning – simple living and thrifting. They’re part of what is being dubbed ‘the new economy’ – a wholistic approach to the acquiring and exchanging of goods that involves cooperation, community building, and a commitment to both environmental sustainability and workers’ rights.

Yet despite their common provenance, these two movements can sometimes seem at odds. While one is about shedding unnecessary goods and opting for minimalism and simplicity, the other is focused on the excitement and money-saving benefits of hunting out secondhand bargains. Can they be reconciled?

Simple living and decluttering

Simple living is about simplifying one’s lifestyle and is sometimes linked to sustainability. It has been advocated for centuries and was popularised by Thoreau as far back as 1854. Its modern incarnation is partly a reaction to the excessive materialism that the manufacturing boom and easy access to credit brought about in the nineties and noughties.

In fact, some of us have so much junk that we are living in bigger houses than we need to partly to accommodate it. A UK survey reported in 2010 found that The amount of rarely used items owned by an average Briton has doubled in the past three decades to fill 3,370 cubic feet’. The survey found that all that unnecessary clutter was typically taking up an area worth over £70,000.

As a response to this, a key aspect of simple living is getting rid of excess goods – junk that is not only useless, but actually impedes quality of life because it takes up space, time and energy. This is achieved through the process of decluttering. The aim is to acquire only those things that have lasting value. This has led to the idea of domestic downsizing – moving to a smaller house or apartment while shedding the unwanted goods.

But decluttering isn’t against consumerism per se. Rather, it’s about ensuring that the goods we acquire for pleasure actually improve our lives rather than complicating them. The unclutterer website stresses that:

Living beyond one’s basic needs becomes a problem only when the accumulation of property becomes a source of stress rather than enjoyment ... finding balance is difficult for many because purchasing and accumulating can be effortless, while planning ahead and organizing takes effort.

The rise of thrifting

Thrifting, like decluttering, is hardly new – for our ancestors who lived during the two world wars and the Great Depression, making the most of secondhand goods was an absolute necessity. But the recession has led to a thrift store boom.

Not only that, but thrifting has been transformed for good (and for the better) by a combination of the internet and the rise of sustainable fashion. Fashion savvy, ethically minded young (and not so young) women have embraced traditional craft skills, refashioning and upcycling their thrift store finds, whether they’re taking the sleeves off a dress and adding a piece of black lace to the neck, shabby chic-ing a desk or cabinet, or turning a tablecloth into a gorgeous retro apron. Then, true to Gen Y imperatives, they share information about their upcycling through blogs and Twitter.

And while there will always be a place for serendipity in thrifting, there’s been an internet-inspired explosion in information about it. Not only guides on how to do it (some of the information incredibly specific), but where to go and, as mentioned above, what to do with the stuff once you’ve got it.

What powers thrifting, then, is often quite different from the force behind decluttering. For the crafty, thrifting is inspired by creativity, and for the ethically minded, it’s a greener, kinder alternative to buying new. But what also drives it is the desire to find a bargain – a desire that seems hardwired into the human brain.

A 2010 study found that the level of excitement that shoppers feel when they are faced with special offers is the same as they feel from sexual arousal. Apparently bargains give our brains the same level of excitement they get from sex.

Since the recession, shoppers have become more determined and ruthlessly efficient when hunting out special deals. According to Pat Conroy, vice chairman of Deloitte LLP, shoppers treat finding a special deal as a game they play with stores and brands, in which they emerge the winners. 

While he’s referring to consumers buying new products, the sense of shopping as a game is also often present in the comments of those who share their thrifted finds on Twitter.

Reconciling thrifting and decluttering

But the thrill of thrift-store bargain hunting may lead to pitfalls. Because thrifting is so cheap and there are so many bargains available, frequent thrifting could be a recipe for recluttering. How to reconcile the message of simplicity with the joy of finding a bargain?

Beth Dargis, who teaches groups and individuals skills in simple living and runs the My Simpler Life website, understands why thrifting is so popular. ‘It’s wonderful in that you can get things more inexpensively,’ she says. ‘Things with character and a history. Plus, people aren’t buying new things that cost money and environmental resources to generate.’

But she agrees that ‘Thrifting can be dangerous if it becomes “the thrill of the hunt”.

‘If you buy things you don’t need because it’s a fantastic deal and you feel like you made a grand bargain, thrifting may need to be put on hold for a bit.

‘It’s also a trap for people that like to collect things. Some people have so many collections there is no place to live in the house.’

Beth suggests that dedicated collectors could set an upper limit on the size of their collections, ‘and when you reach it, one piece of the collection needs to go before getting any more.’

She gives the following advice on avoiding cluttering up the house with thrifted goods you don’t need. (This advice is equally applicable to buying new goods.)
Notice what you are buying for. How are you feeling emotionally when you buy something? Is it to make you feel better, more accepted, or to give you that shopper’s high? Or is it really useful? For it to be useful you need to ask these questions before buying:
1. Where will I put it?
2. Do I have the money to buy it right now?
3. Do I already have something else that works?
4. How many times a year will I use it?
Thrifty minimalists, unite!

It seems important, then, to apply the same skills to buying used goods as we increasingly do to buying new ones. There’s bound to be a raft of bargains when we go to the thrift store, and there’s simply no need to snap up every bargain we find. Some bargains really are meant for other people.

And of course, there are plenty of way to get rid of excess goods, thrifted or not, as long as they’re in decent condition – selling them on Etsy and eBay, donating them to a thrift store, or giving them away on websites such as Ziilch or through the freecycling community.

So yes, it’s possible to be a thrifty declutterer and a minimalist thrifter – it just takes a wee bit of knowledge, a soupcon of willpower, a dash of intuition, and a dose of shopping savvy!

Until next time!

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All the Fun of the Fair: Festival Showcases Burgeoning Ethical and Fair Trade Market

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A free festival in the heart of Melbourne that showcases the burgeoning fair trade and ethical market in Australia is set to take place in two weeks time.

Started three years ago by a Melbourne banker, Moral Fairground at Federation Square (Fair@Square) has already become Australia’s largest fair trade and ethical festival.

More than 80 businesses and an estimated 75,000 people are expected to take part in the festival, which will include a VIP Ethical Fashion Show, a walk-through display of an eco-friendly house, cooking demonstrations at the Fair Indulgence tent, discussions about ethical and sustainable issues, live music and children’s activities.

Cutting-edge sustainable fashion, ethical beauty products, organic goods and culturally diverse giftware, accessories and jewellery from around the globe will all be on show.

Festival Director Susanna Bevilacqua, a banker, was shocked by the working conditions and environmental impact of mass consumerism she witnessed when she visited some of the poorest countries in South East Asia. Determined to do something, she launched the festival three years ago with the help of fellow banker Boby Vosinthavong.

Despite never having organised an event before, Bevilacqua sought corporate sponsorship and a venue, and set out to build awareness about ethical, socially responsible and environmentally aware businesses.

Fairtrade labelling contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to marginalised producers and workers, many in low-income regions. It aims to empower them by paying fair prices for their work, helping them to operate in the global economy, and challenging unfair trading practices.

A global survey conducted by GlobeScan for Fairtrade International shows that 93 per cent of Australians believe companies should pay farmers and workers fairly.

It also reveals that 81 per cent of us believe independent, third-party certification is the best way to verify a product’s ethical claims.

While Fairtrade labelled products were launched in Australia as recently as 2005, the industry was already worth $AUD120 million by last year, and sales increased 200 per cent from 2009 to 2010.

Bevilacqua said that Australians were increasingly prepared to spend money to ensure that the products they purchased were ethically produced.

While she would like to see an umbrella group set up here purely to promote fair trade, she points to the recent launch of Fair Traders of Australia, a new network of businesses committed to selling fair trade products, as a positive development.

She is also keen to see the full range of fair trade products become available in Australia.

‘The power lies with ... consumers, we need them to buy fair trade products so that the retailers can see there is demand’, she said.

‘We need consumers to let their retailers know that they want more fair trade products on the shelves.

‘[This] means approaching your local schools and sporting clubs [and] asking them to use fair trade footballs or asking major department stores to stock fair trade fashion.’

Moral Fairground Advisory Board member and senior associate at Net Balance, Cameron Neil, says the growth of Fair@Square over the last three years has been phenomenal and a clear reflection that consumer demand for products with purpose and meaning is here to stay.

‘Businesses are recognising this isn't a feel good fad. Some are leading the way, ensuring their products are produced in a fair and ethical way, and seeking to reduce the environmental impact of their production, use and disposal.

The Festival is at Federation Square in Melbourne on the weekend of December 3 and 4 from 11 am to 6 pm. The Ethical Fashion Show takes place on December 2 at BMW Edge from 7.30 pm to 9 pm. Find out more

Until next time!
If you enjoyed this blog entry, you might also like Kylie Kwong Partners with Oxfam to Bring Fairtrade Design to Your Table.

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Yuletide Thrift: Tips for a Sustainable and Frugal Christmas

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An orgy of gift buying takes place each Christmas. Not only will most of this generosity eventually end up in landfill, but much of it is misplaced. In 2009, British shoppers spent an estimated £1.7 billion on Christmas presents that weren't appreciated by their receivers, while in October 2010, Australians were already planning to sell their unwanted Christmas presents online. 

A greener, more frugal Christmas can reduce waste, increase your savings and even bring you closer to your loved ones. Below are some tips for a less commercial Christmas.

Changing what you buy and the way you buy it

* Don’t leave Christmas plans till the last minute.
You’ll end up spending more. Planning is the key to a more frugal festive season. Make a list of all those you plan to buy for, and look out for suitable presents whenever you’re shopping, including online shopping.

* Buy within your means. Create a Christmas budget. Decide what you can afford, including separate amounts for gift giving, going out, and Christmas meals. Start with the assumption that you will only spend the amount you can afford, and then plan who you will give presents to, the amount you will spend on each person, and how you will entertain.

* Consult family members if you want to change present-giving traditions. If you want to make changes to the way you give presents in your family, eg by giving fewer presents or giving to charity, it’s important to discuss this with family members. Gift-giving traditions in families have very deep roots, and changes to those traditions can seem threatening. 

One change might be to stop giving presents to every family member and have a Kris Kringle instead. You can have more than one Kris Kringle in the family, eg one for the adults and one for the children.

If you want to make changes to your gift giving that help others, such as giving gift cards that buy a resource for a struggling family in the developing world, you may need to run a campaign to get the family on side. This can take time; provide the family with literature and information, and be willing to discuss the benefits, such as teaching children the importance of giving. Oxfam Unwrapped sells gift cards that provide resources to poor communities; there are 44 gifts to choose from.  

When you’re Christmas shopping, be aware of the emotions that Christmas can stir up. Christmas is a very emotional time of year, and the mixture of nostalgia and sense of anticipation may affect your buying choices. Practising mindfulness while shopping is a great way to stay in touch with those feelings so that they don’t hijack your wallet! 

As well as buying for others, there’s a strong temptation around Christmas to buy what researchers call ‘self-gifts’ – gifts we buy to reward and pamper ourselves. When buying self-gifts, awareness of what your motivations are can help you decide if the choices you make are right for you.

* Take the time to ask your loved ones what they want.
This means you’re more likely to buy things that they want, which in turn means less waste. To retain the element of surprise, ask them to make lots of suggestions (where teenagers are concerned you may have to probe!). In my experience it’s fine to tell them you’re on a budget so they can tailor their suggestions to your budget.

* If you’re successful in streamlining your Christmas shopping, be prepared to feel guilty!
Anthropologist James Carrier believes that we deliberately make Christmas shopping hard work because we want to demonstrate just how good we are at turning impersonal objects into tokens that express our bonds with our families and loved ones.  If you successfully negotiate simplified Christmas giving with your family, reduce the amount you spend on Christmas and finish your shopping early, you may find yourself feeling guilty. Simply note and accept these feelings – there’s no need to rush out and buy up half the stock of a major department store.

*  If you’re trying to teach your children to be less materialistic, be patient.
 Being too dogmatic and imposing your own values on the child could backfire. Perhaps you could compromise, combining presents that are blatantly commercial (if that’s what your child craves) with some less commercial alternatives.

*  Choose sustainable toys and children’s gifts.  
There are loads of eco-friendly toys and gifts for children, many on the internet, but even mainstream toy chains are starting to stock them. This guide from Treehugger provides information on the properties to look for in eco-friendly toys. 

Buy certified Fairtrade items as gifts. Certified Fairtrade items, which guarantee a fair price and conditions for  producers, is a burgeoning area and the choice of goods is growing all the time. A good place to find out where to buy products in your country is this list of contact details for Fairtrade organisations. 

Oxfam Shop and New Internationalist  are two Australian websites selling Faitrade items. Don’t forget that these types of online sites also have sales.

* Buy secondhand gifts.
I don’t believe in the taboo that you can’t buy secondhand goods as Christmas gifts! But if you want to buy from thrift stores, yard sales and vintage stores, planning and consultation are important. Your local thrift shop will probably close way before Christmas, and it will take longer to find suitable secondhand gifts, so get your skates on if you haven’t already started your Christmas shopping.

* Buy gift cards.
While gift cards give the receiver more control over what they buy, there are pitfalls. An estimated 15-30% of gift card vouchers aren’t redeemed. Check with the recipient first as to the retail store you will buy the card from, or if you don’t want to do that, choose a card that gives the receiver a great deal of choice – eg don’t buy them a $100 card for Barbecues Galore if they have no intention of buying a barbecue! You can now buy gift cards at a discount from sites on the internet. Cardlimbo is a website that buys unwanted gift cards from consumers and resells them at a discount.

Cheap gift ideas

* Give something you already have. A great way of cutting down on the cost of gifts and avoiding goods ending up in landfill is to give something you already have as a present (or part of a present). Don’t give any old junk, but heirloom and vintage items that are valuable to you and that you may not use any more, such as jewellery, clothes, knickknacks and furniture. Carefully tailor your choices to the receiver.

Practise regifting. It’s okay to regift something that’s not right for you, but only if you use your intuition to decide who would appreciate the gift.

* Give a small amount of money as a present. Kids love receiving money as it gives them control over what they buy. The beauty of giving money to children is that you don’t necessarily have to give a huge amount, as what’s a small amount to you may not be to them.

* Make your presents.
You don’t have to be a craft whizz to do this. Scarfs and sarongs, for exaxmple, are easy to run up on the sewing machine. This website gives you instructions for making 13 different types of scarves. Another option is to use spare buttons to make a button necklace.

* Give experiences rather than material objects.
Studies suggest that people derive more enduring pleasure from life experiences than from material objects. Experience-based gifts don’t have to be expensive; a couple of free movie tickets are a great low-cost way to give a fun experience.

* Don’t forget the old standbys.
If you’re looking for cheap standbys, you can’t go past books and DVDs or Blu-rays, but do consult with the person first.

Plants are another great gift – they’re great value for money and (assuming they’re looked after!) they last. Choose hardy, low-maintenance plants that suit the person’s garden and their lifestyle. You can ‘upcycle’ a plant cheaply by buying the plant and a fancy pot separately, and repotting the plant.

* Give your time instead of a material object.
If you’re really skint or trying to avoid the materialism of Christmas, create certificates where you pledge particular tasks, eg washing the car, or two hours gardening, babysitting or housecleaning.

* Make up a hamper of deli goodies.
  Low-cost goods include jam, cashew nuts, shortbread and cold-pressed olive oil. If you’re in the US, you can get significant discounts on these items using coupons. You need to ensure that you don't buy goods containing ingredients to which the receiver may be allergic.

* Bake or cook small gifts.
 Slices of home made coconut ice or shortbread wrapped in cellophane and finished with colourful ribbon make great gifts for neighbours and work colleagues.

Frugalising other aspects of Christmas

* Make your own Christmas cards. A friend of my mum’s creates her own cards using simple watercolour floral designs that she paints on white card using watercolour paints. Using stencils to cut out designs is another great idea. Another option is to use rubber stamps, but you do need to take the cost of the ink into account.

* Cut down on food waste. Wastage of food is a huge issue at Christmas. The festive season is a time of giving and it’s very natural to want to be generous with food at this time. However, there’s no need to over-cater. It’s important to plan ahead and write a list before you shop for food for Christmas meals, but don’t rely entirely on your rational mind. Stay mindful and listen to your gut feeling, as it will tell you if you’re going overboard with the number of potatoes you’re buying for the roast, or if you really  need that extra packet of dipping crackers.

* Make your own Christmas decorations.
 Use odd pieces of wrapping paper, and cut them up into strips of equal size. create a loop with the first strip using sticky tape or glue, then link each strip in the ‘chain’. Hang the decoration from a mantelpiece or wall.

Until next time!

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Top Tips for Inspired Supermarket Savings.

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Why Do We Buy? Twelve Hidden Motivations for Your Shopping Behaviour

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If you’re serious about reducing the number of things you buy, a good way to start is to look at your underlying motivations. They’re probably more complex than you realise! Below are some of the main reasons why we shop. Being aware of these motivations can reduce their hold on you, and put you on the road to more conscious shopping. Which of them apply to you?

Humans have always used material goods to advertise high social status. Many of us are more than willing to buy things that have a higher price tag simply to tell the world how wealthy we are. In some cases, the extra quality is in the packaging only. And marketers and advertisers are constantly encouraging us to believe we’re entitled to spend up big. We’re as good as the next person, so why can’t we have those sleek Italian ankle boots or the latest Audi?

These days, status isn’t just about luxury goods. Many of us (me included) inadvertently use material goods to tell people how with-it we are, how hip and original, or even how green.

Independence and power
In 2006, Stella Minahan and Michael Beverland conducted a landmark study on why and how Australian women shopped in retail stores. They discovered that many women enjoy the feeling of mastery that they get from being able to afford certain goods.

But this led to a paradox. For Minahan and Beverland’s shoppers, feeling powerful sometimes hinged on being able to afford a specific item; these shoppers felt compelled to buy another, equally expensive item if what they really wanted wasn’t available.

There’s nothing wrong with a desire to demonstrate financial independence. But wanting to feel powerful can lead to powerlessness if you feel compelled to buy. Men may feel a similar kind of pressure: the need to demonstrate their financial success and masculinity by producing their wallets and spending up big at call.
Brands have symbolic meaning and emotional appeal: we experience certain feelings, access happy memories, or affirm our values simply by buying a particular brand. And we advertise our spending power and good taste by wearing or using goods of a luxury brand.

Branding is reaching ever deeper into our psyches: increasingly, it’s also about our identities, activities, interactions, and even our self-esteem. A 2010 study found that not only did certain brands have appealing ‘personalities’, but that the positive traits associated with those brands could rub off on consumers. In other words, some of us actually feel that we adopt more appealing personalities when we use a particular brand!
Because we’re so inundated with choice these days, brand loyalty can seem like a convenient shortcut for decision making: ‘I trust this brand – I’ll try the company’s new anti-ageing moisturiser / wireless headphones / hiking boots’.
Urban geographer Jim Pooler suggests that these days ‘we shop to self-actualise’. Minahan and Beverland’s research found that one of the main reasons that women shop is to express themselves and their identity. Social theorists Jane Pavitt believes that we create our identities, our very selves, through the goods we buy: we often ask the question ‘Is that me?’ before forking out for a piece of clothing, choosing a restaurant or planning a holiday.

The internet has only increased the trend of self-expression through buying. It’s dead easy to download an exclusive recording of your favourite progressive rock band’s latest offering, buy anything you need in the way of freshwater-fishing tackle, or order your preferred style from a huge variety of designer nappy/diaper bags.
Retailers know that the longer we’re in a shop the more likely we are to buy. The lighting, music, smells, signage, display fixtures, colour scheme and layout all work synergistically to create an inviting ambience that encourages us to hang around and inspect the merchandise. Even the staff are chosen for their attractiveness.

Wide aisles make it easier to look at and examine the goods. Evocative scents trigger positive memories that we then associate with the store’s brand. Some stores boast dramatic, architect-designed interiors that create a powerful statement about the brand.
Some researchers claim that the shopping centre has taken the place of other social spaces such as churches and public squares. Many women love nothing more than hitting their favourite shopping zone with a group of close friends and a credit card in tow. And some shoppers relish casual chitchat with sales staff and the acknowledgement they receive from stores they shop at regularly.
Neuromarketers such as Martin Lindstrom have found that we are strongly motivated by the desire to buy the items we see other people using or wearing. This tendency is the reason why some items become fads, taking off in an irrational way until they’re popping up everywhere. According to Lindstrom, it’s all due to the fact that our brains contain what he terms mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons are a specific type of brain cell that enables feelings of empathy when we watch someone else perform an action. Mirror neurons are the reason why, despite vowing and declaring you would never buy a pair of harem pants when they started appearing in fashion magazines, one day you suddenly found yourself at the checkout of an upmarket department store, grasping a black satin pair of – harem pants.
Many of us shop to reward ourselves, to give ourselves a pat on the back for all our hard work. We even reward ourselves for doing mundane shopping like grocery shopping! Simply being aware that you do this can help you to distinguish between useful and wasteful rewards. One option is to set aside a set amount of reward money for a specific period of time. Alternatively, if you want to stop or cut down on buying expensive rewards, give yourself treats that aren’t necessarily related to shopping.
The satisfaction of snagging a red-hot bargain is a major motivation behind the urge to shop. In Australia, Boxing Day sales get more chaotic each year as people clamour for the hottest deals. In the USA, frenetic crowds storm stores on Black Friday, and websites are inundated on Cyber Monday and Green Monday.

The internet provides bargains all year round. This represents a potential danger if you want to save money: the capacity to snag a bargain becomes almost infinite, no longer limited by time of year or your ability to visit particular stores.

Finding a bargain can fuel the production of dopamine that gives us a shopping high. It can swell your self-esteem, give you a sense of power, and reassure you that you’re a skilled shopper.
Desire – the gap between what we already have and what we crave – is the basis of consumerism. We decide that we need a product or item and go out looking for it. This desire can turn to frustration and annoyance if we don’t get what we want.

In fact, underlying the retail high some of us seek is often a general sense of deprivation. We all experienced loss as children; memories of these early experiences can resurface whenever we crave material objects. The losses of the present produce additional wounds while they reawaken old ones. And according to writer Oliver James, the world we live in encourages us to believe that objects can supply non-material things that we may not have, such as ‘love, or a better character or higher self-esteem’.

Feelings of deprivation are part of being human and they’ll come back after the shopping fix is over. Once you can acknowledge these needs they will have less power over you, and will be less likely to impinge on your purse and your time.

There is a bit of the collector in most of us, I suspect. Collecting is a tricky area, standing perilously close to both hoarding and shopping addiction, with all the disastrous consequences of these habits. If your collecting impacts badly on your life, financially, space-wise or otherwise, it could be in danger of turning into hoarding. If you think you may be a hoarder, seek professional help.
The human thirst for novelty is one of the main reasons we pound the pavement or sidewalk, or trawl the web, desperately in search of something fresh and different. We get sick of our doona (duvet) covers, lounge furniture, crockery, clothes, cars and mobile phones, even if they’re still in perfectly good condition. But some of the need for novelty can be satisfied without having to actually buy.

According to neuroscientist Gregory Berns, dopamine is produced in the brain when we see something new or unexpected – that’s an important part of the shopping high many of us experience. But while dopamine fuels the desire to buy, actually finding and anticipating buying the item is what matters in the production of dopamine. There are plenty of no-cost and low-cost ways of satisfying the thirst for novelty in your shopping life.

Until next time!

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