The Compact: An Anti-Consumerism Movement Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Compact: An Anti-Consumerism Movement

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Part of a receipt showing transactions in Euro currency.

Late one night in San Francisco, USA, a group of partygoers discussed how consumerism is destroying the world and how they all own far too much anyway. In a burst of Earth-hugging bravado, they accepted a dare to go six months (later extended to a complete year) without buying anything new. Thus was born The Compact, so named for a cryptic variety of reasons outlined in their blog:

...To go beyond recycling in trying to counteract the negative global environmental and socioeconomic impacts of US consumer culture, to resist global corporatism, and to support local businesses, farms, etc — a step, we hope, inherits the revolutionary impulse of the Mayflower Compact
To reduce clutter and waste in our homes (as in trash Compact-er)
To simplify our lives (as in Calm-pact)

The Motivation

  • Save money
  • Rebel against consumerism
  • Be environmentally friendly
  • Become less dependent on department stores
  • Get rid of closet clutter

The Rules

In brief, the rules of The Compact are to buy nothing new except food, essential medicine, consumables such as shampoo, and utilitarian socks and underwear. Some leniency is extended regarding children's pyjamas, gift items sold by local artisans, gift items received by charities, and fresh flowers from local shops. Professional art supplies are iffy, and videos should be rented, if not downloaded. Additionally, Compacters pass on what they no longer need and, in general, try to reduce their environmental footprint.

The Motto

The GAP1 is out, Goodwill2 is in!

The Resources

The Compact is only part of a general movement known as freeganism, which espouses dumpster-diving and online swapping in lieu of purchasing. (Garage sales are acceptable, but nothing beats getting something absolutely free.) Freegans can get more radical than Compacters; a popular freegan event is attacking the dumpsters outside college dormitories at the end of term to collect half-used bottles of detergent and scavenging behind restaurants for dinner. Besides the allure of living cheaply, freegans claim to be living greenly, by reducing waste and discouraging oversized consumer businesses. There are many peer-to-peer bartering and goods-swapping sites in the United States, in addition to more traditional flea market type of used-goods shopping.

  • originally started as a networking resource for the San Francisco Bay area; a page where locals could post 'wanted' and 'for sale' ads or publicise events. It was so wildly successful that it now caters to every large city in the USA, and quite a few smaller ones, offering everything from paid classifieds to personal ads. However, for the poor student crowd, the not-yet-rich yuppie and the freegan, its best feature is still the 'wanted' and 'for free' ads.

  • is the homepage of the freegan. Its entire purpose is swapping and giving away items for free. A user posts something up for grabs and everyone is free to beg for it. The user than can choose who to give it to, based on whatever method they prefer.

  • When you can't get it for free, eBay will do, as long as the item is used and comes from a single user and not an online store.

  • Offline, San Francisco holds The Really Really Free Market once a month. A potluck picnic, attendees bring all the things they don't need and leave with all the things they do.

  • Goodwill Industries is a non-profit employment agency partially funded through its retail stores. The stores are stocked by donated goods, so buying there is both Compact-compatible and charitable.

  • Along the same lines, thrift stores provide a great place to look for used items.

  • Never forget garage sales and flea markets, excellent sources for super-cheap used goods.

The Spiritual Inspiration

Anti-consumerism has its own church and reverend: the Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping. Usually dressed in a white suit reminiscent of Star Trek and a swept-back blond mane, the Reverend Billy and his parishioners can be found armed with megaphones and leaflets at any event of consumer glut — and there are many in the US. Black Friday, for example, is the bane of the Reverend's existence. The morning after Thanksgiving, retailers open before dawn, offering cut-throat prices on limited amounts of items. Americans line up outside large retailers as early as the night before for the chance to buy half-priced laptops or quilts at 40% off. The Reverend is there too, trying to persuade the glazed-eyed shoppers that they'd be happier at home in bed. His Ten Commandments for the Holiday season include 'Thou shalt not trample thy neighbour for a bargain' (a common Black Friday occurrence), and 'Thou shalt not shop 'til you drop' (a common American endurance sport). 'Let's halt the shopocalypse!' declares commandment number ten.

The Church of Stop Shopping, its Stop Shopping Choir and its Not Buying It Band hold concerts, vigils and confessions around New York and New Jersey and wherever they are invited (such as the Burning Man festival in Nevada). Their Blog-alluja keeps up with their most recent thoughts, anti-corporate muck-raking, successes and events. They have recently published What Would Jesus Buy?, a collection of the Reverend's sermons and the choir's lyrics.

The Reaction

Compacters document a variety of personal reactions in their blog and Yahoo! mailing list. The most frequent is of the 'Please tell me I can buy this new' variety, but one Compacter confesses that he's become overly possessive of his stuff recently, because replacing any of it is such a hassle.

So far I've not refused anyone, but have [mentally] cycled through the steps that replacing the item would require: internet/Goodwill search, borrow a car, coordinate time, drop cash, etc. It's a panicky reaction, and a very interesting result of my commitment. I hope it's a phase.

Another faced a moral crisis after his coffee mug broke: to use paper cups (bad for the environment) or to buy a new mug (against the compact)? He bought a new mug.

One couple broke with the Compact after the group refused to let them buy new drywall for their home renovations. At the other extreme, one Compacter left his bathroom sink clogged for months because he couldn't find a second-hand plumber's snake.

From a wider perspective, the Compact's popularity exploded with only a bit of publicity. Initially a group of fifty San Francisco neighbours, by February, 2007, the Compact's Yahoo! Group had 8,000 members, with chapters as far away as New Zealand. People who are frustrated by their inability to buy happiness or angry at the enforced consumerism of holiday shopping and 'Hallmark holidays'3 get a power-rush from screeching to a halt and taking control of their spending. For shopaholics, it even leads to more spare time for hobbies. It also makes for good party chatter, though friends tend to back away slowly at first mention of 'I'm not shopping anymore.' Best of all, Compacters are automatically crossed off the guest list for Tupperware parties.

Many also enjoy the sense of community and interdependence, since nobody can live on second-hand items without relying on a large network of associates. There is also an undercurrent of competition to see who can consume the least. And many cite their new perspective of 'what do I need' versus 'what do I want' as life-altering.

Of course, many have been quick to point out the hypocrisy in the group's 'conspicuous non-consumption'. Expenditures on less tangible items, like recreation, are virtually limitless, and Compacters need not think twice about buying plane tickets or driving cross-country. Additionally, the children of Compacters are not limited by the rules, and spend their allowances on all sorts of new toys. Others have pointed out Compact members who work in marketing — 'That's like a pimp preaching abstinence'. Then there's a certain amount of leeching going on, since one can't buy used unless someone else has first bought new. Yet others worry that a halt on shopping could halt the American economy. Finally, there has been the big deal-style response from people who point out that in less affluent countries, Compact-style life is part of existence, not a luxury fad.

The Precedence

While it's hard to believe it now, America was founded on simplicity by Puritans, Shakers, Mennonites, Quakers and Amish. Henry David Thoreau, the philosopher of simplicity, was an American.

In the 1980s, a small movement called 'downshifting' was all about cutting back on career and consumption to focus on family. Every once in a while, a high power CEO will downshift, to much amazement, and many moms downshift to self-employment, part-time employment or consulting instead of letting the nanny raise their families.

Nor is the Compact idea entirely innovative. USA Today columnist Craig Wilson survived 2003 buying only toiletries, food and gifts. Judith Levine recently published a book about a no-shopping 2004 experience. The Compact is unique in being a community-based effort. The local and online support groups increase the Compact's long-term sustainability, and may make it more than just a fad.

1As in, the name of a clothing store chain.2The name of a charity shop chain.3A not entirely inaccurate conspiracy theory states that the Hallmark card company invented and perpetuates most national holidays — except the ones perpetuated by the department stores, of course.

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