A Year of UnNew Month 12: December
The End! A Year of Reflections on Living an UnNew Life
In June, smack-dab in the middle of my experiment to buy nothing new for one year, I wrote: “At its root, my Year of UnNew is a quest to better understand my place in capitalism: the go, go, go creation and consumption of objects—and by extension, the go, go, go consumption of the limited resources we have here on planet Earth.” It’s a statement that I think perfectly encapsulates the many elements of this experiment, a personal quest to better understand/defy capitalism and a bid for a more sustainable future.
Was it possible to go an entire year without buying anything new? Yes! Was it hard? I’d say more annoying than hard—you can’t get what you want right away, and sometimes you feel left out. But, overall, the Year of UnNew challenge has been meaningful, straightforward, and saved me money.
The most difficult part always was the psychological—the wanting of new things, the resistance to relentless advertising campaigns. Actual getting things was never an issue. When I needed something, which wasn’t all that often when I really thought about it, thanks to friends and the abundance of resale marketplaces like Geartrade, Poshmark, Instagram thrifting accounts, Facebook Marketplace (and other local trading groups on Facebook), Craigslist, etc., it wasn’t ever that hard to find an item that I needed (even unused underwear, makeup, and lightbulbs!).
In January, when I laid out the parameters for this experiment, I wrote “we might be standing at an inflection point. Stigmas are slowly eroding as more opportunities to buy and sell pre-loved things gain steam. It’s exciting, watching the seeds of a normalized second-hand economy firmly take root—this may be a game-changing moment in consumerist history, and I want a front row seat when it all blooms.”
A year later, and I still feel this way! The past twelve months I’ve watched the thrifting momentum continue growing across the country. It’s lifted my spirits in the moments that have felt annoying and difficult in this consumerist world, which were recurring feelings. Like I first wrote in February: “Buying only second-hand things has made me realize how persistent advertising campaigns are. Ads are everywhere! Always trying to get you to buy new things! Some won’t leave you alone!” I swear they chase you around the internet.
By March and April, I’d begun investigating more of the psychological challenges, learning to embrace progress over perfection, especially in big, long-term goals. I loved how having to buy second hand made me slow down the purchasing process—unless you score at a thrift store (or impulse shop on online resale websites), there’s very little instant gratification in the UnNew life. I think that can do a lot of good for the rest of our lives, too. As I wrote: “By embracing and committing to a sustainable lifestyle—where you’re making decisions after weighing and considering the environmental and social impacts of your actions and choices—you’re practicing contemplation. You’re exercising the muscle.”
But by July I was feeling the itch to shop again. I turned to one of my favorite contemporary internet thinkers, Anne Helen Petersen for help navigating and she helped me see the cyclical nature of craving: “Access to the internet and social media networks my entire adult life has left me with a profound sense of knowing much about the world—but also a sharp awareness of what I do not know, and what I do not have. Chronically being made aware of what you lack makes feeling fulfilled in life ever-harder. It adds to a false sense of depravity, it adds to craving.”
I realized we can’t change the external world and how it bombards us, but we can change how we receive the external world. We can spend less time on our phones, more time engaging in activities that do add senses of fulfillment: family, friends, nature, books, animals, cooking, creating with your hands, the list is personal and it goes on!
I also reached out to Canadian minimalist Rachael Seatvet who recently completed her own year of buying nothing new to get some advice. In August she soberly reminded me of the privileges we both have to be engaged in these projects in the first place: “It's a huge privilege to be able to do a year like this, and I think it's funny that we're both white females, in this exact same age bracket. Like, it's not for no reason that this is something that we have the time to do, and the resources to do, and the privilege to do.”
Beyond clothing, it did take substantially more time to find second-hand objects. For example, it took me three weeks to find a hot-water heater, another two weeks to find appropriate lamps for my office, and a two-hour-round-trip drive for a side table. But, altogether I saved a lot of money and I’m thankful I had that time and the patience to wait..
Alongside being a more conscious consumer, I learned to be more conscious about discarding, AKA what’s in my trash. In May I took some lessons from Marie Kondo about the joys of discarding: “the joy of finishing, of using-up, of running-out. … Not buying anything new has forced me to examine what I have, and to use what I have to the fullest extent, before going out to buy replacements. To use something to completion is to honor the object.” Using things up around the house resulted in a less cluttered, more refined feel. Eventually, without bringing much new into the house, my trash load reduced a lot. I did a trash audit in October and found my waste primarily consisted of food clippings. Of the inorganic materials, the biggest waste category was snack packaging, so I’ve pledged to make more at-home snacks and buy less packaged ones when I head outside.
We humans are funny creatures. My biggest takeaways from this year, when I subdue capitalism’s influence, I don’t actually need much in my life and, spoiler, I’m happier with less. (Plus, as I’ve said, it’s incredibly easy these days to find what you need second-hand.) In truth, this December doesn’t feel so much like an ending. I like the new habits I’ve accrued: patience, more refined style and taste, appreciation for sourcing what comes into my life. There’s nothing I’m racing to buy on January 1st. Maybe this is only the beginning.
To read more about my Year of UnNew, see the November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, and January installments.
Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.
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