A Year of Unnew Month 8: August
The emotional weight of stuff:
A conversation with fellow second-hand enthusiast Rachael Seatvet
The similarities between me and Rachael Seatvet are uncanny: we’re both 27-year-old white women with dark shoulder-length hair, working in creative industries, heeding the motivation (and capacity) to “do our part” as environmentalists while also trying to hold torches to corporate responsibility. In January 2020, she embarked on a Nothing New Year. Exactly 12 months later, I began my own Year of UnNew journey.
Rachael grew up in North Carolina but now lives in Montreal, Canada. When she began her Nothing New Year, she outlined parameters similar to mine, but admittedly more strict. (She found toothpaste from a former owner! I didn’t even think to push myself as far as sourcing my toiletries second-hand.) Her experience was so powerfully positive, she decided to keep it going, albeit with some new exceptions in 2021—she’s now allowing herself purchases from small, local businesses and is already thinking about new ways to evolve the project in years to come.
Now that Rachael’s rounded the corner on 18 months of Nothing New, I figured I could learn from her experience and motivation. We began talking about minimalism as a potentially helpful precursor to UnNew lifestyles, and the dynamic relationship between quantity and quality and all our “stuff.” The powers of guilt and privilege enter the conversation, as does the reality that everyone’s UnNew journey is personal, as it must be to be successful.
Without further ado, here’s Rachael Seatvet. I asked what led into her Nothing New Year.
My whole journey started after college—I realized I wanted to travel, but not like the, Oh, I want to travel and go places. I wanted to not have a home. I wanted to not to feel guilty for or burdened by being in charge of material things. It came from the thought that if my parents move and divorce, which they ended up doing, then I'm the one that's asked, Do you still want this? And so I gave up—I got rid of 90% of everything I owned. I got rid of pretty much all my clothes and I even tried to get rid of my university diploma because I was like, I'm not going to need this, I can just scan it. But my mom wouldn't let me get rid of it.
Then I ran across the sentimental stuff in my closet, the stuff that you always hold on to—like a Teddy Bear I made with my grandma, and a box from my old boyfriend. I didn't want to just give it all away to Goodwill, so I put the sentimental things in a cardboard box and went on a road trip around the U.S. I wrote "Added Value "on the box and anytime somebody asked me about it, I asked them if they needed anything in the box—like if any of the stuff would add value to their lives. I photographed the items in my hands and then photographed them in their hands. The more I got rid of, the lighter it was, like physically lighter and emotionally lighter. It was a physical manifestation of the emotional weight of everything.
The whole purpose was the beginning of minimalism: I'm only going to add stuff back into my life that I want. It was kind of like a clean slate.
So you had to subtract everything first in order to build back what you actually wanted.
Yeah, and it’s taken a long time, that was five or six years ago now, and I still don't have a wardrobe I want; I still don't feel like myself in some of my clothes. It's just a super-slow process getting the things that I actually want. And that's another thing I've really learned with my Nothing New Year: two critical pieces are patience and effort.
I had to get rid of everything in order to care about what I got.
I'm curious about minimalism too—a concept I feel I've circled around, having traveled a lot and backpacked in the outdoors where minimalism is a literal virtue. But, you know, for both the U.S. and Canada, minimalism is pretty counter-culture. Like you write on your website, you wanted to stop supporting consumerism. Consumerism is one of the great pillars of the societies that we live in. And so I'm curious: How have you avoided getting swept away by the powerful, flashy, dopamine-laced tides of reality—that anything can be at your fingertips in two days (or less) with express shipping?
Guilt. It's not a negative guilt, but being very empathetic, I feel things really deeply and being educated was what changed for me. I'm slowly learning. I'm connecting the dots of what this or that means in reality. That goes for veganism, too—the reality of what this on my plate means for that living creature. I thought about the reality of what me buying this shirt means for this human being and this rainforest and this ship that it has to come to us on.
I remember the moment that I learned how easy consumerism was—I was in high school, which would have been like 2010, and I was lucky enough that my parents bought me a car to get to school. I realized what Amazon was because I was able to buy reindeer antlers, ears, and a nose for my car. And it was only like $12 and I could get it shipped to me like, tomorrow? I remember it hit me, like, holy, is this how cheap everything is? Like, why didn't I grow up with a bunch of stuff, if this is how cheap it is?
And then I remember the moment where I first realized that minimalism was going to change my life. In college, I went with my two best friends back home and I remember being outside Old Navy. We had gone to the mall because we had nothing else to do, and I reflected on the fact that I don't need anything right now. I'm not going into Old Navy. I think I’d finally put two and two together—that shopping is a social thing. I decided to stay outside and called a friend, then I realized I was high on the adrenaline of not buying something for the first time. That was when it all switched. I realized I can get swept away in the serotonin boost and the excitement of buying new things, but that adrenaline and that serotonin boost was tinged with a little bit of guilt—like, Oh, I know this isn't really the best thing for the environment, or I don't really need it, but it's so cute. And I'd get that same (if not better) boost when I intentionally didn't buy something, because it's not tinged with guilt now.
How did you go about setting the rules or the parameters around your Nothing New Year?
I did a lot of research to see if anybody had done it before and I found a bunch of different ways that people did it. There were people who didn't buy clothes for a year or didn't go out shopping for a year. They had different ways of doing it, but it felt like every time there was still a cop out—like a lot of people still bought their toiletries and I felt like it was possible to not buy your toiletries and really push that boundary, because I get excited about anything that I'm buying. I get excited about even my toothpaste! About skincare! And that's the thing—it's all personal. So for me, I felt like it needed to be everything or else I was just going to replace it, and I wanted to see if it was possible to make it be everything. I just wanted to push it as far as I could.
My parameters are more forgiving than yours, and I’m seeing how the replacements are happening. I find I'm still participating in that adrenaline, that exchange, that consumerism—even though I’m not buying new things. I didn't actually address a consumerist habit, I kind of just replaced it. I'm probably still buying too many things. I'm still impulse-shopping online, even though what I’m buying is used—there’s still underlying elements that are worth investigating.
It's good to be aware of that, and it's also good to be kind to yourself because it's all about baby steps. I personally couldn't have gone from zero to a hundred. I still don't like the fact that I'm up at night scrolling. I still feel like what I need is that shirt, and, yes, I'm looking for it on Thread Up instead of another website, but I'm still feeling this urge of wanting to find that dress or whatever.
But realistically, if we want this to be a lifestyle change and to really have reasons that we don't do things or we do do things, I think it has to come from a place within you, and that doesn't just happen right away.
You did a lot of trading or swapping items during your Year of Nothing New. I love the elimination of money in those circumstances. What was your favorite or most outrageous trade that you did?
I had a print from an artist that I took from work, like literally I took it out from the recycling bin, and this woman traded me 40 Tide Pods for this art print. I don't have to buy laundry detergent for the next year and a half! And I saved something from getting thrown away.
I also got like 130 condoms for a bottle of wine and a piece of holographic paper that, again, was from work.
Were you ever unable to find something that you needed?
Oh, yes. I'm still looking for things. I have a list.
You have a list?
I'm always looking for film, and then terracotta pots, a camping chair because that's really hard to find, a hard cover banjo case, teen magazines. I really love stupid teen magazines and I definitely don't want to support that industry, but it's really nice evening reading if you've never tried it.
But really having a list of things that you're looking for helps so you don't go into a store just because… like, I know I'm not going to find anything in there that I need, because I don't need anything from that store.
I love the specificity that's captured in that list. The more specific you can get on what you need, the more value objects add to your life. If you know exactly what you need, you’re automatically cutting away much of the bullshit, and when you finally get that thing in your life, it’s such a good feeling.
For sure. And I’m so specific that, for example, with the camping chair, I won’t just go along with any camping chair. I have a very specific idea. I'm incredibly picky, and that’s something that you wouldn't think would go with a Nothing New Year. It is a balance, like sometimes I had to take things that I needed in a given moment that I know I'm not going to have forever. But really what's the point if you're not incredibly picky?
When I buy something now I know whether or not I'm fully happy with it, and if I’ll be keeping it forever. I know myself a lot better now. I've also gotten a lot better at saying no when someone offers me something and it's not exactly what I want, even though it can be a really awkward situation to say, No, I actually don't think that's good enough for me. That's how it can come across, but really it's just being picky. I guess there's a different word… like particular or decisive.
Looking ahead, what excites you, and what do you think the second-hand industry is missing?
It's encouraging to see trends of people like Emma Chamberlain being super pro-thrift store and so much uniqueness being valued, which is something that you don't get as often from big brands because everything's mass made. I think that's encouraging, but it's all still a focus on items, which is unfortunate. Because that’s just Western culture having captured so much of our energy, including mine. That's still something I'm dealing with—the fact of how much time I spend thinking about my objects—feeling complete because of objects or feeling incomplete because of objects.
And so there's big people that are making things more accessible, but another thing with this is that the people that are going to be most affected by the current and looming crises are people that can't spend their whole evening looking on Facebook and Craigslist for different items and price changes, or they can't go right after work to pick up something across town. They have to buy what is in the store next door, or off of Amazon, because they literally can't leave the house due to whatever responsibilities.
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.
I think coming into the world of minimalism and thrifting and trading with the acknowledgement of our privilege is really important. Some people rely on thrift stores, some people need that nice whatever-shirt that you're going to buy that you don't need, that you just want. It's not perfect. It's never perfect.
That's something I'm hoping to see. More dialogue about the gentrification of thrifting and how it's evolving.
Right, I agree. It's all just making the best choice that you can with all the information you have at the time. And I’m always trying to remember that that's not a cop-out, as it can feel like that, but truly: All you can do is make the best choice, knowing with education and information it’ll be better than the choice you made before.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
To read more about my Year of UnNew, see the 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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