The Compact: Mindfulness and Frugality Through Buying Used

Photo: usedtobelost

In 2007, I became a member of the environmental movement known as The Compact, mainly because everything in my life has to be a dare. The basic idea behind The Compact is to take as few new resources out of the planet as possible. The way that Compactors put this idea into practice is by pledging to only buy used products for one calendar year, with obvious exceptions for things like food, heath care products, and services.

I started The Compact because I like to test myself, but many people come to The Compact for the same reason people get involved in the voluntary simplicity movement — they are broke. And this is totally OK because frugality is often the way that people lower their carbon footprint. So the motive for pledging to buy nothing new isn’t really important. Learning to be aware of the environmental costs of every purchase is. (See also: Simple-Living Lessons I Learned From "Hoarders")

Saving Money vs. Conserving Resources

While I have yet to hear of anyone who has joined The Compact and not saved thousands of dollars, The Compact is about environmental responsibility, NOT personal frugality. Depending on how you define frugality, how you spend money versus how you spend resources can be very different things.

Is Couponing Bad for the Planet?

For example, a long-running discussion on The Compact’s message board is on the subject of how to use coupons responsibly. While there are several Compactors who are black-belt coupon masters (one member uses her ninja couponing powers to save her local food bank thousands of dollars a year), a number of standard couponing maxims are terrible for the environment.

One of the first lessons that most people learn about shopping with coupons is that you should use your largest denomination of coupon to buy the smallest size of an item in order to lower the cost per ounce. While this strategy, when used properly, can save the couponer money, alas, it’s horrible for the planet. Buying ten small four ounce containers of say, lotion, not only generates more trash, it takes more resources (plastic, water, electricity, gasoline, etc.) to create ten small containers than it does to create one twenty ounce bottle.

Buying Local Is Not Always Buying Cheap

Another core principle of The Compact is “buy local.” This is where The Compact can get complicated. Because it’s really important to me to have a good used bookstore in my town (Los Angeles), it is worth it to me to spend, on average, $2.00 more per book at my brick and mortar bookstore than I would spend for the same book on

Because the 10,000 members of The Compact live all over the place, the principles of buying used and buying local often come into conflict with each other. For example:

  • What happens if you live in a small, rural town, where the closest store is the Walmart the next town over?
  • Is it more environmentally responsible to buy the greenest possible new goods from a store that’s become synonymous with exploitation or buy probably more expensive used items from eBay or that will have to be shipped hundreds of miles to your doorstep?

While frugality often has an immediate reward — more money in your pocket — automatically looking for the best deal might have long-term negative repercussions for the environment and for your neighbors.

There are two selfish reasons why I go out of my way to try and buy locally even if it means spending more money up front:

Supporting the Local Economy

By buying used and buying local in my neighborhood, I am supporting the local economy, not some multinational corporation that doesn’t care about maintaining a high quality of life. This positively impacts the value of my home. Target couldn't care less if their store results in traffic gridlock for my neighbors or makes our Main Street less attractive. By patronizing local establishments, I’m helping to create and maintain a vibrant consumer experience that is tailored to the needs of local residents.

Supporting the Health of Locals

The sprawling ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the largest in the nation and basically serve as the mouth of America’s consumerist habit. The combined ports are also the largest single contributor to air pollution in Southern California. Because we cannot break our addiction to cheap goods from China, people who live in Long Beach and San Pedro suffer from elevated levels of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. They are literally subsidizing other people’s purchases with their health.

The Compact Is a Journey

The Compact is about the journey and not the destination.

The process is ultimately fun, which is why most Compactors tend to stay with their pledge long after the first twelve months. And while all Compactors not-so-secretly strive for perfection, every Compactor eventually has to buy something new. Not surprisingly, most Compactors end up subscribing to the “you get what you pay for” school of thought. Socks and underwear are a Compact exemption and can be purchased new without breaking the pledge.

But, even with exemptions, Compactors generally will pay top dollar in order to buy high quality undies that will stand the test of time over a multi-pack of cheap knickers that will fall apart after a few trips through the wash. Sometimes new really is better for the environment. And sometimes more expensive can be better for the budget.

How do you define frugalness vs. mindfulness? Are they the same thing? Can one be truly mindful without being frugal? Do you think you could step away from the consumer grind for 12 months?

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Guest's picture
Suzanne Favreau

I always enjoy Max Wong's articles. She chooses interesting, timely topics that are well researched and well written. Looking forward to reading more from this talented writer.

Guest's picture

Max- excellent article. I couldn't agree more. Why buy 20 -1L bottles of water because a coupon makes it cheaper than the 20L jug. Some may say because I am saving money for my child's college fund- but, that raises another question. These products and plastics that use water and petrol to create are damaging our environment, severely. Would you rather save a dollar or do your part to make sure your children live in a safe environment? I am all for saving when I can but not at a cost to the environment.

Guest's picture

I haven't gone into this 100%, but am leaning toward this. I am having fun buying clothes, household goods, books, videos, purses, jewelry etc all used.

I try and check out farmer's markets and flea markets for local foods. They are more expensive, but I'm working on using what we have and trying to not waste any food.

I also take into account fuel consumption by driving less, carpooling and opening blinds in the winter and closing them in the summer.