The Rise of the “No Buy Year”

The Rise of the “No Buy Year” | Atmos

Photograph by Christian Werner / Connected Archives

As rampant consumerism continues to drive us towards climate breakdown, a growing number of people are hitting pause and committing 365 days to reset their relationship with spending.

Angela Szot, a 31-year-old baker living in Atlanta, will be debt-free in 17 days after paying off almost $30,000 in just over a year.

Since January 2023, Szot has committed to not buying anything except for her bare essentials. She moved out of her apartment, which at the time was suffering from mould, and rented a single bedroom off a friend, where she currently lives with her dog and two cats. Committing to the “no buy year,” a social media trend which sees people put themselves on a self-imposed break from spending money on extraneous purchases, she bent the rules by purchasing a $2 notebook in order to break down what the next 12 months would look like. On the first page, Szot wrote out her monthly bills, her income, and her debt. The second page she divided into categories: necessities, needs, and no needs. Anytime she made a purchase, it went into one of these three categories.

Some examples of Szot’s “no needs” included new plants, arts and crafts, books (until she’d read all the books she currently owned), candles (until she’d used up all the ones currently sitting in her drawers), and clothes. She allowed herself her cash tips at work for the occasional treat such as buying a coffee out. For the first few months of 2023, Szot struggled. “I was still buying stuff that was in the ‘no need’ category because I wasn’t used to it,” she tells Atmos. “Now, I think I’m on month 10 of not buying anything for my ‘no needs’.”

Szot is not alone in cutting down her non-essential spending. Faced with the rising cost of daily living and the looming threat of climate disaster, more and more people are pledging to consume and spend less—particularly those in the Global North who are in the privileged position to have extraneous spending to cut down on. Nearly all Americans are cutting back on their spending in some way, according to a new CNBC and Morning Consult survey, with nearly 80% of consumers cutting spending on non-essential goods over the last six months. At the extreme end of the spectrum are those pledging to do away with impulsive spending habits altogether and committing to the “no buy” year.

“I’m a big homebody,” Szot explains. “I love sitting on my couch and looking at all of my little trinkets and home decor and feeling like this is my safe space.” Before committing to buying less, Szot found herself making a habit of spending money on items for her home. Sometimes she would get the pull to spend on crafting materials for projects she would never start. “The moment I would get home I’d put (the supplies) on my counter or in the closet and be like, thank god I bought something today,” Szot says.

But the reality is that the climate implications of these small purchases add up. A 2020 study conducted by Christoph Meinrenken, an associate research scientist at the Earth Institute’s Research Program on Sustainability Policy and Management, found that on average, products generate carbon emissions equivalent to 6.3 times their own weight. Meanwhile, the shipping activities of only four major retailers—Amazon, Walmart, Target, and IKEA—have contributed over 20 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in the past two years, according to a 2021 report by Pacific Environment and supply chain research group

Nearly all Americans are cutting back on their spending in some way…with nearly 80% of consumers cutting spending on non-essential goods over the last six months.

Currently, human consumption exceeds the Earth’s ecosystem’s capacity for regeneration by 74% annually, equating to the demand of 1.75 Earths, explains associate professor Anitra Nelson – Honorary Principal Fellow at the Informal Urbanism Research Hub (InfUr-) at The University of Melbourne. “If we don’t reduce to one planet footprint then we jeopardise our future existence as a species on Earth.”

Sabrina Pare, a 31-year-old full-time content creator living in Detroit, did a closet clean out at the tail end of 2023 and was overwhelmed by the amount of clothes she owned. “I don’t have a tonne of space at my house and I’m really just tired of constantly having to get rid of things,” she tells Atmos. “I know it’s not sustainable and there are a lot of bigger things I am saving for this year.” So this January, Pare committed to a “no buy” year.

While the principle of a “no buy” year is to simply not buy anything, in practice it looks different from person to person. Pare has decided to cut herself a little slack while still wanting to cut down her spending. She’s stopped being influenced to buy “random Amazon things” and has limited herself to five new items of clothing for the year. “It can be really easy to fall into what’s trending and what’s popular on social media,” she said. “Even though I’m pretty conscious of that, I still found myself falling for it.” It’s no surprise, considering over half of consumers are more likely to buy something if they’ve seen an influencer post about it, according to a 2024 survey by influencer marketing platform Traackr. Social media is reprogramming how we view consumerism; these days, every scroll on the internet is saturated with someone trying to sell you something.

It has been taken for granted that the consumerist lifestyle is essential to the wellbeing of rich societies and something that should be aspired to. However, the very lifestyles that were once considered the definition of success have now become our greatest failure. The global middle class—defined as those who spend between $10 and $100 per day—is expected to reach 4.8 billion by 2050, raising the question of whether the planet has the resources to deliver the kind of lifestyle people have come to expect.

The growing degrowth movement argues that humanity can’t keep growing without driving humanity into climate catastrophe. While commonly known as an umbrella term for economic models that are not growth-based, its principles are also increasingly being applied to our everyday lives and spending. “Degrowth really is a message to the Global North. It’s those of us who are living way outside of our sustainable footprint,” explains Dominic Boyer, a cultural anthropologist at Rice University’s Sustainability Institute. “It is a holistic philosophy in the sense that this would touch on almost every aspect of somebody’s life.” At first encounter, the concept of degrowth may seem like a call for austerity, depriving ourselves of the very things that bring us joy and comfort in our daily lives. However, Boyer reassures,“It often doesn’t mean dramatic changes. One of the core principles is just do less, just consume less. Most of the things that really make us happy are not things that are the ruin of the world.”

“One of the core principles is just do less, just consume less. Most of the things that really make us happy are not things that are the ruin of the world.”

Dominic Boyer

cultural anthropologist, Rice University’s Sustainability Institute

The “no buy” trend is, in some instances, an example of degrowth in action. “Whether or not you want to call it degrowth, people are much more aware of sustainability than they’ve been in the past,” says Boyer. “They know that endless rampant consumerism for its own sake is something that can’t be sustained. There are not infinite resources on the planet and the current trajectory we’re on is creating all kinds of waste, whether it’s waste in the skies with carbon emissions or waste in the oceans with microplastics.”

Advocates of degrowth contend that in order to preserve our planet, it’s imperative to scale back global economic activity. This is because our current consumption levels are incompatible with achieving the IPCC’s target of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Although individual actions may seem insignificant compared to the impact of fossil fuel companies and heavy industries, as Nelson explains, “most degrowth activists and advocates make changes in their own practices to model or show degrowth in practice.”

While a useful practice for learning how to minimize consumption within the current system, Nelson suggests that committing to a “no buy” year may not be advisable or achievable for many, adding that just because someone is spending less does not mean they are automatically living an ecologically sound lifestyle. “Degrowth is about transitioning to an ecologically sustainable and much more meaningful way of life: more democracy, as in direct decision-making; more respect for all ecosystems, as in acknowledging and living within Earth’s limits; an economy based around people’s needs, neither more nor less,” she explains. “In short, degrowth is to growth as quality is to quantity.”

For Pare, the “no buy year” is about committing to a “mindset change and a general reset around how I think about consumption and shopping.” Since embarking on the challenge, Pare has been able to focus her energy that was previously fixed on shopping elsewhere. “It’s really been nice to just slow down this year and be more involved in my community,” she says. “I think that just goes along with finding hobbies and interests outside of shopping and being chronically online.”

As well as hosting events such as clothes-swaps in her local community, Pare has also found herself reaching out more to her neighbors when needing to borrow something rather than buying it new. “I feel like we need to normalise those simple things again,” she says. “Not everyone needs one item of everything in their home that you only use once a year.”

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