Jen Gale and her family took on the challenge of spending twelve months without buying anything new. Instead, they bagged secondhand bargains and learnt to make do and mend. We caught up with Jen as she looked back on a year that changed her life.
Tell us how your challenge worked?
It started off as a personal challenge for our family (me, hubby and our two small boys, who were three and one at the start of the project) to go a year without buying anything new. I also decided to keep a daily blog to document our adventures along the way.
We set our own rules: we could buy food, toiletries, shoes for the kids (I wanted to make sure they fitted properly) and underwear. Alongside this, we made the decision that if something broke, and buying a new part meant that it could be fixed, then we could do this.
When did you start and finish?
The year started on the 1st September 2012, and finished on the 31st August 2013
So what made you want to do it?
I became aware of how ‘stuff’ orientated our eldest was, even at the tender age of three. He was (in true small person style) constantly wanting new ‘things’. He didn’t really care what it was, and my pet hate is the kid’s magazines with all the plastic tat on the front. I actually quite like the magazines, but the tat on the front has to be one of the biggest wastes of resources out there!
I also remember reading an article in a magazine about ‘Slow Fashion’ that featured a lady called Suzy Prince who embarked up on a similar project in the May of 2012, and it was a bit of a lightbulb moment, and I wondered whether we could do it too!
What was the hardest part?
In general, it was far, far easier than I was anticipating. Christmas was hard work, as we made about 90% of the presents that we gave, as well as lots of the decorations (including a tree made from egg boxes! (see left))
The hardest thing was probably trying to find specific items, especially if we didn’t have much time. Trying to find ‘boy’s clothes’ is pretty easy, but trying to find size 10 boy’s wellies, or 3-4 year old boy’s swimming shorts is much harder. This is where secondhand sites like Preloved came in very handy!
How did the challenge affect you on a day-to-day basis?
Very little. I would like to think that the kids didn’t really notice, and certainly weren’t deprived in any way. I spent more time in the evenings making things (and blogging), but we spent less time trawling around shopping centres with bored children!
It made us stop and think more before throwing something out. We had to think whether we could mend it, or source it secondhand, or just do without it, so it definitely made us more mindful, but I like to think that if you were an outside observer, you wouldn’t have known we were doing anything unusual.
Tell us about the kinds of things you bought and mended?
I mended what feels like about twenty pairs of jeans (left), by patching the knees, but in reality was probably only about 5 pairs.
We discovered the fixative that is taking the fixing and hacking world by storm – Sugru – and used this to fix all kinds of things, from our plastic washing basket, to a pottery salt pig and some wooden railway.
I sewed some new elastic on hubby’s swimming shorts, and extended their life by another 6 months or so.
Buying wise, we bought our eldest a ‘new’ secondhand bike, and I probably bought far more clothes than I ever have, as I wasn’t racked by guilt at the expense!
Have you had to be creative?
Reasonably. Thinking up different present ideas for a 4 year-old boy’s birthday parties did become a little challenging, but I think we also became more creative in our thinking about how to use things differently, or use different things, if something broke.
So, come on, how cash have you saved?
I estimated that we saved about £350-400 on Christmas alone, and then about £150 a month on top of that, so in total over £2000.
What have you learnt?
Just stop and think before you go and buy something. Think about whether you actually readily need it, or if you just want it.
Can you mend it, can you “make do” with it as it is, or use something else, and then if you still really need or want it, can you find it secondhand. I think you can buy pretty much anything you want secondhand, you just have to be prepared to put in a little more time and effort, and sometimes wait a while. I often found, that because it took me a bit longer to find what it was that I was looking for, by the time I had found it, I didn’t really want it anymore! It takes away that instant gratification fix.
My other great tip is to make use of sites like Freeloved on Preloved, Freecycle and Freegle, where people give away things for free.
What had experience taught you about yourself/society?
I have had to learn to be a lot more patient! It also opened my eyes to just how consumer-driven our society has become. Our whole economy is based on people consuming more and more so that the economy can keep on growing and growing. And on a planet with finite resources this is just impossible to sustain. We are caught in a complex cycle of spending and working and being manipulated by the advertising chaps to think that our lives would be better and shinier and happier with more, more, more.
We in the West, are consuming between three and five planet’s worth of resources. We only have one planet. I hadn’t realised, and am only now beginning to scratch the surface of just how complex an issue it is. In order to try and stop the headlong destruction of the planet, we need a huge systematic overhaul of pretty much everything. And this is all pretty overwhelming.
What I learnt about myself, is that I cannot sit back and not think that I have at least tried. I know that our year, my blog, is not going to change the world. But I learned that I have to stand up take responsibility for my actions. I have to make sure that my actions, my decisions about whether to do my recycling, or what to buy and not buy, etc have to mirror my values.
I wanted the year and the blog to show people that you can be “Green” and still live a “normal” life. That you can make little changes in your lifestyle, that can have a really big impact. If we all did them.
Ultimately I learnt that the only person I can change is myself. And that as a society, if we all took individual responsibility for our choices and the impact that they have on our friends and family, our communities, and our planet, then the world would be a better place.
Do you feel part of a bigger movement or change?
In the USA, Buying Nothing New is quite an established ‘thing’. It started in San FranciscoI think in the early 1990’s and they sometimes refer to it as “compacting”. Some people routinely Buy Nothing New for a week a month, or a month a year.
In terms of becoming more mindful about the impact of our lives on the planet, I really hope I am part of a bigger movement or desire for change. It does seem to me that more and more people are becoming aware of issues like the energy crisis, climate change and the increase in extreme weather events, and the imbalance or lack of sustainability of our economy (or that may just be my impression as my Twitter feed is full of people who are!).
I really hope that if you sat most people down and talked to them about these huge, all encompassing issues, that WILL affect each and every one of us, and in the next 20-30 years, then they would agree that there is a need for a fundamental change.
I am currently doing some training to learn more about the Transition Network and the work that they are doing to promote bottom up change and create happier, resilient, sustainable communities.
What has been the best thing about your experience?
It has been hugely empowering. The feedback I have had on the blog has been so positive and encouraging and has made me realise that I am not alone in caring about these issues, and in trying to do something about it.
Knowing that as one person, I can make decisions that can actually have an impact, and that as just one person, my actions can actually help other people to think about the choices they are making too.
How has it changed your spending habits?
Hugely! I find it very hard to justify buying anything new now, and if I do buy new, I try to ensure that it is ‘ethical’ and sustainable.
I personally have made the decision that I won’t buy clothes from the High Street anymore. Having learned about Fast Fashion, and the impact it has on the people who are making the clothes, their communities, and the environment, I would just not feel comfortable wearing clothes with that on their price tag.
Have you learnt any new skills?
Lots. And not just the obvious ones like patching jeans, and learning how to crochet, and how to darn. I learned a lot, very quickly about blogging and social media. I did my first ever bit of public speaking at a TEDx event in Bedford where the theme was Everyday Radicals, and I have also helped to run various events like the Repair Cafe and the Swishes that we have set up in my local town. So yes, lots of new skills.
So are you up for your next challenge?
I have decided that 2014 is to be my Year of Positivity and Joy, which sounds very cheesy, I know. But the more I learn about living sustainably, the more I realise that it all has to start with me. In order to be the change I want to see in the world, I first have to be the change I want to see in me. If I want a fairer, kinder, more compassionate, more mindful world, then I have to become those things first. I am really aware now of how kindness and happiness can spread like ripples from one person.
It might seem like a bit of diversion from My Make Do and Mend Year, but I like to think that we are aiming for The Good Life, in every sense of the phrase.