Recently Henry Heyburn admired a long-sleeved T-shirt for sale at Chewonki, where he is the assistant camp director. He asked a colleague if it came in blue, which launched a discussion about whether it could be ordered in blue. Then Heyburn stopped himself. “That’s OK,” he said to his colleague. “Don’t bother. I’m not going to buy it anyway.”

For Heyburn, 2018 has been a year of no shopping. Or nearly no shopping. He established a few guidelines for himself last January. Food, fuel, the basic necessities, naturally he’d be buying those. Birthday presents for his children, who are in 9th and 11th grade, would be fine. He’s an outdoorsman who used to design climbing gear and outdoor apparel, so he allowed himself the possibility of four clothing purchases.

Then he sat back and examined what it felt like to check out of the typical realm of American consumerism, a cycle that starts with a desire, often followed by an internal justification of need, followed by acquisition. For those with disposable income – recognizing that many do not have that privilege – this cycle repeats again and again, driven by advertising, emotion, peer pressure, with the pleasure of fulfillment often fleeting and soon replaced by another need.

Heyburn didn’t talk about his plan with many people. It wasn’t exactly a New Year’s resolution, but it did start in January. Even at Chewonki, where young people learn about roughing it and reducing carbon footprints, he didn’t introduce the topic with colleagues. He does spend plenty of time ruminating about the state of the environment and society and earth and natural resources. But he didn’t want to make a big deal of this pact he made with himself, or seem self-righteous. “Foremost, I wanted to just do something that was personal and kind of see where it led.”

Heyburn is not the only Mainer to step away from the cash register or the “add item to cart” button this year. Some were inspired as he was, by an essay that ran last December in The New York Times by writer Ann Patchett. The author of such novels as “State of Grace” and “Bel Canto” wrote about giving up shopping for a year, and not just buying, but browsing as well. Clothing websites had been her particular weakness, and yet as she put it during a Boston radio interview after the essay went viral, “I had enough skirts.”

Others joined a movement that dates back to 2013, the Buy Nothing Project, which began as a gift economy project on Bainbridge Island in Washington state and now has social media groups in 30 countries. It promotes sharing items, giving away objects and services, a sort of a digital version of “do you have a cup of sugar I can borrow?” It’s about building community but also, eliminating waste. As the project’s website says, “How great would it be if you knew most of your neighbors nearby where you live? And you weren’t creating extra carbon emissions by driving around to do pickups because you can just walk down the street or bike to your giving/borrowing/receiving destinations? Someday, this will be a reality.”


There are 16 regional Buy Nothing groups in Maine, most started on Facebook this year or in 2017. The first in the state was formed in January 2014 in the Unity/Benton area. The biggest is in the Moosehead region (361 members).

Lianne Sachs Mitchell, who belongs to the Freeport/Durham/Yarmouth– based Buy Nothing group, hasn’t made a pledge to stop buying things, but she’s trying to cut back, especially on “cheap” things that don’t last.

“I really hate to have the waste,” Sachs Mitchell said. “And to have it go into the landfill.”

So far she’s used the group to give away a chair and an inflatable trampoline, both of which needed minor repairs. And picked up a few items for the kitchen and crafts. For Christmas this year, she’s steered her shopping to experiential gifts.

Then there’s Candace Pilk Karu, whose experience with the Patchett approach to consumerism influenced her decision to radically downsize from a big house in Cape Elizabeth to a 1,000-square-foot apartment in Portland. There were other factors – that was a big house for a woman whose kids are grown and gone – but when she heard Patchett talking about the essay on public radio, it struck a chord. After a year of almost no shopping (she allowed herself books, like Patchett), the self-proclaimed fangirl of Patchett’s fiction, is now a convert to her anti-shopping approach. “I would recommend it to anybody because it just permanently – probably – reset a lot of how I think about things,” Pilk Karu said.



Patchett herself is done talking about her year of no shopping. “Response to that article has been tremendous,” said her longtime Harper Collins publicist Jane Beirn in an email. “And Ann has declined any further comment. She feels the piece says it all.”

Perhaps Patchett also felt done with being in a position she might not have expected, having to defend the essay. Patchett appeared on WBUR’s “On Point” program the month after the essay was published, along with the friend who had inspired her, Elissa Kim, who had in turn been moved to examine her own culture of shopping after spending a year in India. Tim Kasser, the author of a book called “Hypercapitalism, the Modern Economy, its Values, and How to Change Them,” also appeared on the program.

Henry Heyburn says his experience of buying little beyond necessities for a year has prompted him to think more deeply about what he wants and what he needs.

Some called in to applaud the idea. But others said they were insulted and slammed Patchett and Kim for being “precious” and not recognizing their own privilege. A senior citizen lamented that her fixed income had long ago made this a way of life for her. One man complained that this was the kind of thing that hurt America, so dependent on its retail economy. “I feel like our consumer economy would just collapse overnight,” he said, if everyone did as Patchett said.

Patchett sounded slightly exasperated by the time she responded to that caller. She and Kim had both freed up time and money to help others by giving up their shopping habits. As the owner of a business (Parnassus Books in Nashville) she wasn’t advocating for a complete shut down of shopping. She didn’t quote statistics about say, how many textiles, much of them fast fashion items made overseas, end up in the waste stream every year (an average of 82 pounds per American). Or how hard it is for, say, packaging from consumer goods to get recycled. “There is no way in the world that everyone is going to stop shopping because of an hour conversation on ‘On Point,’ ” Patchett said. “I think it is worth thinking about. That’s all.”


For University of Maine professor Cynthia Isenhour, who teaches in the Department of Anthropology and works within the university’s Climate Change Institute, the no shopping concept is nothing new. Nearly a decade ago, Isenhour wrote her dissertation on Swedish consumers who tried to stop shopping. She was living in Sweden herself and vowed to buy nothing new except for toiletries and food and succeeded with just a few exceptions. Cutting back on shopping is absolutely good for the planet, she says.


“Research suggests that if we are truly concerned about the environment and climate, reducing total consumption through the purchase of secondhand goods, or simply buying less can make a big impact,” Isenhour wrote in an email from Poland, where she was attending the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference.

But as she found with her study of Swedes (89 percent of whom consider themselves climate conscious), global capitalism can make it hard for even informed, concerned people to swear off shopping. Many of Isenhour’s research subjects were conflicted about the impact of their shopping ban on their children. There was so much pressure on the children from their peer groups that what seemed like a minimal sacrifice to the parents felt like an undue hardship to inflict upon say, a teenager.

“Folks who try this sort of thing rarely stick with it in the long term,” Isenhour said, “in part because it is socially non-normative. We use consumption to communicate our identities and ideologies to others. And while many people are willing to do this for a period of time, because of the social aspects of consumption, most people revert back toward former patterns of consumption after some time period.”

Moreover, Isenhour said, researchers on sustainable consumption argue that solutions to the world’s excess problem – which cover the bases from the climate-changing carbon emissions associated with making the stuff to the landfills and incinerators we use to dispose of discarded goods – say we need to move beyond such individual efforts.

They “fail to send a signal to the folks who need to hear it most,” Isenhour said. Broader solutions are needed. Collective actions, “socially coordinated efforts to reduce consumption or to provide legitimacy to policies that can help everyone to reduce their impact.” These could include standards for packaging, bans on single use products and community-organized sharing and swap events, she said. Like the Buy Nothing groups on Facebook.

As Isenhour wrote in a piece for Maine Policy Review, the reuse economy is an age-old concept in this state, and one whose power may be underestimated.


“Maine is well positioned to think more seriously about secondhand consumption as a means for environmental protection, waste reduction, community development and climate mitigation,” Isenhour said. “One of the key insights of anthropology is that programs are much more likely to work when they are consistent with already existing cultural norms and values.”

In other words, Maine is already on it.

Furthermore, Isenhour believes society overall has made “huge inroads” into confronting the issue of consumerism since she was talking to Swedish consumers a decade ago. Back then, her reading suggested that Americans were unaware of the links between sustainability and buying less.

“Policy focused on getting people to conserve direct energy flows,” she said, such as turning off lights and driving less. “But there was almost no attention whatsoever to consuming less.”

Now policymakers are “increasingly focusing on programming designed to get people to think more about how we can reduce overall consumption by consuming locally, by buying secondhand and through the sharing economy.”



For Heyburn, the experiment has prompted him to think more deeply about what he wants and what he needs. Clothing in particular can be so ephemeral. “Styles come and go,” he said. “Someone might buy something and wear it a few times and decide, ‘I don’t really like this.’ ” The few items of clothing – maybe a few more than four – he’s bought this year are things he feels good about. Maybe he will buy that Chewonki T-shirt in 2019. “Do I now call it off and open the floodgates?”

Probably not. He’s thinking he’ll continue it in some form.

So will other Patchett-influenced Mainers like Falmouth designer Linda Banks. Banks owns Simply Home, a Falmouth retail and design store, so she’s hardly telling people to stop shopping forever. But a reset is useful, she said, and she cut back, mostly on bargain shopping. “My father always said a bargain is not a bargain unless you need it,” Banks says.

It’s also good to think about what happens to your stuff once you are gone. This year also saw huge success in America for a book that rode best-seller lists internationally, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter,” by Margareta Magnusson that rode best-seller lists internationally.

Banks spent 2018 downsizing, picking out the things she’d want to grab if her house were on fire.

“And I’m giving the rest to people who have less than me,” she wrote in an email. “It’s incredibly empowering. I could sell it on eBay or I could put it in a consignment shop, but the gift of giving causes elation in my otherwise aging tired heart.”


That was one of the pleasures Pilk Karu found in her experiment of shifting to a smaller space. Her big house in Cape Elizabeth sold faster than she’d expected, and she needed to get rid of 75 percent of her stuff in 45 days. She packed up the chess set her brother had always loved and sent it to him. A writer friend from Washington state got two pieces of art Pilk Karu had owned for years, Anne Ireland paintings the friend might not have been able to afford otherwise. “She loves her (Ireland’s) work,” Pilk Karu said. “It is a nice way to let it go.”

Thanks to her own year of no shopping, Pilk Karu now has some things she need to let go of. She wears workout clothes “80 percent of the time” and so the ones she already had went into intense rotation.

“I noticed that I actually wore some stuff out,” Pilk Karu. Like a pair of tights that were too threadbare to donate anywhere. “I said, ‘You can’t wear those anymore.’ ” And it felt good.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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