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Buying Out of Consumerism



Buying Out of Consumerism

Freeganism isn't a new movement, but it is catching on. Diehard Freegans use methods such as scavanging and bartering to obtain the basic necessities of life.

It felt like an illicit treasure hunt—my quest for free stuff on a cool Vancouver evening. If people could stand up and proudly admit to being Freegans in front of Oprah’s millions of viewers, then anyone should be able to give it a try without embarrassment.

Freeganism isn’t a new movement, but it is catching on. More and more people of all ages, backgrounds, and means are deliberately buying out of a consumer-driven culture in favour of pursuing what the website describes as “strategies for sustainable living beyond capitalism.”

Buy Nothing Day, which occurs in November in North America, was founded by Vancouver artist Ted Dave as an informal protest against consumerism. A good idea, right?

Now imagine participating in Buy Nothing Day all year long, and you’ve got the basic principle behind Freeganism. Diehard Freegans use methods such as scavenging, bartering, and exchanging with others to obtain even the basic necessities of life, such as food and clothes.

Is coffee a basic necessity?

It certainly is tonight, when a hot steaming cuppa java sounds like heaven and the energy level is dropping with each wasted step I take as I try to find a particular coffee shop in the touristy heart of Vancouver. Online rumours hinted that free coffee was to be had in this caf?f one arrived just before closing time, mug in hand.

I have the mug but apparently not time to spare. The barista who finally looks up from wiping the counter glances pointedly at the clock. 7:05. Ten minutes too late. No free coffee for me.

Freegan experiment, part 2

Back outside in a blustery wind, a presentable-looking middle-aged man is rifling through a Dumpster. Excitement replaces my despondency at being coffee-less and cold. Is he a genuine Freegan, by chance?

They’re definitely scattered online, but groups conduct “trash tours” and reading groups (see regularly in the US. Freegans have their pick of online chat rooms, but finding a Freegan in the flesh is proving to be a harder task.

Also known as Dumpster divers, bin divers, bin raiders, or urban scavengers, Freegans take to heart the saying, “One person’s junk is another person’s treasure.”

Salvaged goods can include both small and big ticket items—still-edible food from restaurant garbage bins to electronic items from residential areas that would have otherwise clogged up landfills. The point is to find value in goods that would have otherwise been wasted, and to make a political statement.

The man rooting through the bin seems a likely prospect. My mug safely stored, I approach him with an open mind—until he starts spouting randomly directed racial slurs.

I immediately pull a U-ey. He may be a Freegan, but he’s obviously not disposed to my attempts at conversation. “Freeganism,” proclaims the New York website, “is a total boycott of an economic system where the profit motive has eclipsed ethical considerations and where massively complex systems of production ensure that all the products we buy will have detrimental impacts most of which we may never even consider. Thus, instead of avoiding the purchase of products from one bad company only to support another, we avoid buying anything to the greatest degree we are able.”

So big box retailers are out?

Replacing consumerism, explains the website, are ideals including “community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation, and sharing in opposition to a society based on materialism, moral apathy, competition, conformity, and greed.”

If this diversity of ideals is a little overwhelming, so are the statistics about how much money Canadians shell out when shopping. Though things may be changing now because of the failing economy, 2006 (the last year for which stats are available) was a banner year for retailers. We spent $427.2 billion, up 5.7 percent, which is well above the annual average retail sales growth rate of 4.7 percent in the five years prior.

We buy, then we toss. The average person disposes of 4 1/2 pounds of garbage a day—twice what was tossed 30 years ago, notes the online film Story of Stuff (see below).

When it comes to food, 40 to 50 percent of all food never sees a plate, according to a study from the University of Arizona in Tucson. An average family of four currently throws away an estimated $590 per year in meat, fruits, vegetables, and grain products.

Smorgasbord for gutsy people

These statistics represent a smorgasbord for people with the guts to scour through a garbage bin. One proud Freegan recently suggested to CNN that one should always bring a friend (in case a garbage lid closes on you), to wear gloves for protection from sharp and gooey objects, and to double-check that Dumpster diving is legal in your area, as some cities have banned it.

Internet tales from people who’ve found amazing stuff on the streets and in garbage bins are almost unbelievable. Music, electronics, furniture have all been found—even a George Foreman Grill by one lucky gourmet.

Apparently, I’m still a chicken. On my first Freegan jaunt, I cave pitifully to the lure of coffee and buy one as I hunt down the next potential hangout on my list. The bakery in question supposedly gives out unsold bread. Coffee in hand, I stand outside—alone—and wonder, where are all the people wanting freebies?

Closet Freeganism

Maybe they spend all their time online at websites such as and The latter is a nonprofit, grassroots movement made up of more than 4,500 groups with upwards of 6 million members across the globe, including many in Canadian cities.

In a way, some of us subscribe to Freegan philosophy without realizing it when we buy discounted day-old muffins or mushy bananas for banana bread. If we work at restaurants, we’re sometimes given extra food that would have otherwise been trashed.

What new parents haven’t accepted hand-me-down baby clothes from family members or friends? There’s always the Free Stuff section on where people can post what they’re looking for or want to give away. But I want to meet a Freegan in the flesh, as the bakery closes down for the day.

Finally, a woman in her mid-thirties arrives. I hold my breath in anticipation. A man walks up. This is it! Soon, over a dozen people have gathered to watch bakery staff stuff unsold goods into garbage bags. Young, old, hippies, a guy in a suit jacket—there’s a real mix.

“It’s a bread party,” Sally, a hip twenty-something, tells me cheerfully.

Moments later the doors open and, in a surprisingly calm parade, we’re invited to rummage. My mouth waters at gorgeous brown loaves, multigrain buns, French baguettes. People politely pick through, then leave stuff for others who are just arriving.

Success at last, although I can’t help thinking at one point that food banks would really appreciate that bread. Still, for now, I’m satisfied with a baguette, which tastes pretty darned good with my coffee. Now if only I can find a deli that gives away Brie cheese, I’ll be an official convert.

The story of a reborn shopper

Most of us spend 50 minutes a day shopping, without questioning our habits. Here’s a challenge: take just 20 minutes to watch the online film Story of Stuff and think twice the next time you go on a shopping spree.

Writer and activist Annie Leonard spent 10 years travelling and tracking where stuff—everything we buy as part of our consumer culture—comes from and goes to. In this narrated film, she highlights how typical purchasing patterns hurt the earth and its citizens in a way that’s, surprisingly, neither preachy nor boring, given that no one wants to consider themselves part of a global problem.

Here are a few of the bountiful statistics that Leonard tosses at us:

  • 80 percent of the world’s original forests are gone.
  • 1 percent of stuff that we buy is still in use six months after we purchase it—99 percent is trashed.
  • 3,000 advertisements a day urge us to shop, shop, shop.
  • 70 garbage cans of waste are produced during the manufacturing process for every 1 garbage can of trash we put out on the curb.

This consumerism fetish, documents Leonard, has come at the cost of our planet, ourselves, and developing countries and has been deeply programmed into us since World War II. But we can become part of the solution by buying out of our system in crisis and into alternative means of providing for our needs.

Two million viewers have watched Story of Stuff since its release in December 2007. The list of resources at is a great place to start simplifying your shopping habits.



No Proof

No Proof

Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD