Money cant buy me sustainability

There are over 10,000 Freecycle mailing lists on Yahoo Groups. Freecycle helps users find free alternatives to purchasing new items.  Image source: Flickr/ premasagar.

Many people subscribe to the notion that buying certain items while eschewing others is the best way to live an environmentally friendly lifestyle. This logic suggests that you vote with your dollar, and if you buy fuel-efficient, organic, and “green” products you’re contributing to sustainability. But this CAP cross-post asks, “What about simply not buying things at all?”

True, completely abandoning the consumer economy is probably an untenable goal. But an increasing number of people have turned to no-cost solutions when acquiring home furnishings, clothes, food, and other necessary items. In doing so, they’re keeping items out of landfills, cutting the carbon it takes to manufacture new products, and generally living a more sustainable lifestyle.

Some of the more hardcore practitioners of free consumption call themselves freegans. They use sites like to get information about which grocery stores and restaurants throw out the most food and to meet up with other freegans in their cities. The loosely organized social movement also draws liberally from such ideological strands as anticonsumerism, radical environmentalism, and punk rock.

Freeganism’s central practice is dumpster diving, which tends to draw mixed reactions. Grocery stores and restaurants toss plenty of perfectly edible, often unopened food on a daily basis, and freegans rummage through these establishments’ dumpsters for groceries. But people don’t just go dumpster diving for food. They also get furniture, clothes, home furnishings, and a myriad of other valuables from piles of other peoples’ refuse. Knowing when and where to go dumpster diving is a kind of art to these environmentalists.

A New York Times piece in 2007 focused on a group of freegans who converged on New York University the day after many students moved out of the dorms. They found a Sharp television, a desk lamp, a working iPod, a dish rack, Swiffer dusters, and laundry detergent, among other valuable items. You can be sure these items were all put to good use, too. Freegans fill their homes with castaway items and cook their meals with discarded food as a way to both critique rampant consumerism and reduce their personal carbon footprint.

But there are other methods of free consumption if standing knee-deep in trash and digging through dumpsters isn’t your cup of tea. Websites like are great ways to find free alternatives to purchasing new items when perfectly good used ones exist and would likely end up in a landfill if no one claimed them. Members of sign up to receive emails from other users in their city. People post items they no longer need or want. If the other users see something they like they can arrange to meet with the person who posted the ad to pick up the item. No money changes hands.

Similar systems and websites are also set up for acquiring free entertainment items. has a platform for users to exchange their used books and find books that they would like to read. Not only does this save the trees that would’ve gone into making new copies of books, but it’s entirely free. These kinds of systems are the ultimate win-win for people who are tightening their belts during the recession yet still want to remain environmentally conscious.

This type of nontraditional consuming may take some effort””and put some outside their comfort zones””but it helps keep perfectly good items from going to waste and epitomizes the slogan of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” And reassessing the way we acquire and use the items that fuel our everyday lives can help all of us live more sustainable lives.

This is a cross-post from the Center for American Progress’ Green series.

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11 Responses to Money cant buy me sustainability

  1. Prokaryotes says:

    I think there are many pathways to a sustainable way of living.
    I’m pretty sure, that you do not have to miss any comfort and at the same time, clean technologies are just better overall.
    For example take the electric car, you and your neighbors will never smell those cancer causing fumes again (at least not from this car).

    As a consumer i try to buy food/drinks filled in glass bottles, instead of petrol-plastic.

  2. Prokaryotes says:

    A truly toxic issue

    Modern life is saturated with carcinogenic chemicals. But without regulation, just how are we supposed to avoid them?

  3. Mark Shapiro says:

    Simple conservation works very well with efficiency and renewables to decarbonize our economy. But you don’t have to be a freegan, a dumpster diver, or even a freecycler, to conserve. SImply buy less. Buy fewer, smaller, later, and less often. It is also called living within your means, which we used to consider a virtue.

    Of course, don’t expect our political leaders or mainstream economists or MSM to promote conservation of any kind. They are hooked on GDP growth, which means buying more. Their power (tax revenue, advertising revenue) derives largely from consumption.

    I do not know how to work conservation into the mainstream, or into economic policy, and it is important.

  4. BobSmith says:

    I’ve seen TV’s and even washers and dryers on freecycle on a regular basis. I got a perfectly good blender.

  5. llewelly says:

    In this important column, Terry Savage explains why giving things away promotes economic instability, flouts capitalism, and helps the communists win. (Hat tip.)

  6. What gripes me is that many household appliances are made to fail, be impossible to get into without special tools and fix and or spare parts are unavailable. I realise that care must be taken that the average ‘joe public’ with no knowledge of what they are about should be protected. Trouble is the ranks of these swell in time as education fails and media is dumbed down.

    Take the humble vacuum cleaner, experience suggests that after a few years replacement filters or bags are difficult to get.

    Things have to change. Products such as this should have a long life and be possible to service – without simple spare parts costing nearly as much as a new appliance.

    Don’t even get me started on plasma displays and the move to digital broadcasting radio and TV which are simply energy sapping marketing opportunities for those who profit from slave labour in some foreign country where environmental laws are lax. Of course soon those latter descriptions will apply to the US and UK, or just about anywhere.

    When will economists twig that you cannot expect year on year growth on a planet with finite, and soon to shrink, resources?

  7. Gord says:

    Here at The Ravina Project we are trying to get a handle on Carbon Accounting. We assume each household has a carbon balance sheet where entries are made as credits and debits. What we are trying to figure out is, “what is the status of a second hand item we purchase vis a vis where it goes on our balance sheet?”

    And further, what is its value. One can argue that a second hand item does not have any carbon debt attached to it because the debt is fully owned by the original purchasing household. However, one can also argue that the debt comes along as baggage with the item so that the current owning household has part of the original debt on its balance sheet. But how much and for how long? And what happens to that debt then the household sells or gives the item away? Do they retain part of the debt in perpetuity?

    Carbon Accounting, we believe, will evolve into a serious subject of study as the effects of CO2 become more and more disruptive and/or there is a price put on carbon.

    Regards to all.

  8. Matt says:

    Ahh freecycle. Freecycle would be a lot better if they let you join.

  9. fj2 says:

    Money seems to have served as a very effective tool providing the resources for survival; but, is it possible that it is starting to undermine the advance of civilization?

    Can it be possible that there are even better ways?

    And, what type of transformations would be necessary?

  10. Mark says:

    thanks interesting.

    Imagine how much better life in Los Angeles, or Toronto, or any large city would be, with electric cars running on power generated from wind/sun.

    the relative silence .

  11. Lamont says:

    Around here, if you leave anything on the sidewalk it disappears and someone snaps it up. I left a broken chair on the sidewalk that I thought might have been fixable by someone who took the time to tap some new screws into it and clean it up, and it promptly disappeared. Hopefully that offset the purchase of my new chair a bit by offsetting someone else not needing to buy one.

    Since I don’t really have the time, patience of inclination to fix old things, I just try to use things until they’re not longer useful to me — my car is now a major beater, and I don’t participate in the new-car-every-four-years culture.

    Oh, I also dumped my old vacuum cleaner out on the curb and it disappeared. I wanted one with a HEPA filter to help out with my allergies, and the old one worked fine, just needed someone motivated to find a new filter bag…