A little over a year ago, 10 friends got together in San Francisco over a potluck dinner. There were a few teachers, a technology marketer, an engineer, a dog handler. What would it be like, they wondered amid the Christmas shopfest, if they all pledged not to buy anything new except food, medicine and essential toiletries for a year? Thus was born a movement that they named, in a light-hearted way, after the 1621 Mayflower Compact. "We are a group of individuals committed to a 12-month flight from the consumer grid," they wrote in a chat-room manifesto that lists their aims as going "beyond recycling," reducing clutter in their homes and simplifying their lives: "Borrow, barter or buy used."
The Compact has no dues, no officers and no headquarters, but more than 7000 people have signed up for the chat room two-thirds of them in the past month. The one-year project has turned into a long-term phenomenon, with chapters across the country from Oregon to Maine. Compacters are posting from Brazil to Britain, while television stations from China and Poland have broadcast reports on the movement. "My impulse buying urges have subsided," says Rachel Kesel, 26, one of the founders. "I've tried to lighten my impact on the planet."
But it hasn't been easy. "The dog ate one of my cycling gloves," says Kesel, who gets around the city on a bike. "If I'm patient, a used pair will turn up in someone's garage." Compacters surf through websites such as Freecycle and PaperBackSwap. They troll thrift shops and swap meets. One of the founders, a Silicon Valley marketer, found a sewing machine and a 10-ft. artificial Christmas tree on Craigslist both free. Another couple got free mis-mixed paint from hardware stores and made do with a second-hand shower curtain. New underwear is allowed, and a few other lapses are tolerated: a drama teacher couldn't bear the yuck-factor of used sleeping bags for her daughters, so she bought new ones.
But many families are enthusiastic. Jana Wilson, 50, a Bloomington university administrator, joined the Indiana Compact, whose participants are networking to set up resale shops. She asked her kids not to buy her anything new for Christmas. The result: a hand-made wooden trophy from her 10-year-old son inscribed "Best Mom 2006," and a book of coupons for household chores from her 14-year-old daughter. "Those were two of the nicest things I have ever gotten," Wilson says.
If the dissing on conservative talk shows is predictable the Compact is "anti-American" and "anti-capitalist" some eco-critics have also been tough to please. Last week, compacters were attacked in their chat room as "hypocritical and smug," for boasting that they repair rather than replace their vacuum cleaners. "If you were really concerned about curtailing runaway consumerism, you'd ditch your broken vacuum cleaners for a broom," wrote one purist. But Kesel counters that she can't get cat hair off her rug with a broom. "People say we don't take it far enough," she muses. "But I'm like, whoa, in American consumer culture, any step is positive." And in the self-denial department, those are soothing words.