Froogles: The new challenge to rampant consumerism

They call themselves the 'froogles' - and they've pledged to go without shopping for a year. Helen Brown reports on the new anti-consumerism movement

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Last week Laura Cousins chose to make some soap. She had all the ingredients: the drain cleaner, essential oil and rain water. "But I didn't have the sugar thermometers I needed, or a stainless steel pan, or a pair of rubber gloves."

Most of us would have remedied the deficit with a quick trip to the high street. But Cousins has made a resolution to buy nothing new for 12 months. "I placed a 'wanted' ad on freecycle for the things I needed," she explains as we drive through her home town, Bournemouth, "and I got the pan and the gloves. But nobody had a spare sugar thermometer. So I popped round to my neighbour Joyce's house. She's quite elderly and admitted that since her stroke, her jam-making days were over. But she said I could rummage through her cupboard and see what I could find. In exchange for a thermometer, I gave her some eggs from our chickens, and promised a bar of the soap. My resolution allows me to buy essentials and barter for other things I need."

Cousins is part of the new "froogle" movement, which began in America. "Froogles" are environmentally-motivated types who use the internet to help them cut their consumerism back to basics. The trend grew out of waste-reducing internet groups like "Freecycle", where goods are exchanged for free. Then in December 2004, New Yorker Judith Levine realised she had spent over $1,000 in the run-up to Christmas and resolved to tap the ATM for nothing but necessities for the next 12 months.

In her book about her fritter-free year, Not Buying It, Levine challenged her country's consumer culture. "In New York, only a day after the towers fell," she writes, "Mayor Rudolph Giuliani counselled his trembling constituents to 'show you're not afraid. Go to restaurants. Go shopping.' When the world's people asked how they could help, he said, 'Come here and spend money.' Shopping became a patriotic duty. Buy that flat screen TV, our leaders commanded, or the terrorists have won."

Levine questioned if freedom could really be bought at the cash register. She'd heard of the International "Buy Nothing Day", but decided to take things 364 days further. In December 2005, a group of 50 San Franciscans made an identical pledge for 2006. Calling themselves "The Compact", this assortment of teachers, engineers, executives and other professionals vowed "to go beyond recycling in trying to counteract the negative global environmental and socio-economic impacts of US consumer culture, to resist global corporatism, and to support local businesses, farms, etc - a step, we hope, inherits the revolutionary impulse of the Mayflower Compact; to reduce clutter and waste in our homes; to simplify our lives".

Their resolution permitted the purchase of food, health and safety items and underwear. Other items could be acquired second hand. Nine months on the group is still hanging in there.

Inspired by the secular Lents of Levine and The Compact, Cousins decided she'd commit to her own 12 months of "froogalism". As we sit down for coffee in her cosy suburban home, the 39-year old drum-circle facilitator explains that she inherited a strong reduce, re-use and recycle philosophy from her parents. "They grew up during the war, and were used to a degree of deprivation. Then they moved out to California in the 1950s and I was born there in the 1960s. They never threw anything away, so green issues had always been there for me.

"Then I got involved with internet forums like my local Agenda 21 group, which opened my eyes to helping local people live a more sustainable lifestyle. There was advice on car sharing, composting and solar panels. I also began contributing articles to downsizer.com and I joined up my kids' school to the eco-schools programme."

After reading about Levine's adventures online, Cousins decided to give the 12-month plan a go. She is eight weeks in and enjoying herself, although she admits that people might think she is a bit of a fake because she didn't have a real shopping habit before she started. "I did buy lots of books and CDs.But now I'm making everything myself. And we have an allotment and the chickens, of course."

Cousins gets her clothes from charity shops and jokes that she'd have to move if her local Age Concern closed. I ask about underwear. She giggles. "I haven't needed any new yet, though I admit I wouldn't buy any second-hand. But my five-year-old son's wearing second-hand pants. A friend's son grew very quickly and she passed them on."

Cousins' husband, David, admits that he hasn't gone for the project 100 per cent. He keeps tropical fish, which need new things. And Cousins herself has cheated a little already. When she needed some camomile teabags she asked her brother if he had any. He didn't but went out and bought some for her, in exchange for a lift in her car. "That's not really the way it's meant to work," she says.

"One thing I've really had to curb is my impulsive nature," she muses. "Like with the soap. A few months ago I could have just gone out and bought what I needed. But I had to wait to assemble the equipment, and find the thermometer "

Christmas is looming, too. "Luckily my kids have been trained that if they see something on TV they can't have it. I want to stop them falling victim to advertising. They're not deprived. Look around you!" Cousins gestures at the mountains of toys she's picked up second-hand. The children have, so far, found the "non-consuming" project a great game. "I'll pay for swimming lessons, trips... but I don't want my children to become obsessed with material things."

When I suggest that finding alternatives may take more time and effort than many people have to spare, Cousins tells me about a friend who killed six hours at the local shopping centre. "Shopping can become an addiction," she says. "People get this endorphin rush from buying stuff. But why? Is it for the same reason people drink and take drugs? Because there's something missing? Some human contact, perhaps?

"Although we all live piled in on top of each other these days we often don't know our neighbours. We don't have extended families close by to help us any more and with women having their babies later, grandparents are less likely to be around. Sustainable living is community building. By car sharing and bartering you build a 'family' - and you can't buy those in a mall."

How to be froogle

* Avoid processed food. Buy locally if possible and avoid supermarkets.

* It's fine to buy basic toiletries. Extras, such as make-up, can be found in charity shops if you're prepared to rummage.

* Underwear is OK.

* You can buy lightbulbs - if you're replacing bad old bulbs with new energy- saving versions

* Pharmaceuticals and health products are allowed. But with your new cook-from-scratch lifestyle, you might ask yourself if you really need those vitamins and supplements

* Shoes - utilitarian only. The froogles point out that this is no dispensation for those Manolos.

* Everything else must be bought second-hand, shared, borrowed or bartered.

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