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Last year Rachel Kesel, a professional dog walker in San Francisco, gave her clients an unconventional Christmas gift. She called it an environmental service, a promise that she would pick up five extra piles of dog poop.
Unbeknownst to Kesel, one of her clients was a core member of the Compact, a group of people who pledged to avoid buy anything new in 2006, other than health and safety items, food, socks and underwear. When the client told Kesel about the project, the 26-year-old signed on.
"We're constantly on the drive to consume more stuff. It becomes about habit and not necessity. (Compacting) forces you to look at what you really need," Kesel says.
The idea for the Compact began last holiday season at a dinner party and evolved out of a conversation that centered around unnecessary consumption. A challenge was proposed and accepted: don't buy new products of any kind. The experiment went so well that the original Compact members decided to invite more people to get involved. The group started a blog, and told their friends and colleagues, like Kesel.
When local media began publishing stories about the group, there was a surge of support from like-minded people. Now there are almost 1,700 people signed on to the group, according to Shawn Rosenmoss, one of the original participants. Reactions haven't all been supportive. She says the group has been "accused of destroying the American economy."
This was a surprise, Rosenmoss says with a chuckle. "I had no idea I had that kind of power."
This is how it works: Compact members reuse and recycle, make stuff, buy used, give away free stuff, get free stuff, borrow, barter and trade. If you must buy new, you're encouraged to shop locally. And you're encouraged to buy locally grown food.
According to the Compact blog, the group wants to "counteract the negative global and environmental and socioeconomic impacts of U.S. consumer culture, to resist global corporatis, and to support local businesses, farms." On the personal level they want to "reduce clutter and waste" in their homes and simplify their lives.
The guidelines are not rigid, according to Rosenmoss, who works as an environmental specialist and lives with her two children. "Compacting" is less about following impermeable rules, she explains, and more about giving serious thought to our material needs and the impact of our consumption habits on the planet.
Rachel Kesel's participation in Compact was born from a distaste for the wastefulness around the holidays, which she says "drive her insane." Kesel has a strict "no gift policy." Early in the season, she sends out holiday cards to friends and family requesting they not send gifts. She says that if someone insists on giving her a present, she requests something functional -- like a computer battery. Or she asks them to do an eco-friendly gesture in her name -- like take things out of the trunk of their car to lighten the load on gas consumption. As for gift ideas, she advocates for services, like a massage or a haircut. She also gives downloaded music.
If you're leaving home this season, Kesel warns that "Compact" travel can be a challenge. She spent time last year traveling in London and the Middle East, and she tried to pack light. But she forgot essential things, like a towel and shower shoes, and ended up having to buy them new.
If you're throwing a holiday party, let guests know how much food and drink you're going to provide to cut back on excess, she suggests. Serve the food on real plates and use cloth napkins, she adds, and set up recycling and composting bins. Encourage people to carpool, ride bikes, or walk. As for holiday beverages, she is a fan of the mini-keg because unlike bottles and cans, it can be refilled.
Kesel stresses that she's not going without this season. And her commitment to the Compact is not about saving money (although, it is an added bonus.) She's just rethinking how much she needs things and how quickly she needs them. Recently someone tipped her off to a new bed that was being given away for free. She had wanted a new bed for a while, and while she could have gone to a retail store and bought one new, she didn't need it immediately. She chose to wait, let people in her network know what she was looking for, and eventually she found it -- and no new product was rendered.
"It's about not taking more than what you need," says Rosenmoss. "It's about living a life of sufficiency."
The Rosenmoss family will be spending the holidays with friends. They'll attend Christmas shows, like the dance-along Nutcracker, and they'll exchange presents -- just not new presents.
Receiving gifts can be tougher than giving, she admits. "Sometimes people give me a gift and I open it and think: Have we met?"
So, what if you're trying to have a Compact holiday, and your aunt gives you 42-inch plasma flat screen television? What do you do? Rosenmoss' advice is not to argue. Accept an unwanted gift respectfully, she says, and then exchange it for something you need. Or give it to someone who does need it. She says the key question is: "How can you act as a conduit for that crap?"
Jennifer Liss is a writer living in San Francisco.