Challenge Accepted: Could you go a year without purchasing anything new?

Headshot of Alissa CentivanyAssistant Professor Alissa Centivany is an advocate for the right to repair and a researcher who is looking more closely at the movement and how it relates to environmental preservation, overconsumption and even human psychology. Earlier this year she was called upon to provide expert testimony before the House of Commons related to two copyright reform bills that aim to make it easier for consumers to repair their own goods:  Bill C-244 (diagnosis, maintenance, and repair) and Bill C-294 (interoperability). She has also been interviewed about the issue by various media outlets, including CBC and The Agenda.

In 2022, in the name of practicing what she preaches, Centivany took her research one step further and decided to experience a new way of living for herself. In a world where overconsumption is the norm, Centivany and her two daughters (ages 9 and 13), went a full year without purchasing (almost) anything new. In this Q&A, Centivany talks about her experience and what advice she can give to help others wanting to consume less and repair more.

Q&A with Alissa Centivany

Q. What was something you purchased often that you had to give up for this challenge?

Clothing was definitely the hardest to give up. In the beginning, it was tough not buying clothes, but we quickly realized we had a lot of stuff, so we could go shopping in our closets. I also revisited my mending skills to repair anything damaged.

Q. We live in a consumer culture. What was the hardest part of going against the norm and not purchasing anything new?

The hardest part was dealing with the discomfort that comes from not buying stuff. Our purchasing habits are often not driven by need but by the dopamine charge that comes from getting something new. So, getting comfortable with the discomfort, sitting in the discomfort where you face the fact that many of your purchases may be emotionally or psychologically driven and going shopping provides a quick fix. During the year-long challenge, we got to experience first-hand that the desire fades. At the start of the challenge, I began making a list of everything I wanted to buy when the year was up -- my shopping spree wish list -- but after the year, there was actually nothing on the list that I still wanted.

Q. Did the rest of your family take part? Was it challenging for them?

Both my daughters, 9 and 13, at the time, took part. They were excited too; I didn’t have to twist their arms. They loved the journey; on holidays and birthdays, they loved going to Memory Lane or a thrift store. Both girls are very politically and socially charged kids, they care a lot about the environment and sustainability. We did have a couple of exceptions, for example, for my daughter's grade eight graduation, she wanted a new dress. So, we weren't extremely strict, there were times when we needed to break the rules.

Q. In what ways did you have to change your habits and mindset to succeed in the challenge?

Well, mindset is about coming to terms with and facing the emotional and psychological aspects of buying stuff. For habits, it's about finding other ways to get that dopamine hit and satisfaction. There were a few times when things needed fixing. Rather than purchasing it new, we had to track down people who could help, which is not easy to do. Most repair work happens locally, and because many people can't make a living from just repairs, it was difficult. I am looking forward to helping the local repair economy with the right-to-repair laws.

Q. How often did you find you had to repair your items?

Not a lot; I would say there were things I never got fixed. There were a few little things, but there was not much. We have a funny story; my daughter had a hamster who chewed everything, and it chewed its enclosure. Since we weren’t purchasing anything new, we needed to find a used one. So, we went to Kijiji and found a glass enclosure, which is perfect because a hamster can’t chew glass. We drove out of town, and when we got to the house, it turned out to be a house full of snakes. Because hamsters will die at the scent of snakes, we bleached it, cleaned it, and got it ready. It was a fun family adventure to look back on and more interesting than just going to PetSmart.

Q. Because you are an advocate for Right to Repair do you shop with the mindset of “is this easily repairable”? Do you find yourself staying clear of brands that do not support the right to repair?

Absolutely, it is always at the front of our minds. It is a challenge because there is not a lot of competition, and not a lot of companies are great for repair. There are a couple of companies in Europe, like Framework and Fairphone, that sell devices that are made to be fixed. I tend to stay away from Apple products, and I have arguments with my daughter about no longer buying Apple products. It is also difficult to buy products that are not computerized. I needed a new stove, and they all have computers now. I was at the salesperson's desk, and he had a sheet with the cost of average repairs for the stove and to repair the computerized portion was more than half the cost of the entire stove. The computerized part will be the first to break, the hardest, and the most expensive to fix. I am tuned in, but I still can’t get away from it, it is hard to make smart consumer decisions because the market does not give us many options.

Q. What have you learned about yourself during this challenge?

The challenge was an experiment, part of it because I am a researcher, I naturally like to study everything. It was also part test, when I make these statements, do I have the integrity to follow through? I want to fully stand behind the things I study and advocate for in my research. Another thing I learned is I don’t want that much, the things that I value are not bought from a store. I value my relationships and experiences and taking the trip to a house full of snakes, teaching my kids how to sew, and finding other ways to entertain us that don’t orbit around overconsumption.

Q. What is some advice you would give someone who is also trying to limit how often they purchase new things?

When you want something, wait, give yourself a month, and often that alone will make you not want it. Also really think before you throw something out, is it fixable? Would someone else want it? Feed the secondary market as much as you benefit from it. I would also say think about the pleasure you would get and find other ways to get it. Maybe get involved in a yoga class, hang out with your friends, or go to a concert, there might be other ways to give you that dopamine hit without overconsumption. There is also one more thing that I haven't done recently but would like to get together with your friends and do swaps. Get some wine and make a night out of it, trade items you don’t want anymore.