A few weeks ago, my long-awaited shipment of household items arrived from overseas. After battling with shady moving companies and customs agents for months, I could finally reclaim my stuff. But when it arrived at my doorstep, I didn’t feel a rush of joy. Instead, I panicked.
Where do I put nearly a household full of things when I’ve been doing fine for a year without them? I thought back to last summer, when I had just quit my corporate job and traveled through Europe for a few months. Normally a clotheshorse, I discovered then that I could be very happy with relatively little. I had packed light for the meandering holiday – some tank tops and pants in black and white, a nice dress for my college roommate’s wedding in Florence, plus accessories – and was finding enjoyment in taking good care of the few garments I had. At the time, I wrote on my blog about the blissful discovery “that I didn’t miss my Gucci bag or long for my crystal-studded heels.”
As movers piled box upon box into my Beijing apartment, I wondered, “How much stuff do I really need?”
According to a new movement in the US, I only need 100 things.
The “100 Thing Challenge” was started by a “guy named Dave” (that’s the name of his website) in San Diego who wanted to simplify his life. In 2008, Dave Bruno told Time magazine, “Stuff starts to overwhelm you,” and so he had begun to whittle down his material possessions to just 100 items (or, in the beginning, 100 groups of items). (Incidentally, Dave is so averse to “things” in the plural that he intentionally maintains the grammatically incorrect “100 Thing” title for his mission).
Over two years, Dave’s little adventure struck a chord with many Americans grappling with an over-consuming past and a recessionary present. A former yuppie interviewed by New York Times had changed her spending habits, job and lifestyle just by following the 100 things challenge. She said, “The idea that you need to go bigger to be happy is false. I really believe that the acquisition of material goods doesn’t bring about happiness.” The sentiments are echoed in popular culture, too. Peter Walsh, the host of a TV show called “Clean Sweep” that helps people purge extraneous belongings, said, “People are finding that their homes are full of stuff, but their lives are littered with unfulfilled promises.”
America has a history of over-consuming to levels unheard of elsewhere. I doubt quasi-professional terms for “diseases” like “hoarding” exist in other languages. I haven’t heard of anyone of Oprah’s public stature dedicating episodes to “de-cluttering” interventions. And I know for a fact that no other economy rivals America’s in getting people to buy things they don’t need through clever marketing.
The American consumption machine works so well that it’s hard not to fall prey to its lure. When I first landed in the US I was on a student budget, but I couldn’t resist buying things marked down from $20 to $1.99. I thought it was a good use of money because equivalent goods cost much more in China. But as time went by and I started accumulating possessions in my dorm room, I realized there was such a thing as a bad deal. Isn’t it an inefficient use of resources to manufacture goods, then mark them down to irresistibly low prices, just so consumers could buy them (thinking “Why not?”), use them twice and relegate them to the back corners of a storage room?
Before I get too far, let me pause and say that these are post-industrial problems. Why talk about “cutting back” in a country where, for the majority of the population, owning 100 things is still a luxury that people are striving toward? Is it relevant?
The popular Chinese website Youmi (www.umiwi.com) recently posted a Chinese article on Dave’s “100 Thing Challenge.” Judging by the more strongly-worded reader comments, it is too early to talk about a post-consumption cleanse in China.
One comment read, “These examples from developed countries only make us feel the discrepancy – ‘cutting the fat’? We still hesitate when it comes to buying a meal.”
Another said, “What kind of a challenge is this? 100 things sounds great!”
Lastly, “When we were students we only needed 50 things to make it through the year.”
So perhaps we in China are not at a point yet when we can widely discuss “scaling back.” But there’s no reason not to bring up the issue. Economists sometimes talk about the “late mover advantage,” referring to the benefit of learning from the mistakes of countries that industrialized earlier. On a personal level, it’s not a bad idea to start thinking about the state of over-consumption before we get there. What I really want to say here is this:
To all the affluent Chinese (of which there are many) shopping up a storm, thank you for supporting the economy, but do you really need another pair of shoes? If we must emulate one developed country’s model of personal spending, let’s go for the French model: “buy quality, not quantity.”
Check out Dave Bruno’s latest version of his “100 things list”: http://www.guynameddave.com/100-thing-challenge.html
Time Magazine’s take on “100 things”: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1812048,00.html
New York Times story on the social trend: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/business/08consume.html?pagewanted=2&sq=100%20things&st=cse&scp=7