How Lee Simpson went through a year of buying nothing

Oftentimes, we don’t think about the damage we are causing the environment when we choose the clothes we wear, the foods we eat, and the products we use on our face and body. Although the idea of being environmentally conscious has heated up now more than ever before, the information we are presented with can sometimes be overwhelming. Lee Simpson, the former editor of Chatelaine and president of the Women’s Division of Roger’s Media, has made the conversation slightly easier – and rather amusing. Her new book; “A Year of Buying Nothing” follows Simpson through her journey of reducing her environmental footprint. Here’s what she had to say about the unique project.  

*Responses have been slightly edited*

Why did you decide to buy nothing for a year?

I undertook this year for a number of reasons. I wanted to see if I could invite less stuff into my life. I needed to make amends for all the unnecessary stuff I had persuaded others to buy in my previous career as Publisher of Chatelaine. En route, I discovered just how large and mucky a footprint the average pattern of buying stuff leaves on our precious earth. I vowed to leave a lighter footprint myself.

Tell me more about your new book!

I did not take the year on with the idea in mind that I would be writing a book. I wasn’t even going to take notes. However, one of my girlfriends gave me a really cute, little black and white notebook when we met just before New Years. She said ”Here, if you’re going to do this, you should make some notes!” So I thought ”well okay.” I had done some magazine writing prior, obviously. So I contacted the editor and publisher of the Observer Magazine and pitched it. They have 50,000 readers so I thought, maybe at the end of the year, they would have liked to read about my accomplishment of my year of buying nothing.

They said, ”I don’t think they want that at all.’ I think they want to watch you squirm all year long. I think you should write a blog.”

I didn’t even know how to spell blog back then, but I very quickly learned what that was all about. They WHO? were very helpful and so I wrote a bi-weekly blog all through the year: 26 editions of whether I was doing well or doing badly. At this point, I’m happy to come up with something every 2 weeks. It was really useful and it helped me stop and reflect on how hard it was. sometimes it’s very hard indeed not to buy anything. (Like that time I was in the middle of a knitting project and a dog ate the roll of scattered wool and made a big mess. Yeah, that happened!) Sometimes it was very easy — very easy indeed. But reflecting on it and trying to make it interesting and amusing for people to follow the blog, which grew every week, was a really good experience. Halfway through the year, somebody spotted the blog as having the potential to make it a book. I got a call from a couple of publishers, but Woodlake Publishing was the company that I decided to go with. We made a deal and then when the year ended, I recorded the things that you now read in the book.

What do you hope to accomplish with the publication of this book?

I would like world peace and no pollution! But realistically, I would settle for leaving a smaller footprint myself and maybe inspiring other people to do the same. I make absolutely no bones about it. This is a book that is not aimed at people that are already environmentally turned on, not at eco-pioneers, and not at people who really know their way around the ecological industry. This book is aimed at people who might have been in the same situation that I was in, where I didn’t really know the impact that I was doing when I was casually buying plastic wrap and facial cleansers with micro beads in it. Things such as fleece sweatshirts, I have now discovered, are potentially and incredibly damaging to our water tables and our soil.

Why did you decide to leave the publishing industry?

I left the publishing industry in 2000. I had been with the company for many years. I wanted to do something different with my life. I didn’t want the monthly deadlines that I experienced with the publishing industry stretching out ahead of me to be all I wanted from life. So I went back to university and did a four year program called the Ministry of Divinity. Then, I was ordained by the United Church of Canada in 2005 and I have been working in both congregational ministry and also in administration with the United Church and the United Church Observer, the denomination magazine, for the past 10 years.

Did you face any challenges as a woman in the church setting?

Not really; The United Church of Canada was first to denominate women back in 1928 and there are women in posts all across the country. It’s a very liberal denomination and always have been a leader in terms  of social justice and gender equality.

This was a tough project! Who were your inspirations during this process?

Well, from an environmental sense, I guess I would say Christiana Figueres. She is the head of the UN framework  of the talks that are coming up about the environment and climate change. Elizabeth May is incredibly inspiring. David Suzuki and Rudi Hoffman are great inspirations too. I’m inspired by a number of people that are way ahead of me when it comes to being environmentally conscious. But, I’m also inspired by ordinary people that might be around me. I have watched the young people around me change from people who would happily wear polyester to people who now look for bamboo and silk and cotton. They are very conscious of the source of fabrics that they buy. I have watched them clean out their grocery cart so they’re not buying too much plastic. Instead, they are looking carefully at the label and are not inviting pesticides along with their protein and they’re doing it often on very tight budget. I’ve seen, with their wisdom, that it can be done and that you can still eat and dress well and you can even wear pretty makeup!

How is this different from other books about being environmentally and financially conscious?

I think it’s more fun. It’s written from a large dose of humour. It’s not meant to be taken lightly but it is written lightly. I have used the marketing expertise that I gained from my years in the industry to look under the labels of some common products. I don’t think that all the people that make these products are bad people. I just think they have gotten a little careless. I’m just calling their attention to it.

Who is the target audience?

When I was in the magazine industry, Chatelaine had a target audience of women 18+ and I’m going to say that this book is pretty much the same. I’ve had younger readers. When I gave it to a daughter of a girlfriend of mine she was absolutely appalled to discover that the facial cleanser she uses routinely is like a toxin. Basically, it’s like putting poison on your face.  And when you wash it off with water, that is a kind of pollution.  Those ingredients you see on the long list of things on the label of your shampoo and conditioner are lethal to your environment and our children. However, places like whole foods and other various stores that are more environmentally conscious have improved their packaging. The colours have gotten prettier and their textures and their smells are equivalent to the things that people are buying in drugstores that are not environmentally conscious.

Did you start to buy things again now that the year is over?

I do buy some things now that the year is over. But my buying pattern, where I purchase and how much and how often is forever altered. For example, once my Christmas gift list would have included at least 20-30 items purchased new from department and mall retailers. This year I am buying exactly 2 things from those sources. The same number of loved ones are being gifted (in fact, more…new grandson). Everything else is hand made (stuffed animals), a gift from our kitchen, (jelly from our trees, fudge, homemade bread) a gift of service, (dinner for 6, delivered to our friends home and served by us) a re-gifted item, (silver candlesticks to a friend who collects) or second-hand (found excellent quality linens and washed and hand-embroidered pillowcases). So there it is!

Who would have known what a year of buying nothing can do for yourself and the environment? We would like to thank Ms. Simpson for letting us be part of this journey. Grab a copy of “My Year of Buying Nothing” here