A Year of Not Buying Anything w/ Elizabeth Chai

A Year of Not Buying Anything w/ Elizabeth Chai

22 Jan 2021

Coffee designer and all-round cool lady, Elizabeth Chai, talks her "Buy Nothing 2020" challenge and making the perfect cup of joe.

Image creds: Reed McCoy.

As you'll know, we're fans of conscious consumerism. So, when we heard about Elizabeth Chai's "Buy Nothing" project in which—you guessed it—she aims to buy nothing but essentials, we had to find out more. Turns out, it isn't as as hard as you might think!

Hi Liz, welcome to A Good Community! Tell us a bit about yourself, where are you based?

I’m a “Coffee Designer”, as I like to call it, or a Graphic Designer with a focus on the Specialty Coffee Industry. Most of my work is design and illustration, but I am also involved with event organisation and promotion, as well as photography and social media.

I grew up in the Midwest and spent much of my adult life in Atlanta, Georgia. Five years ago I moved cross-country to the PNW (Pacific Northwest), where I split my time between Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, USA.

Elizabeth Chai work

Liz's Coffee Origins Series: Costa Rica

It’s the start of a new year and some of us will be making New Year’s resolutions. We were inspired when we read about your Buy Nothing 2020 pledge for last year, could you tell us a bit about what it was you committed to?

I always enjoy spending the winter holidays in reflection about how the year has gone, and my ambitions for the following year. In late-2019 I had pondered the idea of doing a year-long “fast” by spending the year not buying anything that I don’t absolutely need. Over the course of the winter holiday, I refined the idea and told some of my closest friends about the plan. I found the more I talked about it, the more I became mentally prepared for the challenge!

How did you decide what's essential and what isn't?

I made 3 lists: “Things that are OK to buy,” “Things that are OK to buy IF…(I run out, or need it for work, etc.),” and lastly “Things that are definitely NOT OK to buy.”

Pretty much everything was off limits, unless I included it on my “OK” list. Some examples of items that were on my “OK” list: food, coffee filters, needed home supplies (trash bags, toilet paper, etc.), services (shipping, oil change, repairs, etc.), experiences (concert tickets, digital books).

I also created a list of Goals and Values, which I could refer to if I encountered an item that I wasn’t sure of. I knew there would be some items which fell into a grey area, so being reminded of why I was doing this project helped remind me of what I could allow myself to purchase.

In addition to committing to “Buying Nothing,” I also decided to get rid of 2020 items from my home, whether through selling, giving away, throwing away, recycling, or donating. This was a spinoff project inspired by The 30-Day Minimalism Game that I had already completed numerous times over the years.

Quite the clear out! Why did you feel the need to do this, was it something you’d been thinking about for a while?

I hadn’t really thought of it for a long time before the idea came to me. But I think there were a number of experiences leading up to it that inspired the idea. I have done 40-day spending “fasts” before, as well as the 30-day Minimalism Game I mentioned. I had also recently read a few books which encouraged spending less, accumulating fewer material possessions, and I have also become much more conscious of the impact my purchases have on the environment.

"I found a few moments frustrating, like when my favourite band released a limited-edition vinyl record. But believe it or not, I survived not buying it!"

One example of this is my wardrobe, which is 99% vintage clothing (circa 1950s-1970s). I was always pretty proud of the fact that I was not contributing [very much] to “fast fashion”, but my best friend’s husband, who founded a company that creates fully-biodegradable plant-based fabrics, enlightened me about how even my vintage polyester clothes leech small particles of plastics into the ocean!

Living in Portland has also resulted in being surrounded by conscious consumers, and it was only recently that I started to consider each and every piece of plastic that comes into my home will live on the planet forever. And it isn’t just the obvious plastic packaging of food - it is even in our clothing, our home decor, our appliances.

Another inspiration for me was after working very hard to pay off debt and being intentional in how I live. I have, of course, throughout my life seen ups and downs, but at the end of 2019 I found myself in a place where I was tremendously grateful for all that I had: a job that I love, friends that value me, and materially everything that I “need.” I keep a gratitude journal, and I am certain this keeps me grounded. For me these thoughts translated into “I want to appreciate what I have and go a full year without buying anything.”

Elizabeth and her dog

Elizabeth and dog, Mr. B

What was the most difficult aspect of the challenge?

Honestly, it was not super difficult from day-to-day. Once Covid hit the PNW in mid-March, things changed so that I could not request items in my Facebook Buy Nothing group. But because my decision was to not buy anything I didn’t absolutely need, the challenge became simply getting used to making do with, and appreciating, what I already have. When I encountered something I wanted, I simply had to ask myself “do I really NEED that?” and, of course, the answer was almost always NO.

I found a few moments frustrating when my favourite band released a limited-edition vinyl record. But believe it or not, I survived not buying it! ;)

How do you feel the Buy Nothing project benefitted you overall, are you continuing with it?

I was not expecting it to have such a positive impact on my lifestyle. Even simply accomplishing my goal to not buy anything for a year has given me a newfound faith in my ability to accomplish what I dedicate myself to.

Some other benefits I experienced were that ads had very little impact on me. In fact, the majority of ads became completely irrelevant to me since I was unable to make a purchase - I just flicked them away. I also adopted a general attitude of viewing retail goods as unnecessary. This isn’t to say I don’t think we should refuse to support small, and local business - I do think that is tremendously important! In fact, as a designer I have a special appreciation for art, aesthetic, style, and functional industrial design. For 2021, I personally choose to use my dollar to support small, local coffee companies and restaurants, but another person might use their dollar in other ways.

I have decided to continue with the Buy Nothing project! I made some modifications for my 2nd year, where I am allowing myself to make a single purchase each month. This forces me to examine my heart to see if I genuinely want to buy something so much that I’m willing to use my one opportunity.

For the most part, my OK / OK if / NOT ok lists have stayed the same, although I removed some items from my “OK” list. Before, I was allowing myself certain consumable household goods like candles, but I have decided this isn’t a need (I have also learned breathing synthetic perfumes and even GMO soy wax could be harmful to my health!)

In addition to my 2nd year, Buying (Almost) Nothing, I decided that I would take a Social Sabbatical for 2021. I quit most forms of digital and social media that I have felt are distracting me from my creative focus and goals. So far - only 3 weeks in - this has been more difficult than Buying Nothing!

What advice and tips can you give to others who might be inspired to try Buy Nothing for 2021 or beyond?

I have had so many people ask me for tips, so I have been exploring the possibility of publishing a workbook or guide to building your own year of buying nothing. Stay tuned for that!

I would say as a whole, the overall best thing you can do is make a list of Goals and Values, asking yourself why you are doing this and what you want to accomplish. Once you examine your reasons for why you want to Buy Nothing, it is much easier to follow through.

I would also suggest being aware of your habits and keep these in mind as you plan. For example, I have a personality that loves rules and structure, so it was helpful for me to have a set of black and white guidelines. Not everyone is the same way, but may do better with having accountability help (such as leaving your debit card with a friend); or if seeing certain retail goods is too big a temptation, the trick might be to not be allowed to enter a boutique or shopping mall.

Planning is important because you will inevitably encounter a moment where you want to make a purchase but aren’t sure if it is “allowed.” Plan ahead for those moments and think through what you will do when you are faced with these decisions

You’re a self-proclaimed coffee lover. How do you take it?

Usually two cups of filter coffee (black, pourover) in the morning. I love bright, fruity, single-origin, lighter-medium roasts. I strongly favour coffees from Ethiopia, Kenya, Colombia, and Costa Rica. Because I am a coffee professional, I do own a wide variety of brewing gear but lately I have been using a Clever Dripper for my filter coffee. This is full-immersion (like a French Press) but then filtered with a paper filter as it decants - this removes the oily sediment, resulting in a very clean cup.

In the afternoon, I almost always have a cappuccino (double-shot espresso, 8oz, using organic, pasture-fed fresh locally-farmed dairy milk whenever possible). Pre-Covid this ritual was shared with my colleagues at La Marzocco USA, right after lunch. But lately as I have been working remotely, I prepare the cappuccino on my treasured La Marzocco Linea Mini espresso machine - a prized possession, and something I worked hard to be able to bring into my home.

Elizabeth chai making cappuccino

Great looking cappuccino, Liz! <3

What are the main things that people should consider when purchasing their coffee?

This is an incredibly important question! I would say the first thing to consider is how much the producers were paid for their crop — that is, many large corporate chains care first about profit and they often pay the producers a bare minimum. Oftentimes the amount a coffee farmer is paid for their crop does not even cover their cost to produce that coffee! While this might be nice for your pocketbook, the results are an unsustainable system, low quality coffee beans, and losing the next generation of coffee farmers to other industries.

Purchase roasted coffee from your local specialty cafe! The majority of small craft coffee roasters use “specialty” grade coffee beans, which means they pay higher prices for higher quality. When you purchase locally, you will have a smaller carbon footprint AND it will support those cafes so they can continue to pay coffee producers well, season after season. I also recommend researching your local coffee roasters, and talking to baristas about the coffees they are serving. If a coffee roaster is publishing information about where a coffee is grown (region, elevation, country) and how this impacts the flavour of the coffee, there is a strong chance they value the producers that grow the coffee.

Lastly, if you are using pods for coffee at home (such as Nespresso or K-cup), consider shifting to a home pourover setup like Kalita Wave, Chemex, or V60. Ground coffee and used filters are compostable in many cities, and you will love the ritual of slowly brewing yourself a cup of coffee without throwing away plastic every time. (I have learned the amount of coffee contained in pods amounts to ~$50/lb if you take all the ground coffee out and weigh it against the price paid for the package of pods! And it is very likely the manufacturer paid less than $1/lb for the crop.)

Lastly, who else do you think we should interview for A Good Community?

Klaus Thomsen, The Coffee Collective (Copenhagen); Luke Haverhals, Natural Fiber Welding (USA); Ashley, “The Little Black Coffee Cup”; Lee Falck, Memo Furniture (Seattle).

Inspiring! Thanks so much Liz! We're looking forward grabbing a coffee with you sometime and we'll definitely check back in again soon.

See more of Elizabeth's work on her website and Instagram (look out for the workbook).


We hope you found this fun and inspiring. Have a similar story to share? Drop us an email as [email protected]. Let us know if you take on the challenge.

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