Digital Nomads: Why, What & How to Buy Things

As a recovering collector, I’m trying to be smarter about why, what & how I buy things. Here’s what I’m thinking.

Sustainability

We all know the line; we can’t continue to make everything a commodity. We have whales washing up dead on-shore with their stomachs full of plastic bags & bottles. This is absurd. We have toxic chemicals in so much of what we buy. A tiny sliver of items available are 100% recyclable. Single-serving packaging (and packaging in-general) is insane. This has to change. We know this, and we know it’s our responsibility to buy responsibly.

We all know the importance of those things, and better men than I have covered them in-detail, so I won’t go over them again.

Instead, I want to focus on another seldom-discussed aspect of sustainability; personal sustainability. I’m not talking about having a 401k, a summer home in the Hamptons or a bomb-shelter in the mountains. I’m talking about the daily and long-term effects of being a consumer in the Western mainstream. I only know what it did to me, so I’ll start there.

Most of us westerners between the ages of 30–50 were raised in a time when commoditization had been perfected. Costco brought us everything in bulk. Quantity became cheap, and consequently, how we made buying decisions changed with it. That’s how I ended up purchasing at least 10 different bags per year for ten years. It’s how my closet became stuffed with 90% of items I didn’t really want. Stuff was cheap, plentiful, and making purchases at all was a sign of wealth.

What it did to me mentally and emotionally was the interesting part, and I’m only just becoming aware of this for the first time ever. I had created my own shopping mall in my closet, and in my bedroom. Every day was fraught with too much choice. This sucked my time, drained my mental energy, filled my physical space and put me in a state where I was always wondering if I had made ‘the right’ decision on what to use. In the UX world we call this cognitive load; a (probably unnecessary) mental burden on ‘the user’. When that is compounded by subsequent, consecutive instances, we just call it ‘a shitty user experience’.

Then there’s the addiction; the lie that stuff can bring happiness. For me, this was one of the worst parts of my own experience. I became a habitual buyer. Like so many terrible things, the ‘shine’ would wear off and the gap it had temporarily filled would become wider. I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s what the ad companies had intended all along; addiction.

Recovery

Thanks to friends, family, colleagues and Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism (paired with a history of punk rock and a disdain for ‘the system’ ;-) I am now recovering my former self from this addiction. You may have read a couple of my recent posts on the topic. I’m on the path to freedom, and let me tell you, it feels amazing.

These influences have changed the way I look at ‘stuff’. I’m in the middle of reading Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance again, and that is changing the way I think about quality. As some of you know, I recently fell in love with a small company called Crafted Goods after using their messenger bag for awhile, and that experience has continued to shape my new way of thinking about purchases, products and how they affect my lifestyle.

1. Why (to buy things)

It sounds silly to start with a question like why would I buy something. Everyone just needs something from time to time right? That’s what I thought too, until I started culling my wardrobe, and then going through all the shit in my office. Those two exercises left me shocked that 90% of this is shit I don’t need.

Probably half of it was just stuff that had accumulated over years of (unknowingly) ‘collecting’ it. The other 40% were things I had purchased within the last 24 months (scary!). Think it about it — the 10% of stuff I actually needed could have fit into one backpack. The office could have burnt down, and I wouldn’t have missed anything. This shocked me.

When I finished going through the office I had made 3 trips to drop bags at the thrift store. There were probably 10–15 trash bags of stuff I got rid of without a worry. Then I was left with a pile of stuff in the corner of the room that I would list on Craigslist. But just to see the full effect of the transformation, I moved all that stuff into the closet. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

I could count the items in the room on two hands — everything that wasn’t nailed down. Laptop, charger, desk, chair, sofa, iPhone, iPad, Apple Pencil, messenger bag. Nine things in total, and I could have lived without the sofa, but it wouldn’t fit in my car so I kept it. It was a shocking thing to behold. It felt freeing. I felt ‘light’.

Of course there were other things; I had i-device chargers in my bag, a couple charging cables, a pair of gloves and hat, and of course everything I was wearing. I had a camera and camera case in a drawer and a few Sharpies. I kept a pocketknife I really liked. It wasn’t that there literally wasn’t anything else — but that the few things I actually needed made the room feel like a modern art museum.

Why we buy stuff

This experience really challenged how I thought about buying things. If 90% of the shit I own is useless to me, then my beliefs about ‘stuff’ have been fundamentally incorrect. This is the point where — for me personally — the philosophy intersects with Nomadic Working. Let’s start talking about that by geeking out for a moment.

I love the Bourne movies. There’s a scene where Jason Bourne gets chased by police. He’s been caught off-guard with nothing but the clothes on his back. He gets into a fight with a dude and grabs a ball-point pen as a weapon. He breaks into a general store and steal vodka and gauze to dress his wounds. In short, he gets shit done with very little resources.

Yes — I would like to be Jason Bourne. I’m an overweight, middle-aged white dude who still basically wants to be a superhero. I can live with that. Could be worse. Back to the story;

In the films, Jason Bourne is a thief and a killer — which is quite unfortunate, but makes for great entertainment — but he’s also an essentialist. He has very few needs. In a way, he fits right in with some of our peer hipsters who value experience over possessions. Bourne is the ultimate profile of that (if you sort of stand on your head and take a mushroom to see it.) There’s something about him that’s free, adventurous and risky. When you boil it down, it’s a superb picture of modern minimalism (or essentialism).

The stark contrast between my old office and my new office made me ask the question why have I bought all this useless shit, and then kept it all!? I think the answer is more Freudian than I’d like to admit; buying stuff makes me feel good, because I believe the lie that ‘stuff’ will always solve a problem. The funny thing is that — even after years of strategic research & purchases — I still had this problem… which led me to believe that the current ran deeper than I wanted to admit; there was a deeply-rooted emotional aspect to this which I hadn’t yet faced head-on.

I started asking myself questions about why making purchases made me feel good. I’m not there yet, but I’m in a constant state of questioning, and that alone has changed how I think about buying things.

There are no easy answers to why we buy stuff (the way we do) in the west. There’s an aspect of it that’s cultural, and aspects that certainly go deeper into our personal beliefs — the story we’re each telling to ourselves, aboutourselves. (e.g. This Range Rover will make me look and feel more successful.) I’m now purposefully grabbing that story by the balls because — in the past (when I haven’t) — it didn’t turn out the way I wanted. I would encourage you to do the same — don’t let your story become something you wouldn’t want.

2. What (to buy)

I’ve always appreciated items that are high-quality, but that term in-itself needs some unpacking. In products, the term quality can refer to so many things; the conditions in which it was constructed, the materials used, the process of research & design behind it, the experience of using it, the experience of buying it, the experience of finding it… we could go on for days. But first let’s look at quantity.

Quantity

After clearing my wardrobe and office it became quite clear that quantity was a big part of the problem. Quantity creates a sea of paralyzingly choice that’s always around. But quantity also is a marker of habitual purchases that are either 1) Not truly meeting the need (and so we buy another), or 2) Telling a story about ourselves, to ourselves that isn’t accurate (e.g. The Range Rover).

In the hipster trends of the recent decades, we’ve seen a significant shift in this thinking. It’s a shift that focuses on longevity, experience, and the beauty of an object’s life over time (and how the ownership of that object, over time, can affect its owner). Now, instead of a hipster owning 20 different jackets, they’re quite happy to save up for a few months and go out and buy a waxed cotton staple jacket from someone like Barbour — which are know to last a lifetime.

But there are a slew of new brands, too, that are making products to last, and with a handful of other notable corporate markers: being locally made, materials being locally and sustainably sourced, and built with a long-term view while eschewing planned obsolescence. (Coffee may have been one of the industries to pioneer this new, wholly sustainable way of thinking.) Now, you can buy a hoodie that’s warranteed for 10 years, or a case for your iPhone that’s been built like a tank with sustainable leathers and wool — all with a focus on graceful aging and durability without sacrificing style. Yes, it’s possible.

In fact, even some old-school companies like Subaru are making huge changes. They’re on the path to making all of their vehicles using 100% sustainable and renewable energy. They’ve been zero-landfill manufacturer since 2004 — the first in the industry — for which they won the Campbell Institute Award. In 2012 they won the Sunstainia Award. They take a huge amount of cash every year to actively invest into their partnership with the National Park Service and the National Parks Conservation Association to eradicate trash in America’s National Parks. Times are a’changing, and companies like Subaru are leading the way.

The brand lie

It used to be that you could count on a certain brand to consistently deliver high-quality goods, but that’s not really true anymore. Toyotas still go 200k miles farther than Bentleys, and a tiny little homebaked brand like Topo can make a better backpack than The North Face for half the price. Hell — sometimes even truly homebaked solutions can be better than ones that are ‘professionally’ made — even if they eventually get snagged by a company.

It used to be that a product’s price tag was consistently representative of it’s overall quality. Those days are long gone. Now in the mainstream market, brand recognition (fashion) is the real currency, and that name is largely what determines the price tag. This mis-alignment makes it harder for small companies to sell their goods, and harder for consumers to make informed purchases. If you really want to make a good purchase nowadays, you’ve got to do your homework. It’s not good enough to rock up to a used car lot and ask “what’s the highest quality car you have here?” Every word on the promo tag and any height of name recognition must be scrutinized with skepticism, just like buying a used car.

Quality

To start on quality, I’m working under the assumption that quality is something we can all agree is very important. It’s important to note that quality should not be confused with price, rare materials, brand recognition and other aspects that don’t truly matter. The first step toward quality is learning which aspects truly matter. And this is where we get int the fun part, the How.

The argument for quality

For the purposes of essentialism, simplicity and minimalism, I’m going to highlight some of the obvious takeaways about why focusing on quality items is the way forward. We’ve talked about the many things that quality means. Some of them are absolute:

Quality is…

  • How A product is made — with safe, non-toxic materials and processes, the way workers are cared for, and even the amount of love that’s gone into it.
  • Why, yes why a product is made. Is it just another catalogue item defined by a marketing department, or has it been ideated to fulfill a specific need or perform a specific function? It’s often surprising how much the ‘why’ of a product affects it’s overall quality.
  • WhereA product is made will affect your local economy. If you value it — especially for local, boutique manufacturers — then you’ll want to buy locally. Not to mention the costs (both practical and environmental) of shipping.
  • Creating space for your mind to focus on the things that truly matter
  • Not getting in the way of the things that truly matter

Quality probably is not…

  • Necessarily consistent with the price tag
  • Necessarily consistent with the brand caché
  • Necessarily telling yourself the story (about yourself) that you want it to
  • Ten of the same items cluttering your mental and physical space
  • Creating a state in which your needs are only met by owning many items that only address a need cumulatively

3. How (to buy)

A part of the reason I ended up with so much crap was that I would research & purchase exclusively online. Sometimes it would work out, other times the online pictures would not be able to accurately represent the fit, material or size of something. Other times the pictures leave you flat-out blind to certain aspects of a product, and it catches you by surprise. I’m doing this more and more often: For the love of God, see it in person whenever possible!

Use your list of quality-criteria and practice being a brutal curator. Even consider the one-in, one out rule. Stop buying junk you don’t need, wasting money you don’t have, taking up valuable physical and mental space. Buying products that are versatile in a wide range of scenarios, covering a wide range of fashion and practical needs will enable you to keep the sheer quantity of things to an absolute minimum.

Deciding your quality factors

This is where it gets personal — quality has so many factors, and you can’t have it all. To truly make a smart purchase, you need to be armed with the knowledge of what your own factors are. For me;

  • I love things that are simple in design and functionality.
  • I want things to NOT get in my way.
  • I need them to fit my budget.
  • I need them to look presentable.
  • I’d prefer to be able to take it hiking, cycling, or to a board meeting.
  • I need it to fulfill a broad range of functions, because I don’t want to need two more down the road
  • I’d prefer if it lasted a long time
  • I need to know it’s not going to break anytime soon

That’s a solid starting point, and usually that’s good enough, but it can also be helpful to know what you’re not looking for. For me;

  • I don’t care so much about fashion — usually that’s covered to an acceptable degree by simplicity
  • I can’t break the bank (but God knows I try)
  • I don’t want it to draw attention
  • I prefer that it’s easily replaceable — so I’m not looking for anything really unique or rare

Notice that my lists aren’t just focused on the quality aspects of the product itself — but also on how it affects my life. I want to own as few items as possible, for as long as possible. But that’s just me. I encourage you to craft this list with a ‘whole’ view of how you want to live, and how you want the ‘stuff’ in your life to affect it.

This first step is hard because it demands that — to do it well — you’ll probably need to challenge some of your current or historical assumptions or beliefs. But this is the thing that builds a solid foundation of making smart purchases, so it’s worth taking the time to get it right.

Grab the nearest napkin and crayon and start playing. Write out words that come to you first; fashion, color, price, material, whatever it is that you care about now, and then start scrutinizing each one. Does it really matter? What are you left with? Think on each one, and tomorrow, journal about why each item on your shortlist is there, then take a last pass at it. This is an exercise in knowing yourself. If it was easy, you didn’t do it right. Start over with more honesty ;-)

Use your quality factors to narrow the options

Now that you have your list, you’re ready to get busy. You know how you want your ‘stuff’ to fit into your life. You know that it should serve your specific needs, rather than simply becoming a part of a collection. Now’s the time to apply your new set of requirements. Here are some tips to get started.

Think differently about how you buy. You’re no longer ‘trying things’. You’ll never buy something just because it’s on sale again. Treat every single item you own as a tool that somehow serves your needs. The tool, ideally, is versatile, high-quality, replaceable and whatever else is on your list. You don’t want to deal with too many different tools, so you’re super-analyze about what you spend your money on now.

Don’t forget the basics

I mentioned a few of my basics; replaceability and versatility. These, to me, are essential. For me, replaceability is essential because I don’t have a bottomless bank account. I need this to be sustainable. When something dies I’ll usually try to repair it for as long as I can, but I still can’t rock up to a meeting with patches on my jeans (yes — even I have standards ;-). Versatility is important because it enables me to have less. If every item in my wardrobe looks fine together, that’s a win. That’s one of my goals — to not need to think about fashion or choosing an ‘outfit’ every day. You’ll have your own set of goals, and you should tailor these into your criteria.

Done? Now, Refine.

When I finishing going through my wardrobe I was left with a handful of essential items that I used almost daily. I began focusing in on those items; black zip-up hoodie, jeans, Vans shoes, socks. From what I already owned, I was left with a very good set of remaining items. I knew I could wear all of these throughout the year, and that each piece was versatile, suited my fashion needs and practical needs. Now it was time to start refining my small collection. Here’s what I did.

Jeans

I go through jeans pretty quickly, and years ago I settled on Levis because their price, quality, style and fit were a great balance for me personally. As a cyclist, I discovered the Levis “Commuter” range when they first released it, and since then, their “Commuter” jeans have been my go-to pair, but the jeans I had left after culling my wardrobe were the plane-Jane “511” style.

I immediately liked the additional features of the Commuter range’ water-resistance, double-layering on the seat, reflective inner cuffs and a u-lock strap on the back. I bought my first pair while cycling a lot in England and they saved my butt several times form the rain in-particular.

So I went to our local outlet, bought a new pair in my size and stuffed my old pair into a bag for the charity shop. The old pair only had a few months of life left in them, but the Commuters tend to last me twice as long before I cycle a hole in the crotch ;)

Shoes

The shoes I settled on keeping we’re an old pair Vans Authentic in black. I chose them because I can wear them year-round while swapping socks for warmth, they’re simple and match everything, and they’re cheap enough to be easily replaced. After spending a few weeks in them, I realized they had one downfall — they’re not very comfortable for long walks. After a bit of digging and a trip to the new local Vans store, I discovered they now made a “Pro” version of the same shoe which had a significantly improved insole, plus several more rugged features compared to the original. All for only $5 more. The Vans “Authentic Pro” is now my go-to shoe, and after recently walking miles a day back in England, I can say the extra $5 was well worth it!

Hoodie

I had kept an old black zip-up hoodie from SuperDry which I brought with me from England. It was well-made, heavy and cozy. I had already worn this hoodie to death for the last 5 years. It had holes all over it and was significantly faded, but I appreciated the durable quality it had supplied over the years, and set out to find a suitable replacement. After some online research, I settled on a “10-year hoodie” from Flint & Tinder.

Being American-made from high-quality materials, a solid 10-year warranty and a huge community backing, this seemed like a great choice, and that’s proven true. The hoodie is nicely tailored for a modern fit while being superbly built from quality materials. It’s not a cheap hoodie, but it’s also not sporting a price tag that has me paying for a huge brand name. With their 10-year warranty, it definitely qualifies as ‘replaceable’.

Socks

I had been experimenting with various socks since I began cycling seriously about 10 years ago. I had a few pairs that were decent. I always noted how they performed in various situations. I remember a trip the the states while living in England and I had seen a pair of socks from DeFeet on sale at a local cycling shop, so I grabbed them on a whim. That was 8 years ago and they’re still going strong.

I had heard about DeFeet while researching gloves, and yes, they do make a great pair of gloves. Their socks are equally durable and well-known to cyclists. I went on their site and ordered a pair of their heavier “Woolie Boolie” socks to help me through the winter, as well as a lighter weight pair for summer. Now I have a range of 3 sock weights that will work year-round, from a company that I trust to do their thing well. Can’t recommend their socks & gloves enough. Love DeFeet.

Gloves

You all know I’ve had a crazy journey with gloves, a little like bags. Over the years of trying a lot of different gloves (for different purposes), my favorite all-rounders have come down to 2 different pairs: The DeFeet DuraGlove, and the Rapha Leather Town Gloves. I haven’t had my DeFeet gloves for years (I think I lost them), but the Rapha gloves have served me well since my wife bought me a pair around 2009. They’re indestructible, made for cycling, and warm enough for most occasions — even in Colorado. The DeFeet gloves are similarly good, but at a fraction of the cost, making them highly replaceable.

T-Shirts

My favorite t-shirt is one I bought in duplicate from an REI store, and of their own brand name. It’s a very nice charcoal-gray polyester blend. It has no branding on the exterior, never wrinkles or fades, and performs well during high activity. Sadly, they have since changed the formula and now the new ones look and feel too ‘performance’ oriented for my taste. But Tees are an item that don’t typically cost a lot, so I don’t sweat it too much. Most recently, I went to our local outdoor-discount store and purchased a couple more ‘performance’ tees (in charcoal gray — my color of choice) and both have done just fine (without breaking the bank). I now own a charcoal gray tee from HEAD, Marmot, and two from REI.

Aside: Materials

As an aside, I’ll talk a little about what I’ve learned lately about materials, and how they affect use:

  • Cotton is cheap, plentiful and comfortable, but it doesn’t perform very well. It retains moisture (like rain and sweat) and takes a long time to dry. When it gets wet, it doesn’t retain its shape very well, and it doesn’t wick moisture or repel odors very effectively. If you layer it up enough (just like cardboard, leaves or a flock of birds), it will eventually start to keep you warm. The only cotton I use nowadays is the denim in my jeans.
  • Blends Can be a great compromise; a cotton/poly blend will perform marginally better than 100% cotton, and a cotton/wool blend will do a little better. Of course, if you’re not a very active person and don’t live in a wet climate, then all of this is less important.
  • Polyester is generally a great compromise of cost/performance. It wicks moisture reasonably well, doesn’t retain odor as much as cotton, and drys pretty quickly. It’s generally comfortable and is available in many different forms. Since polyester has an incredible range of versatility, it can be woven to retain warmth well, or even in mesh patterns to increase air flow. Many mid-level sport brands use polyester across the board for their mid-range products.
  • Wool & merino — as far as I’m concerned — are the holy grail of clothing material. Particularly when it comes to clothing which touches your skin (underwear, thermals and base layers), wool (and its derivatives) perform exceptionally well at wicking moisture, repelling odor, being comfortable and of course, keeping your body temperature regulated. For example, my favorite pair of boxer shorts are made from merino wool, made by Bergans. My socks are merino wool by DeFeet.

Conclusion

Refining the ‘stuff’ in your life is a great starting point, but for that to remain sustainable, it’s crucial that we get to the bottom of how we got there in the first place. Don’t be afraid to dive deep. Ask hard questions, try new things. In our age of commodity and quantity, consider each item you’re left with as a small part of the story you’re telling to yourself, about yourself. Identify the things you already care about, and then look into the things you think you might care about; your local economy, the impact of unsustainable materials and processes, and consider the lives of those who make it all.

before long you’ll be a zen master of making smart purchases. Start small, then dream big. Never stop curating and refining your ‘things’, but also your mindset and knowledge about how the things you buy affect our world.