One of the basic premises of the ecofrugal life is never to buy anything you don't have to. If something breaks, you try to repair it. If you need something you don't currently own, you try to borrow it. If that doesn't work, you try looking for it on Freecycle before you resort to actually shopping for it. And you're not squeamish about picking through someone else's discards, whether that's leftovers from a yard sale, a big box of books marked "free," or furniture left out at the curb for bulk pickup.
Freegans are people who take this idea to its logical—or perhaps illogical—extreme: they never buy anything. No, not even food. They get that by foraging or "urban foraging"—a polite euphemism for trash picking. And before you say "eww," you might want to check out this NBC interview with a noted freegan advocate, who says her scavenged finds include portobello mushrooms, bread, slightly dented cans, and "half a case of arugula that‘s never made it out onto the shelves of the store, all wrapped up." Considering the prices of arugula and portobello mushrooms, that's enough to shift my reaction from "eww" to "hmm."
Freegans have lots of reasons for choosing to live as they do. Many of them see consuming nothing as the best way to reduce their environmental footprint. Others are more concerned about animal rights or human rights and don't want to support the companies that infringe on them—which, they argue, you inevitably do when you shop. And some are opposed to capitalism itself on principle.
Naturally, the freegan lifestyle is somewhat intriguing to me, because it's kind of the most ecofrugal way of life imaginable. Yet I must admit, I have some problems with it too. Not so much with the Dumpster diving part; these folks know what they're doing, and anyway, they have a right to risk their own health if they want to. What I wonder about is whether it's truly sustainable. Yes, these people are living off stuff that would otherwise go to waste—but that's only possible because the society we live in is itself so wasteful. A society in which everyone lived as a freegan would be a society in which all productive activity simply ground to a halt. Yes, reclaiming waste is a good thing, but is it really an effective way to shift our whole society toward being less wasteful?
In my latest Money Crashers piece, I explore this and other questions about the freegan lifestyle. I talk about why people become freegans and outline the various methods they use to survive without shopping, which include not just urban foraging but also Freecycle, free stores, wild foraging, community gardening, walking for transportation, ride sharing, and other such non-controversial staples of the ecofrugal lifestyle. And I also talk about some of the questionable aspects of freeganism, such as the health risks of Dumpster diving (which can be minimized with a few simple precautions) and the moral questions related to squatting, scavenging, and generally living off other people's labor. Here's the full article: Freegan Movement – Principles & Problems of Freeganism
I must confess, as I researched and wrote this article, I found myself feeling less sympathetic toward freegans, not more. Though I still agree with many of their goals, I found that most of the websites and other sources that promote the freegan lifestyle (such as Freegan.Info, the closest thing the movement has to an official home page, and "Why Freegan?", the original "manifesto" that first outlined the movement and its goals), come across as very judgmental and even downright rude. Instead focusing on the good to be gained from eliminating waste, they rant at length about the evils of our economic system and how everyone who takes part in it—this means YOU—is supporting those evils and is therefore evil by association. The "Why Freegan?" article even recommends shoplifting and employee theft as ways to stick it to the Man. To me, that's a lot more icky than Dumpster diving.
My conclusion about the freegans is that, while I share their goals, I'm just not convinced living as a freegan is the best way to achieve them. Like it or not, we do live in a capitalist society, and I think we can do a lot more to influence that system and mitigate its evils by exercising our power as consumers and supporting businesses that are trying to be more ethical, rather than by refusing to support any of them on principle.
But even if I don't want to be a freegan, I'm still happy to pick up tips from them about how to grow food on vacant land, share belongings, and find good stuff that other people have thrown away. Because even if my ecofrugal lifestyle isn't ideologically pure enough as far as they're concerned, I'm still fundamentally on board with the idea of reducing waste wherever possible. I won't refuse to shop under any circumstances, but I still prefer to share, borrow, and get stuff for free when it's a reasonable option.