Freeganism – Definition and Overview of the Movement

I’ve been considering strategies for saving money recently, in an attempt to retire early, and got a bit carried away researching/ reading about freeganism – fascinating subculture/ network/ however your want to characterise it…

Freeganism – A Basic Definition

‘Freegans are people who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources.’ (freegan.info – the first Google return for ‘freegan’ besides Wikipedia).

Pure freeganism involves meeting one’s needs without money, which is typically achieved through a combination of a number of strategies such as:

  • Renunciation – Simply doing without

  • Scavenging – Living of food and goods which have been thrown away, dumpster diving being a practice closely associated with freeganism

  • Recycling and ‘Upcycling’ – re-purposing other people’s waste

  • Repairing – Making goods last longer

  • Foraging – making use of what nature provides for free

  • Skilling up – Growing your own and making goods – here the movement links to city farms.

  • Bartering – exchanging goods or skills

  • Sharing – sharing resources, and space – It’s important to emphasise that many freegans don’t perceive themselves as free-loaders – Some freegans are part of organisations such as Food not Bombs and do unpaid work to salvage thrown away food and cook it in order to give it away.

  • Squatting – is often the preferred housing strategy

According to Michelle Coyne (2008) freeganism emerged from a complex social history, having its roots in anarcho-punk culture of the 1970s which challenged Corporate Capitalism, and today there still seems to be strong links between the few visible aspects of freeganism and an anti-capitalism, anti-corporate and especially anti-consumption ethic. Most freegans seem to eschew the idea of spending 40+ hours a week working for money in order to consume hard and then waste hard and prefer to engage in more meaningful unpaid labour in order to meet their needs in a more environmentally conscious way and reduce their impact on the planet. There are thus strong links between freeganism, anarchism and the modern environmental movement.

In the absence of money freegans rely heavily on social networks, and either other people’s generosity or superfluity in order to get by. They also have to invest a considerable amount of time meeting their basic needs through scavenging and networking, which is something they have more of than the average in-work person. NB – It is important to emphasise again that most freegans do not see themselves as freeloaders, although this is often a critique leveled at the movement, rather they perceive themselves as re-framing and re-balancing the concept of work as something which should be more diverse, more humanly connected and less dehumanising than something you just do for money.

What’s So Different about Freeganism?

While I do so love my typologies, I think it’s more useful to focus on the commonalities of these freegans – It’s not just the commitment to money-free living which distinguishes them from the mainstream, the following are recurring themes within the freeganism/ money free living movement

  1. Lamenting the de-personalising effects of money exchange – freegans prefer either gift-economics or barter and reliance of personalised networks to meet their needs.

  2. Co-creation within social networks – being money free means meeting needs through reliance of social networks, which can mean closer connections with people.

  3. Freedom from money as promoting individual freedom – being free of money obviously frees you from the need to engage in paid work, and many freegans also seem to relish the freedom to set their own day to day timetables and to travel as they please. There is the potential for this to contradict the point above.

  4. Ecologism – An essential aspect of many money-free strategies is meeting your own needs from the natural environment – through foraging and grow your own, freegans thus tend to be green-leaning.

  5. Anti-Consumption and anti-waste – freeganism is very much the anti-thesis of the rapid turnover of goods within a consumer culture, and dumpster diving to reclaim (mainly food) waste is a recurring theme in freeganism videos on YouTube.

  6. A critique of the exploitative logic of corporate capitalism. I don’t think it would be appropriate to label freeganism anti-capitalist, because so many of its practices seem to depend on it, but there is an undercurrent of critique of global corporations and a distinct preference for localism.

I include the ‘antis’ at the end because I get the impression that freeganism and money-free living are more about positive social change rather than protesting unjust economic systems.

How Many Freegans are there in the UK?

It’s hard to say for certain. Given the links between freeganism and left-green politics it is possible that there are thousands of freegans living off-grid in both urban and rural areas.

There certainly aren’t that many examples of freeganism in the UK online. A Google search for ‘Freeganism + UK’ suggests that there are a lot more people writing about freeganism, and/ or writing about their short-term experiments with freeganism then there are actual committed freegans writing about themselves. (Searched February 13 2016).

The top 17 of the top 20 search returns are for newspaper articles from either local, national or special interest sites and only 3 are links to actual freegan sites – one of which (search return number 1) seems to be the major info source for freeganism globally – ‘Freegan.info’. The second specific site is ‘Freegan.org.uk’ – and this only has limited information, with no information under any its main site headings, and the third return is for a blog called Dumpster Dinners which was last updated in February 2013.

In addition to the above – the following site (http://www.meetup.com/London-Freegans/) was founded November 2014 and has 229 members (Accessed 13/02/15), with 8 meet ups to date (although the most recent was in Calais). However, there is very little discussion, and as with the Google search – 3/5 posts on the discussion board are asking for people to be the subjects of journalistic investigations.

The UK Hippy Forum further suggests a dearth of online discussion – this thread is mainly devoted to dumpster diving and mostly seems to point to the limited opportunities for doing it.

http://www.ukhippy.com/stuff/showthread.php/60741-freeganism

Freegans are a little more active on Facebook – the Dumpster Dive group has 133 members and some photos of successful raids – https://www.facebook.com/groups/UKDumpsterDive/?fref=ts – b

Finally I’ve managed to source 11 videos on YouTube (playlist) which focus on Freeganism between 2008-2015 – which I think each cover different groups around the UK. NB the streamed-interview with Mark Boyle is very interesting.

The most visible manifestation of freeganism online is the Freecycle Network – which currently consists of 604 Groups spread across the UK, with 4,439,508 members. Unfortunately this tells us next to nothing about the actual number of moneyless or nearly moneyless Freegans in the country.

Freeganism’s connections to other movements

The practice of freeganism is common to a broad range of philosophies and movements, such as various forms of religious asceticism, monastic orders, various forms of anarchism, radical ecologism, and the homesteading/ Permaculture and off-grid living networks.

It’s likely that all of these will have some members who are living with very little money, and any true attempt to assess the scope of moneyless living in the UK would include an analysis of these. Such related networks include. Unfortunately this kind of breadth analysis isn’t something I’m in a position to do at the moment.

Criticisms and Limitations of Freeganism

The waste-reclamation aspect of freeganism has been rightly criticised for being dependent on the surpluses of Capitalism, but this is something of a moot criticism given that two of the above examples at least are actively involved in creating alternative gift-economies to meet human needs through a totally different paradigm. Whether these are realistic or not I’m not in a position to comment on.

A second criticism is that free-economics might work for basic needs such as food and clothes, but Freecycle’s not exactly inundated with skilled trades and professional people offering their services for free, which raises the question of how generalisable it is across different sectors of the economy.

A third criticism is the fact that freeganism is too radical a lifestyle for it to ever have mass appeal, so it’s potential for social change is limited, but this is at least partly countered by the breadth of the movement allowing for small-steps to be taken for those who can’t go through with total commitment.

A final criticism is that this does seem to be a very white, middle class movement – engaged in by people in developed societies, many of whom have the safety net of social welfare to fall back on. It’s a very romantic vision of ‘not poverty’, the reality of moneyless living around the globe, where the state isn’t paying for the roads or other infrastructure, isn’t so pretty.

Useful Sources of Information on Freeganism and Moneyless Living

General Info Web Sites

http://freegan.info/ (strategies for sustainable living beyond capitalism)

http://freegan.org.uk/

https://dustbindinners.wordpress.com/

YouTube playlist – UK focus – in chronological order, more or less

Groups active in the UK

Meetups – http://www.meetup.com/London-Freegans/

The UK Hippy Forum – http://www.ukhippy.com/stuff/showthread.php/60741-freeganism

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/groups/UKDumpsterDive/?fref=ts

Individuals – Links above:

  • Mark Boyle
  • Dan Suelo
  • Elf Pavlik
  • Carolienne Hoogland

Academic articles and Books

Victoria C More (2011) Dumpster Diners: An Ethnographic Study of Freeganism

Alex V. Barnard (2011) ‘Waving the banana’ at capitalism: Political theater and social movement strategy among New York’s ‘freegan’ dumpster divers

Michelle Coyne (20008) From Production to Destruction to Recovery: Freeganism’s Redefinition of Food Value and Circulation

http://www.uiowa.edu/ijcs/production-destruction-recovery-freeganisms-redefinition-food-value-and-circulation

Jeff Ferrell (2006) Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging (Alternative Criminology)

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2 Responses to Freeganism – Definition and Overview of the Movement

  1. Pingback: Careers Guidance for Alternative Jobs | ReviseSociology

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