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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 September 2007, 12:03 GMT 13:03 UK
My brand new life
Neil Boorman
Boorman's new lifestyle costs less
Neil Boorman torched his designer wardrobe and possessions and tried to live a brand-free life for a year - so how did he do?

Exactly one year ago this week, I held a public bonfire in central London, whereby I burnt all of my branded possessions. In an article on this website, I explained why.

I suffered from a condition known as obsessive branding disorder - a combination of compulsive shopping and a reliance on status symbol brands for the maintenance of one's self esteem.

I didn't buy clothes, gadgets or even food for the basic functions that they performed. I bought them for the way they made me feel.

From Adidas trainers to BlackBerry phones, I depended on the confidence these brands gave me to face the world each day.

I began to realise the more money I spent, the more miserable I became. With mounting debts and plummeting self-esteem, I pledged to do away with these emotional crutches and attempted to live a year of my life brand-free.

By banning myself from the shops I hoped to cleanse myself of a destructive addiction. But the prohibition became a kind of experiment, I wanted to find out if a person living in modern Britain could survive away from the chain stores and supermarkets that dominate our lives.

The first months of my brand-free life were hell. My local High Streets were populated entirely by mass-market brands and I was forced to scour the back streets for alternative spaces to shop.

Glamorous lifestyle

The weekly shop for essentials - previously an hour's dash around Sainsbury's - now occupied a whole day of my weekend. With most markets opening for one day a week, I was also forced to plan ahead.

I had to discover my local fishmongers and butchers and bulk-buy cosmetics and cleaning products from janitorial suppliers.

Shopping for clothes became less of a glamorous lifestyle pursuit and more of a functional activity, undertaken only when I absolutely needed new stuff. I sourced my new wardrobe from second hand shops, army surplus stores and non-branded suppliers on the net. I even had some clothes made by the tailor at my local dry cleaners.

Male model
Goodbye designer threads
Excluded from the aspirational sparkle of the brands, the act of shopping became less retail therapy and more basic survival. I could not find brand-free alternatives to the many gadgets that I once enjoyed and so committed to a year without a television or DVDs. The withdrawal symptoms only added to the initial discomfort of my un-branded style of life.

Emotionally, I had a lot of re-building to do. Without my beloved brands as confidence boosters, I had to search for new reasons to feel good about myself.

My psychotherapist encouraged me to confront my negative self-esteem and to stop judging myself by the impossible ideals that confronted me in the media.

Accepting the real me, as opposed to camouflaging with brands, was key to the long-term disconnection from the culture of consumerism. The advertisements for Selfridges said "I Shop Therefore I Am", but I began to know better.

As the year's experiment draws to a close, I'm pleased to say that I remain largely brand-free, save the odd emergency shop for Andrex toilet rolls.


Shopping for locally produced, small-scale produce remains a constant struggle in Britain, but the hollow dazzle of the High Street has been replaced by something infinitely more satisfying. I know my local shopkeepers by name.

There being little alternatives to branded ready meals and processed food, I have lost almost a stone in weight simply from eating all natural produce. Spending less money overall, my bank balance is back in the black.

And the status anxiety that plagued my social life has all but disappeared. Why on earth did I spend so much time worrying about the brands on my feet?

Neil Boorman

Some of my colleagues and friends might find me less exciting but as my mother used to tell me, the people who care about your clothes don't really care about you.

My year's brand amnesty coincided with a raft of media reports on consumption and climate change. The Stern Report warned that we face losing up to a fifth of the world's wealth from unmitigated climate change.

Carbon footprints began to dominate the news agenda and countless manufacturers clamoured to re-brand as carbon neutral.

Media reports alerted us to the problem of waste in consumer packaging and gave us further evidence of the dreadful working conditions endured in the factories of our favourite High Street brands.

Just as soon as we began to embrace carbon offsetting, evidence emerged that the schemes had little effect. We watched Al Gore on TV pleading with us to consume less, interspersed with brand adverts that encouraged us to consume more. Clearly, this is the modern dilemma that all consumers face, addicted or not.

Compelled to consume

According to the Carbon Trust, 42% of the average carbon footprint is made up of recreation and leisure, clothing and food. Public debate on carbon emissions has so far concentrated on transport and energy, but at some point soon we will have to consider changing our spending habits on the High Street.

Tony Juniper of Friends Of The Earth has said: "Carbon offsetting schemes are being used as a smokescreen to divert attention from the tough choices that we have to make, which is about demand management. We no longer have the luxury of living energy wasteful lifestyles."

A man walking
We are bombarded with brands
If you believe carbon reduction is a necessity in safeguarding the planet, leading a less branded life is a good place to start. By turning off the TV and binning the glossy magazines we expose ourselves to less advertising and feel less compelled to consume.

By avoiding the High Street we consume less for leisure and more for our basic needs.

By placing less status and emotional value on the things that we buy, we free ourselves from mindless consumption, allowing us more time and money for things which we know, deep down, give us greater contentment.

I wouldn't advise the collective burning of our branded lives, but I guarantee that a life free from labels will not cost the earth.

Bonfire of the Brands: How I Learned to Live Without Labels, by Neil Boorman, is published by Canongate Books.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I find this article extremely hypocritcal. This man claims to have gone 'brand free' for a year, yet I am curious as to how he completed his online shopping for some of the articles mentioned. Surely he would have had to use a 'branded' computer as well as a 'branded' computer programme in order to complete these orders. He then he finishes the article by advertising his book - which has been published, surely, by a 'brand', being Canongate books. What a waste of time and effort, when it appears to me, he didn't really achieve what he set out to do.
Kate, Hull

As a foreigner (Australian), I was amazed by the consumerist lifestyle here in the UK. It really hits you like a sledgehammer. How on earth people can afford to have the latest phones, with their expensive plans, is beyond me. I still have a 5 year old Nokia phone, with a pay as you go SIM, and I'd spend maybe 2-4 pounds a month, at most. And as for advertisements, I can tell you this; we have a media centre PC, with which we record all our shows, and we watch them later. Theres a button that allows us to skip 30 seconds in a block, and so we havent watched a single commercial in maybe 3 years of owning this marvel. A side benefit is that whatever we watch can now be seen in 3/4 the time. Aside from this, we use the internet quite a bit, and rather than having information pushed to us, we pull the information we're interested in. I rarely watch news programs, as I have next to no interest in what they're talking about. In short, we are a product of our environment, and if we change our environment, we will change. Each to their own, but I have no hang ups about brands, and am happy that way.
Roberto Maietta, UK

Well done that man! Luckily I have never felt the need the pay an obscene amount of money for a t-shirt/pair of jeans etc just to be a free advertising board for a 'designer' (I use the term loosely)...the problem is how to get my 13 yr old daughter to see it the same way. My solution is to offer to pay the cost of an unbranded pair of jeans/shoes etc and she can upgrade at her own expense if she chooses. It's amazing how often the unbranded item suffices. I'm happy to pay good money for a well made, quality item but many branded items are not truly worth their inflated price tags.
Jude, Ballymena, N.I.

How sad. A bit like Supersize Me, an extreme reaction to a complex problem. The answer is not to ditch all branded goods, rather to moderate personal consumption so it is at sensible and crucially, affordable, levels.
Steve Cummins, London

Great story and what an inspiration. Only thing that I would point out is if you are going to add the ethical dimension(low carbon lifestyle, etc.) as part of reason why you choose an unbranded life than you need to look more closely at supply chains of the products you purchased. Even if they are "unbranded" doesn't necessarily mean they are not flown from around the world and made in sweatshop labour conditions out of materials whose manufacture is harmful to the environment. Would it not be worthy to reward the conscious brands who are really trying to make a difference by producing locally, using organic and sustainable materials and choosing fair trade labour to create their products?
Mark, Derbyshire, UK

I moved to France 12 years ago for a simpler life. No pressure in the countryside to be anything other than yourself. No one takes any notice of what you wear, or drive. Its very hard to find any brand names in the local shops. Diet is almost always fresh produce, either home grown or locally bought. Everyone says Hello to you when you enter a shop or doctors etc. Although some supermarkets are now trying to update their image, its still possible to live a very easy laid back, comfortable stress free,life. My daughter went to school for 5 years in France and she is not at all interested in brand names, so a lot has come from living in France. I think more people should try Neils Brand free year.Why should anyone PAY for a brand name, after all its YOU who are doing their advertising FOR FREE. Complete madness. Get Real .
lynn, charente-maritime FRANCE

I think you have far more strength and intrigue being yourself than someone who gets entranced and buys-into the false images that the advertising companies and fashion media uphold. After all, it doesn¿t feel that big a success story to be up to your neck in debt just to have the veneer of a lifestyle. To judge ourselves or anyone else by what brands we use and wear is ultimately sad and 'sadly' it¿s what most people do in many ways though we may not even realise we do it. Sizing up someone¿s mobile phone, laptop, ipod, watch, shoes, where they shop, what car they drive, even where they live etc¿ I really like what you have done here and it's interesting to see what the effects of a brand free lifestyle reveal about what¿s underneath all that consumption. Of course the advertising agencies totally target this and know all the tricks in the book to seduce us with glossy, cool images of success, sexual attraction and status symbols. It¿s power to you to step out of the loop. As if our identity is based on the labels and brands we buy then we become ¿a product¿ too, and we are just buying the dream. And to buy the dream doesn¿t mean we really get to live it, we are just fooling ourselves¿or being fooled.
Chris, Brighton

We have all walked into a state of zombie-fied purchasing. This guy is an example to us all. Lets all start to communicate again, and stop lining the pockets of the already rich and gready. Do you really give a monkeys how many tracks you can get on your IPOD? Or that your mobile can take photos? Some people are shallow mugs,and dont know any better. Others are venerable and conned to buy somthing 'WE CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT !!'oh come on,are we that stupid???
Phil Mearse, Nottingham

I know that I should ignore this story about self-publicist Neil Boorman because any publicity must be good publicity if you've got a book to flog. But I hope enough people respond to this story with disgust. Neil, you could have sold your goods on eBay and sent the money you raised to any one of hundreds of charities desperate to raise funds. That would have been far greener and far more constructive. This is just a hollow publicity stunt.
DL, London

I'm interested to know what Neil's definition of "branded" is. His clothes, janitorial cleaning supplies, etc. have to have been made by someone. Unless he's out in the barn with a sheep and a loom while his friends are mixing up some fat and lye for their bath in the river (yes, even water is branded - Yorkshire Water). Getting away from the big names that sell an image more that a product makes sense (for some), but to call it "brand free" seems a bit much.
Tim, Leeds

What a pathetic case, what a waste, burning items, at least he should give them to charity and visit the poorest countries to try to live like them and cure his "condition".
Mary, Ascot

Credit to him, but for all vast numbers of people out there who do not buy into consumerism (which I beleive his first artical 1 year ago made no acknowledgement of, as if we were all the same)really see this as a 'so what?' artical/ book plug. Status anxiety? Not in my head.
Nick, London

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