Josh Corlew's grocery bill is zero. The furniture in his Nashville home didn't cost him anything, either. His fridge, TV, and microwave—all free. It's been two years now since he last bought the ingredients for his signature sausage dish. Corlew, a 26-year-old nonprofit manager, has effectively dropped out of Consumer Nation. He goes shopping in the disposable culture's garbage instead.
Corlew is part of a growing number of Americans for whom getting stuff for free is next to godliness. Yes, most everyone is cutting back. But these folks take frugality to its extreme. In cities like New York and wealthy suburbs like Grosse Pointe, Mich., and Plano, Tex., it is possible to live like a king (well, a duke anyway) out of a dumpster. Sushi, cashmere sweaters, even Apple (AAPL) computers—all for the taking. "We're used to fulfilling most of our needs through the marketplace," says Syracuse University culture professor Robert Thompson. "But now with technology there is access to more that is free than in any time in the history of the world."
As you might expect, the free movement is heavy on idealism. None more so than the so-called freegans. They believe America's consumer society is inherently corrupt and wasteful, and they want no part of it. Skeptics might see another motive at work: Freegans don't pay for anything. Corlew, who prefers the term "conscious consumer" over freegan, insists his "bin diving" or "dumpstering" is as much a war on wretched excess as anything else. "This is about distancing myself from the consumerism of America," says Corlew. "Every time we buy something, we're saying we support the system that brought it about."
Alexi Ahrens, who lives near Minneapolis, is less idealistic about her secret hobby. "It's a little bit of adventure in suburbia," she says. Ahrens, 33, does her rounds between 2 and 3 a.m. and scavenges for food, clothing, and furniture (she once found a Tiffany lamp, but gave it to a neighbor).
More recently she turned her dumpstering into a kind of business. When her computer technician job at a financial-planning firm became part-time, Ahrens went into overdrive. She started haunting corporate loading docks. At a photo-processing factory that was closing, she found late-model processing equipment, computers, and unused office supplies. Ahrens sold them on eBay (EBAY) for $2,000.
Not bad, right? But what if you don't want to climb into a giant garbage can to get your free groceries or barely used PC? Maybe Freecycle is more your thing. A Craigslist-type Web site, Freecycle lets people post items they don't want and ones they do. Giveaways have included everything from a camping trailer to a pair of rats. Freecycle now has 6 million members internationally, and since Wall Street imploded it has been registering 50,000 more each week, up from 25,000 previously. Freecycle and the Freegans are among the fastest-growing groups on Yahoo! (YHOO)
Many of the adherents of the free movement say they got the thrift trait from their Depression-era forebears. "I'm a penny-pincher. I work hard for my money, and I want it to last as long as possible," says 58-year-old Roger Latzgo, who built his Pennsylvania home entirely of materials he found for free. "I wanted to free myself from the weight of a mortgage, the root of which, by the way, means death."
Think this sounds crazy, dear manager? The free movement is already starting to invade the workplace. At Yahoo, Freecycle events—where employees swap their stuff—are all the rage. They have featured plenty of Prada clothes, original Eames chairs—even founder David Filo's smelly adidas sneakers.