Swimming Against The Yule Tide
Buy Nothing Day sells anti-shopping message: Annual day-long boycott an attempt to take the frenzy out of the season
By Margie Wylie
From Edmonton Journal, November 27, 2002
The Christmas trees started going up in stores before Halloween this year. Are you getting the message? It's time to rush out and spend, spend, spend.
But with the stock market in the dumps, layoffs and the looming spectre of war, consumers may be tempted by the rallying cry of several groups that say: Don't shop.
"Every year people frantically run around, maxing out their credit cards," said Kalle Lasn, editor in chief of Adbusters magazine and founder of the Adbusters Media Foundation, which initiated "Buy Nothing Day" in 1992.
"Buy Nothing Day" urges North American consumers to boycott shopping on the Friday after the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. -- that is, this Friday -- the day that traditionally kicks off the holiday frenzy.
Lasn said the richest 20 per cent of the Earth's population consumes 86 per cent of the material goods for sale on the worldwide market. The United States alone produces five million tonnes of extra trash between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the average American spends six months paying off holiday credit card debt, according to the Center for a New American Dream, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group.
On Nov. 29 this year, Adbusters exhorts consumers to "give it a break." Some "Buy Nothing Day" celebrants plan hikes or hand out "gift exemption" certificates to family and friends. But many others indulge in postering, street theatre, protests and pranks.
In the past, some groups have offered to cut up the credit cards of passing shoppers -- antics that originated in Seattle. A Winnipeg group, calling itself Citizens Opposing Shopping Theology, last year chalked arrows on the sidewalks near bank machines with slogans such as "this way to personal debt," and carried shopping bags through malls that read "another useless thing I don't need."
But boycotting one day of shopping wasn't enough for Aiden Enns, one of several Canadian Mennonites who helped create the "Buy Nothing Christmas" campaign last year. Instead of trinkets and gadgets, the group encourages Christians to give things that can't be purchased at a mall, such as gifts of time or charity.
Said Enns, "Instead of asking 'What would Jesus do?,' we're asking 'What would Jesus give?' "
Nina Paley, a 34-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., cartoonist, started her "Christmas Resistance Movement" for purely secular reasons.
"I was inspired by watching a friend of mine spend an entire year getting out of debt and then throwing it all away at Christmastime," she said.
On her Web site, downloadable posters urge an end to "compulsory consumption."
But stepping off the consumer treadmill can be difficult.
Lasn, who tracks participation via feedback from organizers, said that only a third to a half of the estimated million people who set out to observe "Buy Nothing Day" each year resist the siren call of commerce.
"Those that do feel that they've conquered a demon, like giving up smoking," he said.
But those who succeed may still face puzzled or hostile family and friends, said Eric Brown, communications director for the Center for a New American Dream.
"You can't just disarm unilaterally," Brown said. "You have to get people onboard, and sometimes that can take a year or two," preceded by interim steps such as setting dollar limits.
"Buy Nothing Day" and other such movements have little, if any, impact on retailers, said Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the National Federation of Retailers in Washington.
The day after Thanksgiving, "families like to go to the stores, to see Santa Claus, the decorations, to shop," Krugman said.
"There's a lot of tradition there. People really look forward to it."
The federation expects about a four per cent increase over last year's holiday sales, which typically account for a quarter of a retailer's year.
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