Christmas spending: Drop the shops
By Patrick Collinson
From The Guardian, November 16, 2002
Fed up with the annual chore of trawling your local shopping centre in search of presents that no one wants. Then fight back by supporting Buy Nothing Day
It is a scene familiar every November and December. Shop assistants stand bored, dulled by a muzak loop of Christmas carols as parents queue to hand over credit cards for vitally important Bay Blades, Grand Theft Auto Vice City and the latest Harry Potter paraphernalia.
December 25 is closing in, and retailers and advertisers are in fifth gear pushing a guilt-led culture where only conspicuous consumption can discharge a desire to show affection to family, friends and loved ones.
But there is a grass-roots fightback against the spending frenzy that has hijacked Christmas. A group of shopping- mall subversives who first rebelled against vapid consumerism 11 years ago in Vancouver, Canada, are spreading their message around the globe.
Try on a £100 pair of trainers or slip on an expensive new jacket on Saturday, November 30, and you could be in for a surprise. A note stuffed inside the shoe may read: "Don't buy me." A crumpled, bandaged finger, signifying sweatshop labour, may fall out of the jacket pocket. International chains and manufacturers such as Nike have been targeted.
A loose alliance of anti-consumerists, environmentalists, churches and peace activists have declared Saturday November 30, one of the busiest shopping days in the calendar, as Buy Nothing Day.
Michael Smith, British organiser of Buy Nothing Day, says: "Our message is clear: shop less, live more! The challenge is to try simple living for a day, spend time with family and friends, rather than spend money on them. Anyone can take part, provided they spend a day without spending."
The movement distances itself from images of militant anti-capitalist protesters, boarded up shops and burning cars. "It's a holiday for some, a street party for others," says Smith. People taking part want to engage, rather than enrage, shoppers and store workers.
Michael Cronk is organising London's Buy Nothing Day events which will start in Covent Garden before snaking up Regent's Street and into the heart of Christmas spending, Oxford Street. Elsewhere in London, a group posing as human credit cards aim to "run around and act in a disgusting manner."
He says: "This is my third year of doing Buy Nothing Day. It's more about irreverent fun and celebration rather than hardline protest.
"Some of us will be dressed as shopping police, handing out Buy Nothing Day fines to people displaying rather too many shopping bags. The shock on people's faces is amazing. They can't quite believe that someone is questioning the ethics of shopping."
In a nod to the widely held belief that Sunday worship at Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose has replaced church attendance, Buy Nothing Day groups around Britain are coalescing around a new bogus cult of Mammon. "It's about putting on piggy masks and praying to shops," says Michael Smith.
Posters proclaiming a "Fal$e God" "Gr££d is God" and "Mammon Loves a $inner" will be fly-posted around the country.
In Brighton, the city's Churchill Square shopping centre will see followers of the false God handing out leaflets and posters, in Bristol activists are hoping to host a street party with sofas in a shopping street, while in other cities events are still being planned.
How do commercial organisations react to this assault on their very being? "If you put up a banner in Covent Garden you soon get moved on. They tell you it is private land and you have to shove off. We also annoyed the Disney Store, where we stood outside with our banners until the manager came out and complained. But at the Gadget Shop the staff joined in, and let us put our literature on their counter," says Cronk.
In the US and Canada, action by Buy Nothing groups has been more vigorous, and the reception somewhat frostier.
In the giant Mall of America, one direct-action group dropped a huge banner across several floors of the centre, ridiculing over-consumption. Others have temporarily rented retail outlets, called No Shop which sell only "hope and happiness." In Seattle, in Washington state, Buy Nothing celebrants offered a credit-card cut-up service outside a downtown mall.
But attempts to buy advertising space on the major US television networks - asking people not to buy anything - are persistently rejected.
"Every season, we approach ABC, CBS and NBC to air the spot, and every year they refuse us, claiming our ad asking people not to buy anything threatens the current economic policy of the US," says the website set up by Kalle Lasn, the founder of Buy Nothing Day in north America. Only one network, CNN, broke ranks, agreeing to show the snorting-pigs commercial, at $10,000 a slot.
After September 11, Buy Nothing Day was also the target of critics who argued that unless US consumers kept spending, the economy would dive into recession.
Vancouver-based Lasn, who fled Estonia in 1944 in advance of the Russian takeover, worked in advertising before disillusion set in. In 1989 he founded the Media Founda tion to produce alternative advertising for student and environmental groups, which also publishes a magazine called Adbusters.
Other campaigns run by Adbusters include TV Turn-Off Week and No Ad Day. After 11 years of activism, it believes that up to one million people will celebrate Buy Nothing Day globally; it takes place on November 29 in the US. That date is the day after Thanksgiving Day, a bank holiday in the US which is traditionally regarded as the start of the Christmas shopping season.
"Play this one right and we will make Buy Nothing Day 2002 a global event on a par with Earth Day," says Adbusters, whose website, adbusters.org, is leading a fund-raising campaign to buy advertising slots on CNN's Larry King Live programme.
Participation by US Christian groups, is expected to boost Buy Nothing Day's profile considerably. One Mennonite group has set up an organisation called Buy Nothing Christmas. Its website, ts website, BuyNothingChristmas.org, asks which trainers Jesus bought, while encouraging fellow believers to say a prophetic "no" to the patterns of overconsumption of middle-class north Americans.
Back in Britain, the emphasis of participants is more environmental than religious. "I come at it from an environmental perspective - I'm vegetarian, ride a bike and don't drive a car. Society is producing vast amounts of waste and for me it is just about asking if there is another way we can live," says Michael Cronk.
The night before Buy Nothing Day he will make his sandwiches, fill flasks with drink and pack his banners, hoping to avoid having to spend money on November 30. But he avoids extremism: "There is a fun side to this. We might just go for a pint later on in the day."
British organiser Michael Smith adds: "We offer people options - we are not saying people are bad because they go shopping, but if you are going to consume, do it wisely. People should think about how it affects the world environmentally and socially. We try not to be too hardcore and anti-capitalist.
So what should you do with the money saved by not shopping on November 30? Adbusters suggests giving it to charity. And what about all those friends and family expecting Christmas gifts? It suggests handing out "gift exemption vouchers" as a polite way of saying "we're not getting each other anything this year".
Buy Nothing Day UK is still appealing to anybody who would like to join in to go on to their website, buynothingday.co.uk, to find out about local events, and to start new ones. For others who may only participate by abstaining, it's worth remembering that there's now only 13 shopping days left to Buy Nothing Day. But, of course, no one is going to complain if you buy the Guardian that day.
Want to know more?
Buy Nothing Day is a loosely organised movement, based chiefly around a website, buynothingday.co.uk, which lists events and contacts, offers downloads of posters and leaflets, and even resources for schools.
It encourages potential participants to take the plunge and become an event organiser, suggesting a range of activities that include setting up a credit card cut-up table, opening a so-called No Shop, dressing up as consumer sheep and so on.
The website lists contacts for organisers in Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Lincoln, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Oxford and Reading, with an email address of email@example.com
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