buy nothing christmas '03
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To shop or not to shop: Lending a helping hand? Or sapping the spirit of Christmas?

By Mike Parker

Here magazine, St. John, New Brunswick, 2002

Joel Butler hates Christmas. Or more accurately, Butler hates to buy Christmas gifts. They take away from the true spirit of Christmas, he says.

Butler and I are at the mall, ground zero of consumer mayhem every December. Butler doesn't know it, but he's a guinea pig, of sorts. I'm thinking of buying a pair of Diesel jeans and a Nike sweatshirt as gifts for a friend and I want to know his views on my taste in gifts.

Butler is a 20-something anti-consumer activist who believes people spend too much money on Christmas gifts. A linesman with NBTel, he's spearheading the local drive of the "Buy Nothing Christmas" campaign, a national initiative sponsored by the Mennonite Church and Adbusters, a West Coast magazine that encourages readers to question our consumer-driven culture.

"Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of the birth of the Saviour," says Butler. "Why would you spend money on things like disposable products? It doesn't make sense."

This year, Butler has opted out of the traditional Canadian Christmas. He won't be getting a tree or stuffing any stockings. For presents, he is giving away photographs he took himself, and is making cash donations to different charities. The few gifts he does buy will be environmentally friendly (i.e. no gift-wrapping, no plastic dolls or computer equipment that will eventually clutter landfills) or bear the "fair trade" logo (i.e. no shirts made by little kids in Chinese sweatshops).

Here at McAllister Place, he will not find much that satisfies his rather stringent criteria for an acceptable gift. Sears doesn't carry what he considers to be the true spirit of Christmas.

"Christmas could be a really great time," he says. "It's a time to get together with friends and family. It should be a time to relax but instead it is buy, buy, buy."

McAllister Place is twinkling with festive, corporate Christmas cheer; there are lights and garlands and a fat Santa Claus to gather children's Christmas wish lists. Sappy Yuletide carols fill the air and racks of goodies - everything from scented candles to festive Christmas sweaters - line the mall storefronts. To Butler, the whole scene is surreal and disquieting.

Butler is quick to point out that he is no Scrooge, though. He donates money to Oxfam and the World Wildlife Foundation, and he sponsors a child in Honduras.

Butler's tone is a bit strident and his anti-corporate bluster a bit, well, blustery, but you have to shout to be heard in a nation of shopaholics.

"People buy a bunch of stuff they can't afford and then spend the rest of the year paying for it," he says. "This has nothing to do with Christmas."

Butler's viewpoint is a minority one in Saint John, but one shared coast-to-coast by a growing number of Canadians.

Aiden Enns is a member of the Mennonite church and an editor with Adbusters in Vancouver. He is one of the founders of the Buy Nothing movement and a self-confessed consumer activist.

He is also a fanatic recycler. On his chair at work is a red, wool coat that sells for about $120 in stores. He found it in a trash heap, had it dry-cleaned, and added it to his pile of recycled Christmas gifts for friends and family. He also has a beautiful, silver, serving platter that he found on the same trash heap. A pair of skis also were rescued and set aside for another like-minded recycler.

"It sounds weird," says Enns, "but I love doing that and it fits with my morality."

Enns initiated the "Buy Nothing Christmas" movement last year when he grew disgusted with rampant holiday spending. He began urging people to de-commercialize Christmas, transforming it into a holiday that's richer in meaning, smaller in impact on the environment and greater in giving to people who are less privileged.

"The aim is to challenge people to purchase less at Christmas," he says.

"Spending a lot at this time of the year just doesn't make sense and people know that."

Don't think of this as a boycott of Christmas, though, says Enns. The "Buy Nothing" movement allows people to reclaim Christmas as a time for spiritual celebration.

"It's one way for me to say that I'm against the pro-corporate orientation of our society," he says.

Over the past 12 months, the movement has grown from an e-mail list of about 60 people to more than 800 followers from Canada, the United States and countries overseas.

Each person agrees to limit their spending at Christmas to the bare necessities. When they do purchase gifts, they buy from local merchants, or purchase goods that are environmentally friendly or carry the "fair trade" label. It's all part of changing the focus towards a more ethical Christmas.

"Its unrealistic to expect people to buy nothing," says Enns. "Even the most ardent activist has to buy food to survive. We just want people to be more aware of how their purchases contribute to consumer culture."

People think they need stereos and DVD players, says Enns, but they should question what they buy and why. "Will this make me happy? Will it make my family happy? What makes me fulfilled?"

Here's another question: what would happen to the economy if we all stopped shopping? Christmas is a boon to retailers large and small. According to recent data released by Visa Canada, 84 percent of Canadians believe gift giving during the holiday season is important. The study shows that Canadians will spend about $18-billion on Christmas this year or about $809 per adult.

Atlantic Canadians lead the country in Christmas spending. The Visa survey shows that East Coast Santas expect to spend almost $1,100 on average, more than $300 above the national average.

In Saint John, people spend about $50-million in the two months leading up to Christmas, according to data released by the provincial government.

Enns is sympathetic towards concerns that the "Buy Nothing" movement could hurt retailers, but says there's a greater good at stake.

"It will hit the retailer hard and that's unfortunate," he says, "but this is an opportunity for retailers to re-examine how they do business and to move towards more ethically minded products."

Darryl Goyetche, general manager of the Saint John Board of Trade, doesn't see a pot of gold at the end of Enns' rainbow. He believes it could deliver a fatal blow to the retail economy.

Stop shopping, he says, and you could put a lot of people out of business.

The eight weeks leading up to Christmas are the most important time of the year for most retailers, he says, and can account for about 50-75 per cent of their annual business.

"That's a hard figure for a lot of people to get their head around," he says.

Goyetche disagrees with Enn's approach to social change. Yes, he says, things do get out of hand around Christmas time but telling people to stop shopping cold turkey is unrealistic. Instead, he advocates a more balanced approach.

"Get a budget and stick to it. Then do some charity work. There are a lot of causes in the city that need some help," he says.

UNBSJ professor Rod Hill agrees that charity work is an important part of Christmas, but he thinks it should replace gift-giving entirely. Give to worthy causes, he says, instead of "giving each other more junk."

Hill dismisses Goyetche's concerns. The "Buy Nothing" movement would cost retailers jobs, he says, but other sectors of the economy would pick up the slack.

Besides, he says, most Christmas gift-giving is what economists call "pent-up demand" - items that people would have bought earlier but waited until Christmas instead.

If shoppers chose to forgo the yuletide feeding frenzy, and returned to the spiritual meaning the holiday season, people would just buy everything in June instead of December.

One would hope so, anyway, for the sake of the poor as well as the rich. The "Buy Nothing" movement has noble goals, say advocates for the world's poor, but they fear shoppers may get the wrong message.

"If people don't buy goods then they can't help developing countries," says Michelle Ruigrok of Ten Thousand Villages, a non-profit program administered by the Mennonite Church.

Ten Thousand Villages buys handicrafts in developing countries, markets them here and gives the proceeds back to the artisans who produced the goods.

The much-needed money pays for food, education and housing in the developing world. As such, the program plays a small, but vital role in bridging the lifestyle gap between rich and poor nations.

Saint John doesn't have a Ten Thousand Villages store since the one in Brunswick Square closed last year.

A recent sale of Ten Thousand Villages goods was a rousing success, though. In a single weekend at St. Mark's Church on the West side, Ruigrok and a crew of volunteers raised $24,000 - about one-fifth of what the old store would raise annually.

This money, she says, goes directly to helping people who would have to turn to other means - often illegal - to survive.

"You can't believe how much good this money does," she says. "Without it, a lot of people would have to turn to prostitution or the sex trade to survive."

It's late now and I have to leave Butler and get on with my Christmas shopping. I say my good-byes and head for the entrance. Passing a clothing store, I stop to look at a display. Remember that Nike sweatshirt and jeans?

I still need to pick them up. But armed with a new view on Christmas, I'll probably rethink some of those gifts.

Enns and Butler want us to forego our spending habits and bring a spiritual dimension back to the Christmas season. Goyetche and Ruigrok agree but remind us that a great deal of good comes from those purchases.

Wracked by indecision, I can longer shop for presents right now. Instead, I'm on the hunt for the true meaning of Christmas.

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