Buy Nothing, Improve Everything
By Ilana Boivie
From The Humanist, November/December 2003
While Christmas is touted as representing generosity and good will, it has come to fuel a trend of lavish, unnecessary consumption. In the United States, the holiday season is kicked off the Friday after Thanksgiving, which is the biggest shopping day of the year. But as Americans scavenge the mall for luxurious items, elsewhere in the world people must scavenge for food. Most Americans are aware of this; many are even aware of how workers in developing nations are systematically exploited by U.S.-based corporations. Yet they are little affected by this knowledge as they continue to shop.
Enter Adbusters, a Canadian anti-consumption and anti-corporate organization, offering a respite in the form of "Buy Nothing Day." This initiative is an international "24 hour moratorium on consumer spending" the Friday after Thanksgiving. Occurring on November 28 this year, Buy Nothing Day offers a chance for all shoppers in North America to declare their objection to the Western culture of materialism by simply not shopping.
The act of declining to buy, however, can be surprisingly difficult in such a consumer culture. Inhabitants of developed nations, while constituting about 20 percent of the world's population, consume 86 percent of its material goods. This suggests a severely flawed global economic structure. According to the United Nations Development Programme, currently 1.3 billion people-about one quarter of the global population-live in poverty and 1.2 billion don't have access to safe drinking water. Over five hundred million people-including one third of all children-are malnourished. The combined assets of the ten richest billionaires exceed $133 billion, more than 1.5 times the combined total national income of the least developed nations.
Furthermore, UNDP analysts point out that the cost of eradicating global poverty would amount to merely 1 per-cent of global income. Yet the world continues to move in the opposite direction. Between 1960 and 1997, the gap more than doubled between the poorest 20 percent and richest 20 percent of the global population.
It's a simple cause and effect relationship. The more that private and public consumption expenditures increase in developed nations the more that impoverishment- among those producing the very goods bought by wealthy Western consumers-increases in developing nations. We may occasionally chastise Disney, Mattel, or Nike-after the fact-when we hear publicity about sweatshop-manufactured goods, yet we continue to buy whatever we find on the shelves.
Of course it will be argued that supporting the consumer culture boosts the economy and protects jobs; in this climate of recession, job insecurity, and unemployment, Americans in particular should continue spending. Indeed, the supposed theory behind President George W. Bush's tax cuts is just that-and in the wake of 9/11 Bush called on U.S. citizens to purchase more than they normally would as a kind of answer to terrorism. So, instead of considering global poverty and environmental destruction, Americans are supposed to support their fellow Americans.
Yet it is both unrealistic and immoral to attempt such a piecemeal resolution of this economic crisis. As Princeton University bioethics professor Peter Singer states in his book One World,
For the rich nations not to take a global ethical viewpoint has long been seriously morally wrong.... If those "at home" to whom we might give charity are already able to provide for their basic needs, and seem poor only relative to our own high standard of living, is the fact that they are our compatriots to give them priority over others with greater needs? Asking these questions leads us to consider to what extreme we really can, or should, make "one world" a moral standard that transcends the nation-state.
Furthermore, gross consumption causes tremendous environmental destruction. When those in rich nations consume a disproportionate percentage of goods, they in turn cause a disproportionate level of damage to the environment. On the website for Sustainable Alternatives to the Global Economy, a San Francisco, California, based non-profit environmental organization, Director Henry Holmes explains that economic and technological
growth fundamentally contradicts the goal of ecological sustainability, because there are ecological limits to the depletion of natural resources and the amount of waste that the Earth's sinks can absorb.... Current resource consumption and waste generation levels in the post-industrial capitalist economies of the North far exceed these capacities.
This problem of environmental destruction and global poverty caused by gross levels of Western consumption is exacerbated during the winter holiday season. This reality became the inspiration for Buy Nothing Day, which has grown in popularity each year since its inception in 1997. Last year's festivities are described by Adbusters as having been "sheer mayhem." They included street parties, leafleting, swap meets, credit card cutups, and street theater. And the day was advertised on a half-minute spot on CNN's Lou Dobbs Moneyline (the only network and program that would accept it) on November 26, 2002. The commercial, depicting a pig that states, "The average North American consumes five times more than a Mexican, ten times more than a Chinese person, and thirty times more than a person from India," was later noted by the London Guardian and Wired News. Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have also reported on Buy Nothing Day, demonstrating the initiative's continued growth. As the Times reports, the day is "starting to take on a life of its own, and a certain momentum."
For the 2003 Buy Nothing Day celebration, organizers are encouraging participation that is more expansive than the simple act of not making a purchase. Local activists can host a swap meet or barter fair; plan a free concert, lecture, teach-in, or all-night party; organize a march through a mall where members of the group each wear a tee-shirt reading "The More You Consume the Less You Live;" set up a credit card cutup table in front of the mall; make a classroom presentation; meet with media; protest sweatshop labor, urban sprawl, and sport utility vehicles; or go "fanclubbing"- buying and returning items all day long.
The day has also inspired participation beyond the western hemisphere. In Europe and elsewhere it will be celebrated on November 29, 2003 (the principal shopping day for countries which don't celebrate the U.S. Thanksgiving). There are now websites promoting International Buy Nothing Day in dozens of nations and activities similar to those in the United States and Canada are being planned in over fifty nations worldwide, including France, Germany, Iceland, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
With increasing support comes ambition; the Buy Nothing Day mission is now being expanded into an even larger mass protest. A group of Canadian Mennonites, for example, have extended the initiative into a Buy Nothing Christmas, a "whimsical social experiment with a hidden agenda" encouraging sympathetic people to spend time with friends and family rather than spend money on unnecessary material gifts. On its website organizer Aiden Schlichting Enns, managing editor of Adbusters, describes it as "an excellent way to generate some good dinner-table discussions on the topic of economics, politics, religion, and what we're not getting each other for Christmas."
In addition, Adbusters is seeking to take the initiative beyond a day and a season and into Buy Nothing All Year. Enns explains, "In this new century of unprecedented corporate power and weak-kneed government, the mood is turning to a global mindshift. A new economics is no longer an academic solution-it's the people's choice, the Buy Nothing Day spirit carried into the whole of the year."
For consumers to consider the necessity of each purchase seems reasonable-yet this is hardly promoted in Western corporate culture. So a permanent, pervasive "buy nothing" mentality, originating at the grassroots, may be the means to instigate a major economic change. In her best-selling book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, Naomi Klein maintains that, though the mass media tends to slight any anti-corporate demonstration, consumer boycotts are more accurately "political campaigns that use consumer goods as readily accessible targets, as public relations levers and as popular-education tools." An individual- based, grassroots movement to revolutionize global economics can be inspiring. As Enns puts it,
I see society dominated by big businesses-the media is owned by fewer and fewer big corporations, entertainment industries own media out-lets, internet sites and even phone lines, our retail stores are dominated by international companies.... In some respects, citizens as consumers have been reduced to the role of subjects in a feudal society, where corporate interests are king. It's empowering for me to shed this self-concept and take an anti-consumerist stance.
On a more comprehensive scale, Holmes calls for "alternative development strategies," such as local crafts and industry, which aren't "dependent on a highly unstable and speculative corporate global economy." Large corporations with sights solely focused on quarterly earnings are dependent on the consumers on whose dollars they rely. Boycotting these goods can have a real and lasting effect on the global economic structure as we know it.
So those who still feel obliged to give Christmas gifts this year may consider the possibility of making a locally manufactured, environmentally friendly purchase or a contribution to a human rights or environmental nonprofit organization in the gift recipient's name. Westerners spend countless dollars on frivolities while, as Singer describes, nonwestern "people are in danger of dying of starvation . . . when there are agencies that can, with reasonable efficiency, turn our modest donations of money into lifesaving food and basic medicines."
Celebrating Buy Nothing Day, or even Buy Nothing Christmas, therefore, seems an appropriately humanistic way to observe the forthcoming holiday season.
Ilana Boivie is editorial associate of The Humanist.
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