Stopping the Insanity

Buy Nothing Day Highlights Holiday Excess

The day after Thanksgiving is a high holy day in our consumer society. That, of course, is when millions of us swarm to shopping malls from coast to coast, kicking off the Christmas season in a frenzy of shopping madness. To watch the television coverage, you would almost think it your civic duty to be there, helping to prop up the economy with your purchases.

What better occasion, then, to label “Buy Nothing Day” and to try to get Americans—and everyone else—to take pause and consider their part in the rising tide of consumption. “On Buy Nothing Day, the idea is to go on a fast and feel what it’s like not to buy anything for 24 hours,” says Kalle Lasn, who heads The Media Foundation, which promotes the moratorium and publishes Adbusters magazine. “Then perhaps for the rest of the Christmas season, just slow down a little bit. We’re not saying that we should all stop consuming and go back to the Dark Ages.”

PHOTOS: © 1996 Amber Hills/The Media Foundation (top); © Superstock (bottom left and right).

Advertising conveys the message that shopping is not only fun, it’s your patriotic duty. Get out there and support the economy! Buy Nothing Day (top) attempts to reclaim the holiday season.
Photos: 1996 Amber Hills/The Media Foundation (top); Superstock (bottom left and right)

Buy Nothing Day is November 27. Started in 1992 as a focal point for the organization’s anti-consumerism message, and buoyed by the burgeoning voluntary simplicity movement, the would-be holiday seems to be catching on, in the U.S. and abroad. “We have in our database hundreds of groups and individuals who organize various events for the day,” says Lasn, “from people as close as Seattle all the way to South Africa, Japan, Great Britain and Australia.”

The major television networks have rejected commercials for Buy Nothing Day year after year, and continue to do so. Last year, CBS made the mistake of firing off a letter to the foundation that said Buy Nothing Day was “in opposition to the current economic policy in the United States.” The result was a page-one story in The Wall Street Journal—free publicity for Lasn and egg on the faces of CBS executives. As in years past, the commercials will appear this year during CNN’s Headline News.

To partake, many people simply download Buy Nothing Day posters from the Internet and plaster them around their community. Others, however, like to get more involved. Last year, at Seattle’s Westlake Mall Park, street theater was the order of the day. Among other happenings, an “affluenza doctor” issued advice for those stricken with the buying bug. Meanwhile, singing groups like the Raging Grannies and the Frugalettes spread the word harmonically. In Portland, Oregon, activists adorned highway overpasses with “Celebrate Buy Nothing Day” banners. And in Christchurch, New Zealand, individuals dressed in rodent outfits held a “rat race” and distributed Buy Nothing Day fliers. Similar activities are expected this year. “There’s a lovely quality to the celebration,” says Monica Wood, one of the founders of the New Roadmap Foundation, a Seattle-based group devoted to reducing overconsumption. “It has lightness and humor.”

Which is not to say that the issue is anything but serious.

Several years ago, New Roadmap issued a brochure, “All Consuming Passion: Waking Up From the American Dream,” which revealed just how all-encompassing the consumption monster has become. Americans, for example, have a choice of more than 25,000 supermarket items, 200 types of cereal and 11,092 magazines. Teenagers are exposed to 360,000 advertisements by the time they graduate from high school. Indeed, more shopping centers dot the American landscape than high schools.

Then there’s the impact on the environment. Over the last two centuries, the pamphlet goes on, the U.S. has lost half of its wetlands, 90 percent of its northwestern old-growth forests, 99 percent of its tallgrass prairies and at least 490 species of native plants and animals.

The problem, however, is worldwide. “The environmental consequences of our everyday acts of consumption are largely invisible to us,” says Alan Durning, executive director of Northwest Environment Watch, also in Seattle. “We don’t see the impact on Australia’s outback, where the big iron mines are that feed into the steel mills in Korea that make the materials that are the shell of our Eddie Bauer edition, forest-green Explorer.” Every American produces about three to four pounds of trash a day, estimates Durning, with a total resource-consumption per person of about 120 pounds daily. “We in North America are at the pinnacle of the global consumer class,” he says. “We set the example that’s emulated worldwide.”

Lasn is more blunt. “America has only five percent of the people in the world, yet it consumes 33 percent of the world’s resources and spews out one-third of the world’s toxic wastes. This is unconscionable. It’s obscene. It’s immoral.”

And it’s getting worse. A recent report by the United Nations states that $24 trillion will be spent this year on private and public consumption, double the amount spent in 1975 and sixfold that of 1950. People in the richest nations, who make up but 20 percent of the world’s population, are responsible for 86 percent of private consumption. The poorest 20 percent are responsible for just 1.3 percent of private consumption.

But take heart. Buy Nothing Day is catching on. And Use Less Stuff Day—sponsored by The ULS Report of Ann Arbor, Michigan—is scheduled for November 19, its fourth year of educating the public about the need to reduce waste.

Over the last five to 10 years, in fact, more people have started to rebel against consumerism. “Maybe a fifth of North Americans are saying the emperor has no clothes,” says Durning. “Buy Nothing Day is an expression—with a kind of tongue-in-cheek zeal and publicity-stunt attitude to it—of this broader questioning. It’s a good way to get more people talking about what the holidays are about, what life’s about, what America’s about.”