This year, November 25 is a special kind of holiday. Frequently called “Black Friday,” November 25 is the day after Thanksgiving, one of the biggest shopping days out of the entire year. In an effort to raise awareness about the proliferation of consumerism in rich, industrialized countries, Buy Nothing Day is a holiday protesting destructive consumer habits, by choosing not to spend your hard earned dollars. You can do whatever you want, so long as you don’t buy a single thing.
Since 1993, when the holiday was first introduced by the Adbusters Media Foundation in Vancouver, Canada, Buy Nothing Day has been generating increasing momentum and attention. It is now a multi-national day of protest celebrated in 55 countries worldwide. The placement of the holiday on one of the biggest shopping days of the year is in strategic opposition to the cultural practices of consumers that are expected on this day.
“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. We are the most voracious consumers in the world— a world that could die because of the way we North Americans live. Give it a rest. November 25 is Buy Nothing Day.” This is the text of a commercial produced by the Adbusters Media Foundation, shown on networks as mainstream as CNN. Addressing the wastefulness and consumer culture that is at the heart of the average American lifestyle is not only a nice thing to do for a day; it is essential for the sustainability of the planet and the preservation of culture worldwide.
To meet the “needs” of an American consumer, there is phenomenal environmental damage, human rights abuse, and destruction of culture felt on a global level. According to the United Nations Development Program’s 2005 report, 20 percent of the world’s population make three-quarters of the world’s income. There is vast inequality in the way wealth is distributed on a global scale. Because of the power that comes with living in a developed, wealthy nation, the average American consumer never sees where the clothes, food, electronics, cars, toys and assorted other goods they purchase come from, and they are not required to consider this question. There is a severe disconnect between what we see on the shelf of a store, and the sprawling corporate structure in place to get it there.
At its worst, this structure infests developing countries with factories that ignore basic worker’s rights, destroy the environment with wasteful and toxic practices, ruin natural ecosystems with monocrop farm land, and effectively demolish diverse cultures, in the name of cheap American convenience, food, and goods. Someone has to make the clothes we wear; someone has to grow the food we eat. The majority of these people account for the 2 billion people living on less than $2 a day in the developing world. Western consumer culture, and the lack of awareness and plain apathy about the social cost associated with “cheap” consumer goods, is a point that sorely needs large scale attention if there is to be any progress made toward a more just and fair world, with less human rights violations, environmental destruction, poverty, and inequality.
What do you buy on a daily basis? Coffee? Clothes? Pizza? Magazines? Gum? Music? Movies? Jewelry? For most Americans, the act of buying is something that is so ingrained in our culture, and happens so routinely, that it frequently goes completely unquestioned and unnoticed. Western culture is one that embraces acts of consumption as an entitlement and joy of living in a contemporary society. The American consumer’s delight in purchasing is made particularly clear during the holiday season, as hoards of people flood malls, spend money in online shops, and call in orders from catalogues in the name of giving gifts to those they love, and often to themselves as well. Anyone who has worked in the retail industry during the holiday season can attest to the unbelievable amount of money spent on purchases during this time.
Generosity and gift giving are both lovely things, and I mean in no way to downplay their beauty. But the gifts given under Christmas trees and in Chanukah celebrations do not generally mark the beauty of generosity. Instead, they reinforce and drive the injustice in the world by contributing to a mass bout of consumer frenzy. These gifts may be given with the absolute best intentions, but where do they come from? Who made the sweater you buy at Gap for your best friend, or the dishes you are given to outfit your first apartment away from home? Items purchased new in most of the industries that celebrate the holidays as a time of fantastic profit do not arrive on the shelves without significant social costs involved in their production. American consumers are not made to think about these social costs, but they are stunningly real and gravely felt in many parts of the developing world.
Resisting the consumer market for one day will not produce the radical change in consumer mindset and awareness needed to create a lasting overhaul of the way we buy and discard goods. But real change is made by the millions of tiny actions people make to resist and rebel against popular consumer dogma. Conscious consumer choices and actions have the potential to significantly alter the behavioral and cultural norms of consumption. System change is dependent on the actions of the individual and communities that make up that system; by choosing not to shop for one day, you are making a statement that you do not support the current consumer system. If enough people make that same choice, there is ground on which a larger movement, a movement that revolutionizes consumer thought and practices, can really take hold.
On November 25, refuse to be a consumer. Share why you are making the choice to buy nothing with your family and friends, with strangers and lovers. Think about the effect of your behavior on other people, on the type of culture it supports and the type of culture it destroys, and on the environment. Practice one day where you don’t contribute to consumerism’s devastating impact on the world at large, then extend the practices of that day into your life on a more lasting level. As Gandhi said, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Buy nothing; be the root of a revolution.