Buy Nothing This Year!
During a recent visit to my local five-and-dime, I purchased a "motion pig," a small plastic pig with an electronic heart and soul that produces a sickly oink. It cost me $1 and was produced in a Chinese factory by workers who probably earned less than 15 cents an hour.
To make this pig, they first had to injection-mold its plastic body, a process that under the best of conditions produces neurotoxic fumes. Chinese sweatshops are not governed by the same worker safety laws that apply in the United States. Much of the respiration and ventilation equipment workers here take for granted is unknown to our Chinese counterparts, who often slave under these conditions for 12 hours, six days a week.
After the pig is molded, workers airbrush it and later hand-paint it with similarly toxic oil-based paints. Another crew in another sweatshop creates the pig's electronic innards, making the silicone-based chips, screening and acid-dipping circuit boards, and finally, soldering all of the components together. All of these production steps result in the creation of chemical and heavy metal wastes that are often sloppily disposed of in the communities near the production plants.
The actual producers of the pigs probably sell them for around 15 cents each. The pig's final sale price to consumers includes a wholesale and retail markup as well as transportation costs for moving the pig from one side of the earth to the other. All of this energy and effort goes into the production of what is essentially a useless item, to be purchased by American, Canadian and European consumers who often give no thought to the social and environmental costs of its production.
It doesn't take much analysis to see that there is something radically wrong with this system.
This year, as we potentially embark on what critics justifiably call a war for control of the world's largest oil resources, many Americans will be out shopping on Nov. 29, the Friday after Thanksgiving and the unofficial opening of the Christmas shopping season. It's the busiest shopping day of the year.
Nov. 29 is also Buy Nothing Day (celebrated in Europe this year on Nov. 30). The holiday, initiated in 1993 by the Adbusters Media Foundation, has grown rapidly and is now observed in more than 40 countries. Its success is driven by an impromptu coalition of environmental activists, labor organizations, church groups, global democracy proponents and social justice groups.
While Buy Nothing Day is primarily about getting people to think about the impacts of their conspicuous consumption, it's also a holiday celebrating personal liberation. One British Buy Nothing Day activist explained, "you'll feel detoxed from consumerism."
For many people, consumerism is an addiction. In the United States, the average household now pays $1,000 per year in interest and fees servicing a credit card debt that averages around $7,000. The average American generates one to one-and-a-half tons of trash per year. Municipal governments in the United States pay approximately $25 billion to landfill, incinerate or otherwise dispose of last year's motion pigs and other assorted pieces of trash. Our highways are abuzz both with Wal-Mart trucks bringing garbage to the market, and municipal waster haulers, taking it to the landfills.
In order to pay for this consumption frenzy, Americans now work longer hours than our parents did, and longer hours than our counterparts in any other developed country, while saving less money than in any recent generation. We've seen consumption-driven tax revolts, which put more consumption power into the hands of the upper classes, while starving public education, social services and the arts. Consumerism is poisoning our very ethos.
Buy Nothing Day helps us break free from this self-destructive cycle of consumption. And much like other holidays, it's often done as a loud rowdy celebration. Last year, Ruckus Society activists celebrated by unfurling a boxcar-sized banner from the rafters of the Mall of America, America's largest shopping center located in Minnesota.
Other activists organized public credit card cut-ups reminiscent of Vietnam-era draft card burnings. In malls around the country, activists set up official looking tables where they disseminated material offering suggestions for alternatives to holiday spending, such as donating money to charity. Shoppers were encouraged to go home and spend time with their families, to show their love for each other by baking cakes or burning CDs, to make unique gifts instead of buying mass-marketed crap.
In every instance, mall security guards eventually caught on and evicted the activists, but not until they had made their points.
Every year, the Adbusters foundation attempts to buy advertising time on ABC, NBC and CBS to encourage people to stay away from the malls on Buy Nothing Day. And every year the censors at the three networks refuse to sell airtime for the anti-consumerist messages. Buy Nothing Day, however, continues to grow.
This year, Hyun Min Kwon is celebrating Buy Nothing Day in Seoul, Korea by launching a new anti-consumerist zine. High school students in Berkeley, Calif., will be rebelling against corporate-engineered cool by ditching their name-brand clothing while sponsoring workshops on alternatives to consumerism during their lunch hour.
Activists in Mexico plan on spray-painting anti-consumerist messages on walls and billboards. A group in Nara, Japan, will dress as Santa Clauses and sit in at the busiest shopping corner, holding what they call a Zenta Claus meditation.
In Boulder, Colorado, a bedding store is shutting down its cash registers for the day and opening up store space to environmental groups for an information fair.
In Fair Haven, New Jersey, "Bar Coded Zombies" are planning to storm the Monmouth Mall. In Front Royal, Virginia, a lone man has pledged to encourage his fellow parishioners to reconsider their consumerism.
A university anthropology club in Colorado plans on leafleting and showing their "non-buying presence" at a local mall. Some San Franciscans are combining Buy Nothing Day with their monthly Critical Mass Bike Ride, loudly buying nothing as they cycle throughout downtown.
And throughout the country, "Whirl Mart" activists plan to snake through Wal-Marts, slowly pushing empty shopping carts single file.
Around the country and around the world, people will be employing an endless array of creative means to just say no to irresponsible consumerism on Nov. 29.
The bottom line is that we are consuming the planet to death, stealing finite resources from future generations and transforming them into waste that the current generation can't adequately dispose of. Shortsighted economists argue that consumerism is good for the economy, but in the long term, conspicuous consumption is poison. The debt that consumers accumulate is good for bankers who will collect payments for decades, but it limits the amount of money consumers will have to buy future services from their neighbors or support community oriented programs and services.
In America, we shop when we're bored, depressed or just feeling powerlessness. But in the end, compulsive shopping makes us even more bored, depressed and powerless.
So this year, when you see a handful of anti-consumerist activists in your local shopping mall, don't dismiss them as a group of crazies. It just might be your turn to be set free from the mall.
Dr. Michael I. Niman teaches journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College, and is a frequent contributor to AlterNet.