Friday, Nov. 29, is my third favorite holiday of the year, after Halloween and World Car Free Day. It's Buy Nothing Day, an annual revolt against consumer culture. Buy Nothing Day falls every year on the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year and the start of the annual Christmas shopping frenzy. The Buy Nothing Day TV ads tell us:
"...The average North American consumes five times more than a Mexican, 10 times more than a Chinese person, and 30 times more than a person from India."
"We are the most voracious consumers in the world ..."
"... a world which could die because of the way we North Americans live ..."
"Give it a rest. Nov. 29 is Buy Nothing Day."
It's a pretty good bet, however, you haven't seen the ads. Last year, ABC, CBS and NBC all refused to sell time to air Buy Nothing Day ads. A spokesperson for General Electric's NBC network brazenly told The Wall Street Journal that the ads were "inimical to our legitimate business interests." Their business interests include banking, weapons and nuclear power. The range of other potentially "inimical" messages is limitless. Westinghouse's CBS network explained that they censored the ads because they were "in opposition to the current economic policy in the United States."
There's a clear ecological component to Buy Nothing Day. We're consuming the planet to death, depleting resources while throwing the ecosystem into chaos with global warming, ozone holes and toxic waste dumps. And it's us. We're the pigs crowding the rest of the world out of the feeding trough. And ironically, we're selfishly at our worst at Christmas time when we vacuum up the bounty from the world's sweatshops.
Working Them to Death Along with cheap consumer goods, we also soak up much of the world's animosity. Exploited laborers working in "export zones" 12-hour days, seven days a week for less than 20 cents an hour resent having their lives stolen. Their struggle for survival is desperate. Their health care is nonexistent. Their work places are toxic. Their stories are well documented but we don't seem to care. We are literally working them to death. Any argument you may care to believe about creating jobs for desperate people is nothing more than a self-serving stab at rationalization. The consumption gap between the rich nations and the poor nations continues to widen at alarming rates. Our consumption isn't helping workers in poor countries any more than it's fighting terrorism. In fact, it's fueling the global inequalities that breed hate and terrorism.
Consumer culture is also poisoning our own society as the wealth gap between rich and poor Americans has been widening as well since the 1970s. At the top, conspicuous consumption among the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans has been rising for 20 years. The rest of us watch them on TV and engage in a grueling rat race to try to keep up with this virtual reference group. The results for working Americans have been catastrophic. The average family's savings rate, according to Harvard economist Juliet Schor, has decreased from 8 percent in 1980, to 4 percent in the early 1990s, to 0 percent today.
High interest credit card debt, by comparison, has risen to an average of $7,000 per household. Bankruptcies have increased sevenfold in the past 20 years. The current call for more consumption in the face of massive layoffs will serve to increase these problems.
The increased spending has also meant increased work hours. American workers surpassed the Japanese in the mid 1990s to take the title for working the longest hours of any industrialized country — with American workers putting in a full six weeks more of annual work than their German counterparts. Our endless needs have forced many families to put two adults into the workforce and to divert spending from charitable pursuits to personal consumption. We've repeatedly diverted money from social programs to personal spending through various tax cuts, poisoning the very fabric of society as tax-poor cities are forced to lay off teachers and firefighters by the score.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that our consumption defines our class status, either allowing us entry into, or barring us from, circles of power. Juliet Schor takes Bourdieu's theory one step further by arguing that consumerism maintains "the basic structures of power and inequality that characterize our world." The global problems we face today are the results of a world out of balance with haves and have-nots. Our orgy of consumption firmly places us among the haves. Shopping isn't solving the world's problems — it's exacerbating them.
Shop Responsibly I've laid the evils of conspicuous consumption out on the table. But let's be real. We might take the 28th off, but come the 29th most of you are gonna shop. We don't have to choose, however, between no consumption and conspicuous consumption. It's too easy to dismiss the "no-consumption" option as unviable and retreat back into selfish consumerism. So let's not force the issue. Instead, let's embark on a third path — responsible consumption.