For many years, New Dream has promoted Buy Nothing Day as an alternative to Black Friday’s shopping madness. While the majority of folks seem to appreciate this action, we did receive some flack from others believing that such an endorsement translated to our organization being “anti-consumerist.” I can understand how on the surface, something titled “Buy Nothing Day” could be seen as such, but when you delve into the issue of why an action like this can be a useful tool for reflection, you see there is a bigger issue at hand.
I like to use the example of jewelry commercials that start about mid-November and don’t stop until 12:01 a.m. on February 15 to talk about what’s wrong with our consumer culture. These commercials portray all women as petty, simple-minded hens who see shiny things and are subsequently hypnotized into feeling some sort of self-worth in addition to superiority over other women; men are shown as uncreative morons who find it easier to buy a mass-produced item than express actual feelings about their so-called loved one.
Clearly, these commercials work to some degree, because the same ones show up year after year. But people, we don’t fit into these absurd cookie-cutter stereotypes really . . . or do we?
Year after year, stores gear up for Black Friday (given this name because it was traditionally the day stores would leave the yearly debt behind—the red—and enter into profit—the black) with advertisements promising huge savings and deals. Every year it seems like stores are opening earlier and earlier—they can’t seem to open early enough! In my hometown, people were camped out on the evening of Thanksgiving outside of a big box electronics store because the first 20 people in the door at 5:00 a.m. would get extra-special-major-huge discount savings on new televisions.
I heard this news from family members who had driven by this scene on their way to my parents’ house for dinner; there we were enjoying one another’s company while breaking bread together—something I know I associate as a major part of the holidays—while others were instead . . . waiting to spend money?
But the news I heard the next morning shocked me to the core, as I’m sure it did to you as well. Thirty-four year old Jdimytai Damour, a 6-foot-5, 270-pound temporary security guard at a Wal-Mart on Long Island, NY, was trampled to death by the mob of 2,000 shoppers that stormed through the doors at 4:55 a.m., unable to wait for the official opening time five minutes later.
And worse yet: when the store announced that it had to close because an employee had died and investigation was required, shoppers refused to leave, continued shopping, and were described as acting like “savages.” As Michelle Singletary wrote in the Washington Post, “there's no question the people in that New York crowd lost their humanity in the quest for a bargain.” This is our rock bottom as a consumer culture.
The idea behind Buy Nothing Day is to get people to stop and reflect why it is that they are buying stuff in the first place. New Dream has never said don’t buy; our mission has always been to shift and reduce consumption in order to protect the environment, promote social justice, and enhance quality of life. We’ve been trying to help you simplify the holidays for years now because when we hear you talk, most of you wish this time of the year was easier.
In November 2005, 25 percent of Americans felt concerned about paying off their holiday expenses on their credit cards; that was three years ago, before we were in a recession, before people started losing their homes in droves, before unemployment rates seemed to hit record highs on a monthly basis. I can only imagine what that statistic were to be if we asked today. (Average household credit card debt, according to the Consumer Federation of America, is $7,430, fyi.)
So let me ask you: why are you buying all this stuff? And do you really think that all this stuff is going to be the reason for your loved ones’ joy this holiday season?
According to the National Retail Federation, 172 million shoppers (up nearly 30 million from last year) each spent an average of $372.57 this year over Black Friday weekend. We understand that for those of you who do want to buy stuff, you see the deals and you want in. We also understand that there are those of you that believe that shopping is the best way to stimulate the economy. But what we’re hoping to get across is that there’s always a more conscious alternative if you are willing to look beyond what is force-fed to you by the big box stores and the advertisers.
I know I haven’t met the vast majority of you, gentle readers, but I bet you are not the cookie-cutter stereotypes described above from the jewelry commercials. Think about what’s really important to you about this holiday season. Think ahead to a few months from now when you reflect on the 2008 holidays—what will be the moments that stick out to you as the happiest?
I’ll share with you my favorites about Christmas (as surveys have shown I love Christmas more than any other Muslim): I love the singing, the tree decorating (particularly putting up the handmade ornaments from public school days), and playing Boggle with my best friends from growing up while eating sugar cookies.
Now it’s your turn. Think about your favorite parts and work to make those the centerpiece of this season instead of what the stores are telling you should be the most important.
For more information about Simplifying Your Holidays, check out New Dream’s Simplify the Holidays resources.