“Should shopping be a patriotic duty?” the BBC asks. If so, I’m going to be one of the first traitors against the wall. I’m in Hoxton, clad in white, trying to look – as director for the day Neil Boorman puts it – “average”. I stare blankly into the camera and try my best to represent “you” – consuming, wasting, spending and splurging. I’m the “good consumer”, and now is certainly a good time to be a consumer. Retailers, economists, politicians and business men are repeating the mantra “consumer confidence” in the hope it will awaken some holy cash-cow of shopping. The government is tweaking everything from VAT to interest rates to get money flowing in and out of consumer pockets. Tesco understands we “might be feeling the pinch” so it’s slashing it’s prices; everywhere else is promising discounts that will beat or bust the “credit crunch”. Shops that aren’t offering huge recession busting sales are offering everything-must-go closing-down sales. And in a month the streets will run red with debt as the novelty, buy-one-get-one-free, fun-for-all-the-family, buy-now-pay-later, gift-wrapped season that is Christmas reaches it‘s materialistic climax. Yet I’m in a grotty studio making a positively anti-consumerist advert for Buy Nothing Day. At this point in time, is such an idea “economic heresy”?
Grown out of frustration at insipid advertising and the cost of living advertised lifestyles, Buy Nothing Day was started in 1992 by artist Ted Dave. Fight Club put the frustration into words; “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis”. With the popularity of Naomi Klien’s anti-consumerist polemic “No Logo”, Kalle Lasn’s Adbusters magazine and the “green” agenda, the idea began to spread from Canada to over 65 countries around the world. The simple idea of not buying anything grew as an idea as well. Adbusters’ 1996 press release declared it “isn’t just about changing your habits for one day” but “about starting a lasting lifestyle commitment to consuming less and producing less waste”. Adbusters even risks some hyperbole; “ There’s only one way to avoid the collapse of this human experiment of ours on Planet Earth: we have to consume less”. For journalist Neil Boorman, who wrote a book detailing his attempt to live an unbranded life and who has made a spoof advert for the day featuring yours truly, the day is a time of reflection; “Buy Nothing Day gives us all the opportunity to take a break from consumerism. Not spending any money for 24 hours, you start to realise just how reliant we have become on the shops, how entrenched consumerism has become in our culture. But it doesn’t have to be an ordeal – it can be a release. You’re not stopping shopping – you’re starting living”.
Although you don’t have to do anything for Buy Nothing Day, there is plenty to get involved with. A tradition of mass demonstrations has been established: in 1999, thousands of activists took over Times Square for a dance party; several years ago adbusting group Space Hi-Jackers walked around department stores in London wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “Everything Is Half Price”; this year, Space Hi-Jackers is co-ordinating a “swap shop” event outside Top Shop. Adbusters recommends a mass credit-card cut up in public or a “Whirl Mart” – a long, inexplicable conga line of shopping trolleys. There is even a free Buy Nothing Day album, a compilation of songs submitted to Ted Dave.
Some people are happy to just preach the message in a more direct fashion. Heralding the forthcoming “shopocalypse” , Revered Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping regularly take to the streets to ask “What would Jesus buy?”. This year they have suggested a week of events ranging from petition signing to fair-trade recipes to keep people busy. Neil Boorman’s spoof-advert for the day is a public service video for the “good consumer. It shows two typical people being instructed how to be “good consumers“, spending instead of saving, buying instead of sharing, replacing instead of repairing.
This idea of “citizens” being seen more as “consumers” extends beyond one day’s worth of reflection. This worrying prospect has led to Paul Kingsnorth and magazine editor Dan Kieran to declare us “Consumers of England” instead of “Citizens of England”. “When we’re not working we should be shopping. It’s our patriotic duty…” Kieran reminds us. “Politicians only ever refer to us as consumers nowadays, as if this is our primary role in life“, Neil says. It has given rise to, as Kieran calls it, “Asda towns“; “where is nothing else to do except spend money and get bored”. For Kingsnorth, the ubiquitous clustering of Starbucks and the Big Box mentality of Tesco’s and Asda has turned us into “citizens of nowhere”. The recent opening of the Sheppard’s Bush Westfield Shopping Centre and Liverpool’s Liverpool One Project – both multi billion pound, 40 plus acres of mall created to “revitalise” the area – helps to reinforce the point.
It is not just the stereotypical radical activist that is concerned about our shopping culture. Amanda Ford, author of Retail Therapy: Life Lessons Learned While Shopping, notes “when we spend money on things that we do not need, or for that matter, really even want, we are contributing to a system that negatively impacts our physical environment, our political and social landscapes, and – most importantly, I would argue – our spiritual development”. As Andrew Simms, policy director of think-tank The New Economics Foundation, puts it, “financially and ecologically, we are overextended. We have taken for granted, and abused, our underlying operating systems – the biosphere and our social fabric – by privileging finance and over-consumption”. A recent front page of The Independent showed how our abuse of the social fabric by a reliance on consumption has lead to the “The Domino Effect”; we are introduced to “Richard Green , 40, a newsagent in Solihull. Hit by falling sales, he decided not to repair his windows.
Thousands of other people did likewise. So Chemix, a chemical company in Stockport that supplies the building trade, went out of business”. Our abuse of the biosphere is much simpler picture to paint; “1,600 million apples, 1,030 million tomatoes, 2,570 million bread slices and 484 million unopened yoghurt tubs are discarded annually by households in the UK” a Nouse feature declared last issue. Aside from our biodegradable food waste, there is our unfortunately titled WEEE – Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment. The Eden Project represents the average person’s lifetime WEEE with a 7 foot, 3.3 tonne ‘WEEE Man, which contains 4 keyboards, 7 PC screens, 8 CPU’s and 23 keyboard mice – helping to represent 2 million working Pcs dumped into UK landfills every year. Despite the rise of “green” shopping to combat our WEEE, hardcore anti-consumerists like Neil are sceptical of .the green agenda. “The best kind of green shopping is not shopping at all. Of course, we’ll always need to consume things to fulfil our basic needs, but mobile phone upgrades and cheap throwaway clothes are not essential,” Neil says.
“Not essential” – this is the problem. Our economy is built on the consumption of non-essential knick knacks. Consumption for consumptions sake. But our shopping habits have far reaching implications – the outdated PSP corroding in some landfill, the box of Kitkats, never sold, representing a newsagent’s “falling sales”. The irony is that Buy Nothing Day seems like an unimportant essential choice in a world of important non-essential choices. So why not try it out this year? All you have to buy is the idea.