Individuals are consumers solely motivated by self-interest, certain economists will tell you. And it is this self-interest that keeps prices low, balances demand with supply and ensures the economy prospers. It may be a system based on greed, they say, but greed is natural – and the system works.
But does it really? In fact, the system works for big business and consumers in the developed world, but rarely for anyone else. Simply witness the gross inequalities in living standards across the globe. Developed countries only make up 20% of the world’s population, yet consume over 80% of Earth’s natural resources. According to the World Resources Institute, “on average, someone living in a developed nation consumes twice as much grain, twice as much fish, three times as much meat, nine times as much paper, and 11 times as much gasoline as someone living in a developing nation.” Not to mention what this does to the environment. Each year, the average UK consumer buys 35 kilograms of textiles and sends 30 kilograms to landfill.
The fifteenth annual Buy Nothing Day will take place on November 24, 2007. Environmentalists, social activists and concerned citizens across 65 countries will take part in a 24-hour consumer fast to highlight the environmental, social and ethical consequences of consumerism. With the mantra “buy less, live more,” its creators encourage us to switch off from shopping – and tune into life. Timed to coincide with one of the busiest shopping days in the US retail calendar, as well as the unofficial start of the holiday-shopping season, Buy Nothing Day has led to many forms of action, from relaxed family outings to free street parties and politically charged public protests. Anyone can take part simply by spending a day without spending.
Kalle Lasn is co-founder of the Adbusters Media Foundation, the organisation responsible for launching Buy Nothing Day as a yearly, global event. He explains that while most participants used to see the day as simply an escape from the marketing and frantic consumerism that have come to characterise modern life, the focus has shifted in light of the new political mood surrounding climate change.
“So much emphasis,” says Lasn, “has been placed on buying carbon offsets and compact fluorescent lightbulbs and hybrid cars that we are losing sight of the core cause of our environmental problems: we consume far too much.”
“Buy Nothing Day isn’t just about changing your routine for one day. It’s about starting a lasting lifestyle commitment. With over six billion people on the planet, it is the responsibility of the most affluent – the upper 20% that consumes 80% of the world’s resources – to set out on a new path.”
To mark this occasion, and highlight the consequences of excess consumerism, the People and Planet group at the UK’s University of York are holding a “swap shop” in a student common room. Students are encouraged to bring any outfits, books, CDs and other items that they no longer use, but which another student might want. They can then swap their unwanted stuff with items donated by other students.
One of the event organisers, Ellen-Marie Winther, explains: “We are aiming to inspire students to re-use, and reduce their consumption. Our event gives people the opportunity to freshen up, get something new, make some space in their closets – all without spending money.”
Buy Nothing Day may only be a first step in addressing the issue of excessive consumption, but it does raise some important questions. Why do we insist on consuming so much? Why are we convinced it will make us happy? Searching for answers, I asked a friend why she likes to shop. “I like to own things,” she replies, “and I like fashion. There’s something nice about handing over money, it makes you feel powerful.”
It seems that too many people in the developed world buy into a consumer lifestyle without considering the workers that make cheap goods on miserable wages and in poor working conditions. Closer examination of the supply chain reveals some shocking figures. For instance, in Uzbekistan, the world’s second-largest cotton exporter, tens of thousands of children are taken out of school and forced to work in cotton fields for little or no money. This should destroy cheap fashion’s feel-good factor, yet shopping remains a major hobby for many people. Most people I know already own enough, but they still insist on buying more.
Buy Nothing Day may not break the cycle, but its message might help take us in the right direction. As consumers we need to question what we buy – and challenge the companies who manufacture our products. Perhaps more importantly, we need to make a commitment to consuming less and recycling more. We need to realise the true risks for the environment and our consumption’s impact on developing countries. Consumerism might seem to offer great choice, but it comes at a high cost. This year, Buy Nothing Day will be the biggest ever 24-hour stand against consumerism. Will you be part of it?
Kate Evans is a student at York University.