Leave your wallet or purse at home, pack a lunch for work, and try a little retail celibacy for a day - you might find you like it.
By Michael Borrelli
Published November 25, 2011
It was only November 1st, but the grocery store I happened to be standing in was already piping in a soundtrack of syrupy Christmas carols. The Halloween candy was just moved out of prime real estate into discount bins, and the familiar Christmas-themed displays were already taking root.
Good economic news is hard to come by this year, so retailers are obviously pulling out all the stops to push the sublime ethos of the holiday season: sales, sales, sales.
Not just about the November-long price point adjustments on long-languishing products, or the Black Friday doorcrashers, but also the big numbers accountants want to see in year-end statements. With $10.7 billion scooped up by retailers on Black Friday last year, no one wants to miss an opportunity to seize a buck.
Black Friday is the Super Bowl of shopping events, and though our neighbours to the south are the undisputed champions of the retail arena, this year some are blanching at the thought of the shopping day starting with 12:01AM sales.
Maybe they are finally noticing that the endless lineups, teeming, trampling crowds and $100 flatscreens seem out of place on a day reserved for giving thanks and resting after the great family get-together.
Not coincidentally, in a nod to the greatest day of the retail calendar, the day when (as the myth goes) many bean-counters finally get to pull out their black pens, Buy Nothing Day is also celebrated on the last Friday of November.
The appeal of the holiday is simple: Nothing is more peaceful than sidestepping Black Friday's commercial orgy in lieu of a day off from the consumer treadmill.
I'll admit, fighting the compulsion to buy is tough, but over the years I've come to appreciate a brief abstinence from this comforting feedback loop. A few minutes of retail therapy followed by a rush of endorphins is enough to get most people to happily agree that ending is better than mending, but BND challenges consumers to break that neural circuit.
Around this time ten years ago I began my long-term relationship with Buy Nothing Day when I helped organize my alma mater's first observance of the holiday. The anti-consumption message was a tough sell at a university anchored by a business school, so we celebrated BND as a friendly, end-of-semester Open House instead.
Setting up shop in a prime location in the student centre was a no-brainer since it was already basically a mall. This high-traffic area would normally be the home of tables pitching high-interest credit cards to students, or cheap posters for dorm room walls, but not on BND.
By booking all the space in the concourse months before, on Buy Nothing Day we effectively shut down the campus mall for a few hours while handing out free coffee and homemade treats. Passers-by were only asked to consider the social and environmental impacts of their consumer choices, and to consider trying to go the rest of the day without buying anything.
Of course there were no hard feelings if people wouldn't or couldn't. We all understood that even our "free" snacks were made with ingredients purchased a few days before, so BND had only temporarily shifted our consumption patterns.
But that wasn't really the point, and the following year I told Kitchener radio station as much: that the real goal of our BND party was to build a community of people at our school who thought about their consumption on a daily basis, not just once a year.
My words obviously hung around long enough to spite me, because exactly one year later I was left in a grocery checkout, listening to Christmas carols. Our community had grown larger than the year before, and we'd run out of coffee cream.
As I handed over the cash, I felt only a little pang of guilt while ruminating on my hypocrisy. My guilt was eased by reflecting on an exchange I'd overheard earlier that day: a fairly radical anti-capitalist professor acknowledged that he'd traded away his idealism that morning for a litre of milk destined for his kid's cereal bowl.
Buy Nothing Day or not, life goes on.
And it's a good thing, too, that those events didn't devolve into an alienating pissing match over ideological purity. Slowing down the consumer impulse will only make a shred of difference if it's taken up by the mainstream, because modern living is increasingly defined by consumption.
Our economies and our identities are increasingly driven by the need to consume. It seems as if the only route away from a future threatened by environmental, economic and social collapse is one that challenges this paradigm that a better life or world can be bought off the shelf.
So if you've not already planned your getaway to Buffalo's outlet malls, or set your alarm for 4AM to get the best deals online, think about forgoing that reassuring little shot of brain chemicals today. Leave your wallet or purse at home, pack a lunch for work, and try a little retail celibacy for a day - you might find you like it.