Don’t buy it

Buy Nothing Day won't tackle global poverty, but it might annoy Christmas shoppers.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

As if shopping in central London in the run-up to Christmas wasn’t bad enough, you’ll now have to contend with anti-consumerists using ‘humour’, ‘floating sheep’ and ‘street theatre’ to convince you that shopping ’til you drop is bad for you, the environment and the poor of the world.

Tomorrow (24 November) is Buy Nothing Day in the UK – Americans have theirs today – and protesters will be out in force to berate all us Gap-shopping, Starbucks-drinking, Levis-wearing types to go home and do something less destructive instead.

‘Consumer culture is absurd’, declares the Buy Nothing Day website. ‘We buy out of comfort, to feel good and to impress each other.’ (1) Instead, we should ‘switch off from shopping for a day’ and choose from ‘101 things to do instead’ – like ‘make bread with the kids’ (what kids?), ‘think about sex’, or ‘create a dance routine with friends and then do it at the bus stop’ (2). It’s enough to make barging your way through overheated, overcrowded, overpriced shopping centres sound like an attractive option.

According to the anti-consumerist crowd, ‘consuming less in the North’ (that’s the West to all us children of the Cold War) is one good way to ‘tackle widespread poverty in the South’. Apparently, ‘20 percent of the world population is consuming over 80 percent of the Earth’s natural resources, causing a disproportionate level of environmental damage and unfair distribution of wealth’. The solution? We in the West should abandon expectations of a higher living standard and see the aspiration to own ‘more goods, more cars, more houses’ as ‘antisocial’.

But does wealth in the West really cause global poverty? Only in the minds of the anti-shopping brigade. The idea that stopping shopping in the West is a way of ‘doing your bit’ to tackle poverty in the third world sounds like a chaos theory version of international relations – as if stopping myself from buying that pink Pringle jumper I’ve had my eye on in Selfridges will feed a hungry family in the Sudan. This looks more like Western guilt-tripping and conscience-salving than a practical way to combat poverty in far-off places. Surely a better solution would be to demand more for people in the third world rather than less for us in the West – to increase the production of wealth rather than curbing the habits of consumers?

Buy Nothing Day is having none of that. They’d far rather bring us fat greedy British, American and European shopaholics down a peg or two (with humour, so as to not ‘alienate’ us) than raise the lot of the third world poor to something approaching Western standards. Such non-solutions say far more about the anti-consumerists’ mindset than they do about the state of the world – a mindset that sees the world’s resources as one big non-negotiable cake that has to be shared out between all six billion of us, which will mean us Westerners giving some of our share to the poor and destitute (in other words, sharing in their misery). What about producing more cake?

The anti-shoppers want us to live a more ‘make do and mend’ style of life, instead of rushing out to buy every new gadget, modcon and machine that hits the shop shelves. They berate people for buying unnecessary things like Christmas trees (‘Five-and-a-half million Christmas trees were bought last year, which would fill the Albert Hall three times over!’) – and even have a go at babies for using up so many nappies: ‘Each child uses a total of 5850 nappies in their lifetime; that weights [sic] the same as an average family car!’ The cheek of today’s toddlers.

Electronic gadgets, fake Christmas trees, disposable nappies – what’s wrong with living more ‘naturally’, ask the Buy Nothing Day organisers? Mums and dads who would have to wash and reuse shitty nappies might be able to answer that one. It reminds me of a scene from BBC2’s new Asian sitcom The Kumars at Number 42, where grandma Kumar from the Punjab says: ‘Why are you English so obsessed with getting back to nature? We Indians came here to get away from nature.…’

But if there’s anything the Buy Nothing Day brigade hate more than big corporations, hypermarkets and all-consuming brands it’s consumers themselves – individual shoppers who are so weak and fickle that they would buy a tin of thin air if it was accompanied by a sexy advertising campaign. The Buy Nothing website warns of Britain’s ‘shopaholic epidemic’: ‘Known as omniomania, one woman in five is a shopaholic. The condition has been known to psychiatrists since the early 1900s but only now is it reaching epidemic proportions….Experts believe 10 percent of the UK population, and possibly 20 percent of women, are manic, compulsive shoppers.’

This is where Buy Nothing Day’s ‘floating sheep’ come into it – the sheep-shaped balloons that the anti-consumerists will be flying in London’s Covent Garden tomorrow. The sheep symbolise us shoppers, who apparently see advert, get brainwashed by advert, buy product, consume product – as unthinkingly as sheep follow each other into the pen. What about a Patronising Nobody Day, instead of this anti-shopper nonsense?

But there could be a plus side to all this – fewer shoppers in London tomorrow will provide the perfect opportunity for a stress-free trip to buy that pink Pringle jumper in Selfridges.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Anti-capitalism

(1) Buy Nothing Day website

(2) 101 things to do on Buy Nothing Day

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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