Turning Off the Economy -- For One Day

November 16, 2003

By Michael Jessen

"You can't have everything... where would you put it?" -- Stephen Wright

Happiness through consumption is largely an illusion, but don't tell that to the advertising industry. Advertisers spend $200,000,000,000 annually -- that's right, 200 billion dollars -- trying to convince us to buy.

In Canada, advertisers spend an average of $370 a year on every person trying to get them to buy stuff. In the U.S., American consumers get hit with three times that amount.

It's no wonder then that by the time the average North American turns 70 years old, they will have spent three years of their life listening to, reading, or watching advertisements -- an average of 60 minutes per day.

"Give the public the 'image' of what it thinks it ought to be, or what television commercials or glossy magazine ads have convinced us we ought to be, and we will buy more of the product, become closer to the image, and further from reality." - Madeline L'Engle

"Overconsumption is the mother of all environmental problems," says Kalle Lasn, the founder of the Vancouver-based Media Foundation. "For the first time in the history of capitalism, consumption itself has become controversial," Lasn told Time Magazine in 1997.

To help educate people about overconsumption, Lasn has produced a number of short anti-consumption videos (see http://adbusters.org/campaigns/bnd/) that struggle for air time just before the yearly International Buy Nothing Day. Many of the mainstream television stations have refused to air the commercials because they discourage consumption!

November 28, 2003 will be the 12th annual Buy Nothing Day which always falls on the day after the American Thanksgiving in November, traditionally the first day of Christmas shopping. People are encouraged to not make any purchases throughout the entire day. The idea is to increase participants' awareness of their spending habits and to think about mass consumerism and its effect on the cultural and natural environment of the world.

"He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have." - Socrates

"You could say that advertising is basically anything someone does to grab your attention and hold onto it long enough to tell you how cool, fast, cheap, tasty, fun, rockin' or rad whatever they're selling is," writes author Shari Graydon in her new book for teenagers.

Others have a different opinion of advertising, Graydon writes in Made You Look: How Advertising Works and Why You Should Know: "…advertising is trickery used to shut down your brain just long enough to convince you to open your wallet!"

By some estimates, Graydon says, a young North American may see between 20,000 and 40,000 TV commercials a year and, when all forms of advertising from various forms of advertising from various forms of media are factored in, as many as 16,000 advertisements a day.

It is important to recognize that behind the razzmatazz of consumerism, we all remain dependent on basic natural resources - land, air, water and biodiversity - for every product and service. There can be no free lunch on the environment. -Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program

According to United Nations statistics, the average North American consumes 14 times more than a Mexican and 35 times more than a person living in India does. The UN's Human Development Reports indicate that 86 percent of the purchases for personal consumption are made by 20 percent of the world's population. These reports show that unrestrained consumption broadens the gap between the poor and the rich.

The Dutch National Institute of Public Health and Environmental Protection (RIVM), which publishes the annual National Environmental Outlook, says it appears again and again that the purchase of more and more products makes it impossible to achieve environmental objectives.

"Our world has enough for each person's need, but not for his greed." - Mahatma Gandhi

This year there will be Buy Nothing Day activities in at least 13 countries. Check the following web sites for each country's activities: Denmark (http://www.bnd.dk); Germany (http://www.buynothingday.de); Britain (http://www.buynothingday.co.uk/); the Netherlands site (http://www.ddh.nl/nwd) has links to Buy Nothing Day sites in Israel, Norway, Sweden, Japan, Italy, and France. Saint Louis, Missouri has its own Buy Nothing Day site at http://www.bndstl.org.

Buy Nothing Day is a day of cheerful and critical protest against Western overconsumption, the unequal distribution of well being and wealth, and the influence of advertising on our daily lives. Every year this action day takes a wide variety of forms and brings home the human and environmental consequences of the consumer society to shoppers worldwide.

Buy Nothing Day has a prevailing theme of 'Enough is Enough'. The consumption patterns in rich countries take much too large a portion of the Earth's resources and cause a disproportionate amount of environmental damage.

"You can never get enough of what you don't need to make you happy." - Eric Hoffer

The easiest way to participate in Buy Nothing Day is by not participating. Stay home with family or friends. Give yourself and your wallet a day of rest by not shopping. Help spread the message that the Christmas season was never intended to be about mass consumption and guilt. Help reclaim the holiday season by stepping off the shopping conveyor belt for one day and spend 24 hours of your life doing what you want to do and not what advertisements and holidays sales staff expect you to do.

"Christmas is a school for consumerism - in it we learn to equate delight with materialism. We celebrate the birth of One who told us to give everything to the poor by giving each other motorized tie racks." - Bill McKibben

RESOURCES - A teaching backgrounder for teachers and students about Buy Nothing Day can be found at http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/resources/educational/teaching_backgrounders/advertising_marketing/buy_nothing_day.cfm.

Made You Look: How Advertising Works and Why You Should Know by Shari Graydon is published by Annick.

Other recent books about consumerism include: One Nation under Goods: Malls and the Seductions of American Shopping by James J. Farrell, professor of history and director of the American Studies program at St. Olaf College. Published by Smithsonian Books, Farrell's book is a lively, fast-paced history of the hidden secrets of the shopping mall. He explains how retail designers make shopping and goods "irresistible" and how malls control their patrons and convince us that shopping is always an enjoyable activity. In Spree: A Cultural History of Shopping by Pamela Klaffke documents the history of shopping, from a time when cattle were currency to the current age of contemporary shopping phenoms like eBay. Her book is published by Arsenal Pulp Press (http://www.arsenalpulp.com). Anyone wanting to learn more about the origins and the imperatives of the consumer society should consult Grant McCracken's Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities. The book, published in 1988 and issued in paperback by Midland in 1990, shows how consumer goods and consumer behaviour are shaped by culture and probes the cultural systems of advertising, fashion, collecting, lifestyle, ownership, and self-definition.

Additional reading on the subject of consumerism: Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (Simon & Schuster, 1999) by Paco Underhill; No Logo (Knopf Canada, 1999) by Naomi Klein; I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers (HarperCollins, 2002) by Thomas Hine; The Urge to Splurge: A Social History of Shopping (ECW Press, 2003) by Laura Paquet.

Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't want, to impress people they don't like. - Will Rogers

Bullfrog Films (http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/subjects/consumerism.html) has a number of videos about consumerism.

Consumerism and Addiction to Consumerism is at http://frugalliving.about.com/cs/consumeraddiction/.

"He who knows that enough is enough will have enough." - Lao-tzu

Overcoming Consumerism is at http://www.verdant.net.

The Global Issues web site on consumption is at http://www.globalissues.org/TradeRelated/consumption.asp.

Enough, the UK Anti-Consumerism Campaign is at http://www.enough.org.uk/.

Christmas Consumerism is at http://christmas.highrisedesign.com/.

Lesson Plans about consumerism can be found at http://www210.pair.com/udticg/lessonplans/consumerism/.

"There are two ways to be rich - one in the abundance of your possessions and the other in the fewness of your wants." - E. Stanley Jones

All Consuming Passion is at http://www.ecofuture.org/pk/pkar9506.html.

Quotations about consumerism are found at http://www.stthomas.edu/recycle/consume.htm.

Paul Lukas' columns on Inconspicuous Consumption can be found at http://www.core77.com/inconspicuous/. His fanzine "Beer Frame: The Journal of Inconspicuous Consumption" a compilation of several years' worth of columns can be ordered from the same web site.

The New Politics of Consumption by Juliet Schor can be found at http://www.bostonreview.net/BR24.3/schor.html. Schor is the author of "The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need (Harper Perennial, 1999).

"That I live every hour of every day in an environmental crisis I know from all my senses. Why then is not my first duty to reduce, so far as I can, my own consumption?" - Wendell Berry

Ethical Consumer (http://www.ethicalconsumer.org/) is a UK site that offers a good shopping guide and a look at the social and environmental records of the companies behind the brand names.

Culture of Consumption by Noel Paul of the Christian Science Monitor is at http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0612/p11s02-wmpi.html.

Center for a New American Dream is found at http://www.newdream.org.

"It is more blessed to give than to receive, but then it is also more blessed to be able to do without than to have to have." - Søren Kierkegaard

The OECD Work Programme on Sustainable Consumption provides new data and analysis to help countries reduce the environmental impacts from household consumption patterns. It combines empirical studies of consumption trends in OECD countries with conceptual and policy analysis. http://www.oecd.org/department/0,2688,en_2649_34331_1_1_1_1_1,00.html

The Production and Consumption Branch of the United Nations Environment Programme is found at http://www.uneptie.org/pc/home.htm.

Kate Bingaman's -- a graduate student at the University of Nebraska -- record of buying is available on her site http://www.obsessiveconsumption.com/.

"Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need." -Thich Nhat Hanh

Mall of America (http://www.mallofamerica.com/) is the largest retail and entertainment complex in the United States. The 4.2 million square foot complex is home to more than 520 world-class shops; Camp Snoopy, the nation's largest indoor family theme park; Underwater Adventures, a 1.2 million gallon walk-through aquarium; a 14 screen movie theater and more. The Mall opened in August of 1992 and is located in Bloomington, Minn., just minutes from downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Here are a few facts about Mall of America:  Cost to build - $650 million  Economic impact - Mall of America contributes more than $1.7 billion in economic impact activity annually to the state of Minnesota  Gross leasable space - 2.5 million square feet  Gross building area - 4.2 million square feet  Number of stores - More than 520  Sit-down restaurants - 20  Fast food restaurants - 30  Specialty food stores - 36  Nightclubs - 8  Movie screens - 14  Employees - 11,000 year-round, 13,000 during summers and holidays  Parking spaces - 12,550 on-site  Walking distance around one level - .57 miles  Total store front footage - 4.3 miles Key attractions include Camp Snoopy, Underwater Adventures, LEGO® Imagination Center, Jillian's Hi Life Lanes, NASCAR Silicon Motor Speedway, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, Macy's, and Sears.

"I like to go to Marshall Field’s in Chicago just to see how many things there are in the world that I do not want." - Mother Mary Madeleva

Michael Jessen is a Nelson environmental consultant who specializes in waste reduction and sustainability issues. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632. His business, Zero Waste Services, has an award-winning web site at http://www.zerowaste.ca.

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