The Price Is Wrong

November 20, 1998

By Michael Jessen

There is nothing as forlorn as a business without customers. I've been there and done that.

One cold, snowy January night in the mid-1980's, not one customer arrived to have a meal at the restaurant I owned and managed. It was devastating to be so alone, waiting for someone to purchase the services I could provide.

In 1988, after 10 years of almost breaking even, I came to the realization that my business was not sustainable and I shut the doors.

My experience gives rise to the question: how much longer can our consumer culture endure?

On November 27, the world will be celebrating the sixth annual Buy Nothing Day, a simple idea with profound and far-reaching repercussions. Last year, more than one million people made a personal pact with themselves and joined the consumer fast for 24 hours in this world-wide celebration of consumer awareness and simple living.

Can our economy withstand a one-day boycott by consumers?

According to Juliet Schor, author of the new book The Overspent American, the economy would go into recession if large numbers of us suddenly cut up our credit cards. A large and unexpected decline in consumer spending would send sales and employment down, but Ms. Schor deems unrealistic such a scenario.

North Americans are more likely to alter their consumption habits gradually. In fact, Ms. Schor says they already have. "Among the fifth of the population that downshifted in the first half of the 1990s, 30 percent cut their spending by one-quarter, and 30 percent by one-half or more. Meanwhile, the economy is roaring along," she concludes.

Ms. Schor says some Western European countries like the Netherlands and Denmark are already experiencing lower growth rates as their citizens become less concerned with making money, getting ahead, or consuming a lot.

"As long as unemployment does not become a problem, slow (or no) growth is a perfectly acceptable reflection of people's choices and priorities," writes Ms. Schor. "They prefer more time off from work. Or more environmental protection. They opt for more financial security. There is no economic commandment that says we must maximize the growth rate."

Buy Nothing Day was started by Kalle Lasn, a former advertising executive turned documentary filmmaker and anticonsumerism activist. In 1989, Mr. Lasn founded the Media Foundation in Vancouver which produces alternative advertising for student and environmental groups, including an anti-automobile commercial for Greenpeace. The foundation also publishes Adbusters magazine which lambastes advertising's effect on popular culture.

For six years, Mr. Lasn has been waging a grassroots campaign against Christmastime commercialism. His strategy: attack Christmas shopping one day at a time, beginning with the season kick-off on the day after U.S. Thanksgiving. Each year, Mr. Lasn calls for a 24-hour shopping moratorium on the Friday, which he has dubbed Buy Nothing Day.

The Media Foundation has produced a television commercial showing an animated pig superimposed on a map of North America. The pig smacks its lips and says: "The average North American consumes five times more than a Mexican, 10 times more than a Chinese person, and 30 times more than a person from India... Give it a rest. November 27 is Buy Nothing Day."

Almost predictably, Mr. Lasn's advertisement has been turned down for airing on the major commercial TV networks, although it has been seen on CNN Headline News.

Just last week, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature revealed an enormous portion of the world's coral has died this year as a result of the highest sea temperatures on record. In October, a 25-member scientific committee reported the volume of fish caught has reached or exceeded levels that can be sustained by the world's oceans. Asthma is the leading chronic disease in children, while cancer now kills 1,500 children a year in the United States, making it second only to accidents as a cause of childhood death.

These are signs we cannot continue with business as usual. These are indicators that our age of consumption has to slow down. These are things to consider as you contemplate whether to buy or not to buy on November 27.

TRASH TIP - About 53% of grocery and 47% of hardware-store purchases are spur of the moment which means we didn't need to buy them!

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