Buy Nothing Day looks at deeper issues

Published in The Martlet newspaper | November 9, 2001 | Circulation: 17,000

Last Friday was Buy Nothing Day, a day to take a break from shopping at to reflect on consumer culture. But Buy Nothing Day goes deeper than just shopping. Much deeper in fact.

I helped organize Victoria’s Buy Nothing Day events this year. More than 80 people came to a scavenger hunt downtown, followed by a free potluck in the food court of the Eaton Centre.

When we planned the event, we had total fun in mind. Having a potluck dinner in the mall was one of the funniest things I have ever done. But the entire time I was thinking about issues extremely close to my heart.

I was thinking about the rise of sweatshops in the Majority World (what most people call the “Third World” but they are the majority of the world’s people). I was thinking about how these factories, contracted by massive multinational corporations like Nike and Gap, employ people at wages too low for a family to live on. Who face physical, verbal and sexual harassment every day. Who are not allowed to form unions. Who scrape by in makeshift shanty-towns that now surround these so-called “Free Trade Zones.” Why do these exist? They exist because of our voracious over-consumption here in the Minority World.

I was also thinking about the horrible environmental consequences of our overconsumption. Of rainforests destroyed, not only in Asia and Latin America, but also here in B.C. Of species lost forever because of habitat destruction. Of climate change. Why does this happen? It happens because of our voracious over-consumption here in the Minority World.

I was thinking about images I have seen, of people living in Latin America who live their lives in monstrous garbage dumps, picking through the landfill, trying to survive on scraps they find. It’s a new twist on “living off the land.” Why does this happen? It happens because we in the Minority World are aggressively expanding our voracious over-consumption to the rest of the world.

I was thinking as well of the widespread human rights violations by profit-hungry corporations like Shell, Talisman, Unocal and Chevron, who help military governments murder, rape and enslave innocent people and destroy their villages in order to secure the flow of oil to us. How can anyone do this? Because our voracious over-consumption here in the Minority World demands cheap energy from fuel.

Maybe you are thinking: “This is all so gloomy, so negative.”

I agree. But sometimes we have to look the evils of this world in the face. If we do not confront our despair head-on, we can never change. People in the rich countries of the world – the top 20 per cent of the global population – consume 86 per cent of the resources. We are the problem.

I don’t want to use this space to make you feel guilty. I’m not here to point my finger at you the consumer, you the car driver, or  you the CEO. We all share collective responsibility for the problems of our world.

Perhaps, however, I can inspire you. Why did more than 80 people choose to come to our Buy Nothing Day events, to run around town with mock-shopping bags and make fools of themselves? This inspired me.

Why did one saleswoman in the mall thank us profusely, because every day she sees people wasting their lives and earnings buying useless things they don’t need? Why did she ask us to come back every week? This inspired me, too.

But it was the high school students who inspired me the most. I wish they could all read this.

They came because they had heard about the events at a peace march the weekend before. Others had heard about it via email from friends. Many are very active in progressive campaigns, opposing the new $6 minimum wage for starting workers, and calling for an end to war.

It’s funny how, in planning Victoria’s Buy Nothing Day celebrations, we focused on sweatshops, the environment, human rights and community, but forgot about how consumerism affects teens. Teens who are primary targets of advertising. Teens who are told their bodies aren’t good enough. Teens who are told endlessly that they need to purchase something to be complete. What does our consumer culture fail to teach them? It fails to teach that they are complete and wonderful as they are. That it is safe to be themselves.

We had to address this. So we performed a short play before the scavenger hunt.

The skit starts with me, the main character, standing in front of the crowd. I explain that I am worried about sweatshop labour, but sometimes I give in and buy sweatshop-made Gap pants because buying them makes me feel better. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked. “Why did I feel better from doing something I knew was wrong?”

In the skit, two friends tell me I need special surgery, to get to the root of my problem. And they proceed to pull a long string out of my nose. Out pops a large tag, attached to the string: “Everyone in Khakis.” The string continues, to another tag: “Just do it.” More tags: “My other car is a Budget” … “There’s a little M in everyone” … “Always Coca-Cola” … “I am Canadian.” I start to get frustrated, then worried. Why are these slogans in my head?

Suddenly the string being pulled out my nose comes to the “root” of my problem: a shoe box which pops out of my head. I sit down and begin to untie it. Inside, attached to the string, are four index cards.

I read them out, surrounded by a deep silence: “Am I worthy?”; “Do I deserve kindness?”; “Does anybody care?”; “Who am I?”

Fundamental questions. They have been replaced by advertising slogans, by profit-driven messages telling us what we need and how we should change.

I wish I could tell the youth who came how much they inspire me. I would thank them for being who they are. For being fearless. And for giving me hope – even faith – that the world will become a better place.

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