Buy Nothing Day

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.

Michael Borrelli is a social researcher living with his family in Hamilton's North End. He tweets @BaysideBadger.


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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 25, 2011 at 15:37:39

But I really want a new android tablet!

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted November 25, 2011 at 16:01:59

As long as its in the spirit of the season and you stampede or shoot someone first, alright?

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By mike_sak (registered) | Posted November 25, 2011 at 17:53:00 in reply to Comment 71626

mmmm. the taste of pepper spray... memories of christmas come flooding in on streams of tears and vomit.

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By NortheastWind (registered) | Posted November 25, 2011 at 18:47:29

But how would my friend with a retail business make money that day if everyone didn't do some shopping?

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By RB (registered) | Posted November 28, 2011 at 21:28:26 in reply to Comment 71630

My wife owns a small business in downtown Hamilton, and I'm not exactly keen on BND... and neither are my 4 kids who actually like to eat dinner every night.

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By theOther (registered) | Posted November 25, 2011 at 19:22:16

Thanks, Michael. As I temporarily shifted my own consumption patterns yesterday, a friendly Home Depot employee lamented over my shoulder his exposure to Christmas carols all day long since November 1. Sorting through compressor fittings, I felt his pain. An hour or so ago, watching the local TV news broadcast over dinner, I noted their acknowledgement of Occupy Christmas {a movement heretofore unknown to me - or Nick, I'll bet). With so many observers in the mainstream media writing off the Occupy movement this past week, if nothing else the occupiers have given cause for some to notice our collective devotion to the cult of consumerism. Yeah, BND was promoted by Adbusters eons before it suggested Occupy, but the observation may create a foothold (so to speak) in the minds of some of our friends out there. Now if I could only get through to my wife in Grove City ... Nice post, keep it going.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 25, 2011 at 20:20:54

If the Black Friday crowds get any worse they're going to have to start promoting Buy Nothing Day as a public safety measure.

Am I the only one who finds it funny that they managed to evict most of Canada's Occupy camps this week and the protesters responded with less violence and disorder than Black Friday shoppers at Wal Marts today?

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By Nox (anonymous) | Posted December 01, 2011 at 08:07:10

If you're looking to bolster the local economy, is it better to shop at a chain retailer that offers full-time employment to local franchisee and a number of local workers, or an independent retailer staffed only by the owners?

Or is it perhaps simply a good idea to moderate one's engagement with the mass market conditioning to spend-spend-spend in the final six or eight weeks of the year?

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By Basil (anonymous) | Posted January 16, 2012 at 14:20:40 in reply to Comment 71770

A little from Column A, a little from Column B.

Baked goods made with ingredients from local vendors is probably a good bet. A plastic camera made in China for an Austrian company, not so much.

If you're concerned about selling your soul to the corporate devil, I'd suggest reading The Rebel Sell.

The line is not as clear as some would like to think.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted December 01, 2011 at 18:51:34 in reply to Comment 71770

What you buy matters too. Is it locally made? Will it last? Where did the raw materials come from? Is it an open-source design? Can it be recycled? What kind of wages did the workers likely see?

I've abstained from most or all of this stuff for years - not easy at first, but it isn't long before you start wondering why you ever shopped at Limeridge Mall in the first place. In the end, though, only one route seemed to really pay off, and that was learning to start producing these things myself. Not to say that I always make everything I consume, but it's taught me loads about nearly everything I see - furniture, clothing, food, beer, bikes - leading me to be a far more thoughtful and practical consumer.

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By sussuration (anonymous) | Posted December 11, 2011 at 05:14:48 in reply to Comment 71782

amen. i find it funny/sad that some of the most evangelical "buy local" merchants stock their stores with 99% non-local wares. i would much rather support hamilton/burlington workers and makers over lining the pockets of middlemen in toronto, montreal, vancouver, boston, brooklyn, portland, san francisco and so on. that would be a unique tribute to our "creative city". parkdale replicas will only ever be so local. especially in those cases when they themselves are billyburg knock-offs.

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By jcw (registered) | Posted December 08, 2011 at 12:40:10 in reply to Comment 71782


I like your approach of learning to build, work, and develop these skills yourself. My next-door neighbour's an automotive mechanic: we could trade skills, as he teaches me about the Pontiac G6 and I teach him about music. There's something alluring, I think, about that distributist an-acre-and-an-ox-for-every-one vision, but I wonder if that's a sustainable vision given our burgeoning population. I am not, I should state, a person who believes that we have to limit our family size and such. I figure that if you can't fix it yourself, you should question if that thing will master you or if you can learn to master it instead. Thanks for the thoughtful post.


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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted December 01, 2011 at 09:08:19 in reply to Comment 71770

These are all good questions that movements like BND try to stimulate. Because economic matters like this are so interrelated and complex, I agree that it's worth considering broader factors like employment, Nox.

To give you my personal approach to the Buying Season, this year, I can tell you that I am trying very much to gift non-material services or value-added items created by independent owner-operators.

For example, I've arranged to hire a photographer friend to take candid holiday shots of our family's Christmas get together, and then will have prints made as gifts; and instead of dropping $20 for a made-in-China printed t-shirt that a million other people will get, I've bought some unique, hand-printed clothing from my favourite sustainable online retailer (who also happens to be a friend).

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By TreyS (registered) | Posted July 20, 2012 at 14:25:12

Can we make this same day "Read Nothing Day"?

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