Cut up all your credit cards, it's Buy Nothing Day

This Friday is Buy Nothing Day. Or at least it would be if Kalle Lasn had his way. Mr Lasn, a former advertising executive, is waging a lonely battle against Christmas consumerism. He is taking it one day at a time, first trying to persuade North Americans to keep their wallets and purses closed on the day after Thanksgiving. He plans to extend it day by day until the whole run-up to the festive season is a shopping- free zone.

Of course, he's not getting very far. He has made the most impact in Seattle, where supporters will cut up their credit cards at a shopping mall on Friday and a group of elderly women - the Raging Grannies - will sing their song, "I Ain't Going To Run Up Debt No More" to the tune of "Down By The Riverside".

But he has just scored a PR coup. The main TV channels have refused to screen his 30-second commercial, which features an animated pig and points out that Americans consume 30 times more than Indians. This has given him wide publicity, reaching far more people than would have seen the commercial.

The channels are unrepentant. NBC says the ad is "inimical to our legitimate business interests" while CBS says it was "in opposition to the current economic policy in the US". For some reason, they also turned down an ad asking viewers to participate in "TV Turn-Off Week".

I came across Mr Lasn's campaign on arrival in New York last week for a United Nations brainstorming session on consumerism. Consumption is a great unmentionable in the environmental debate. Most pressure groups focus on cleaning up polluting production. Some rail at population growth in the developing world, conveniently forgetting that booming consumption in the West places a far heavier burden on resources.

The UN's Human Development Report will tackle the issue next year. On the plane, I read a prodigiously researched if didactic book with the unoriginal title Tomorrow's World (Earthscan, pounds 12.95), by three Friends of the Earth staff. The book calculates that Britain, with one per cent of the world's population, consumes five per cent of its steel and aluminium and contributes the same proportion of the impact on global warming. It says that if, by the year 2050, all the world's people lived as we do, they would need several extra earths to provide the resources.

The good news is, economic growth does not depend on present kinds of consumption. Studies show industrial countries could double the standard of living while halving use of resources. Hard-headed business groups say resources could be cut 10 to 20-fold over the next 50 years, creating huge demand for new, environmentally friendly technologies that, in the words of the Harvard Business Review, would be "one of the biggest opportunities in the history of commerce".

One simple first step would be to get a system of labelling environmentally friendly products. Dream on. The EU has been struggling for years to set up a continent-wide eco-label, but has made little progress due to its own incompetence and obstruction by some industries. Frustrated, eight countries have now set up their own schemes, three more are doing so, and Britain may soon join them.

Inevitably, these schemes have different standards. So, green shoppers will have to scan a menagerie of symbols, including the German Blue Angel, the Nordic Swan and, for all I know, a French Frog and British Cow. It's a dog's breakfast, and not even an eco-labelled one.

I learned of this fiasco at a conference where speakers stressed the need to save energy while the lights on an overhead projector were left blazing when it was not in use. But one of them, Professor Graham Ashworth of the Government's Going For Green initiative, had a good reason for eschewing it. He had learned, he said, that "he who acetates is lost!"

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