International Buy Nothing Day: What is the anti-Black Friday protest and how effective is it?

Protest against rampant materialism of Christmas shopping season asks timely questions about our relationship with commerce

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 22 November 2018 19:53
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What is Black Friday?

Black Friday is upon us once again, the annual day of bargain hunting that sees shoppers pile into stores and scramble for discount electronics.

While many will walk away delighted with their purchases, others consider the spectacle distasteful, the mask of civilisation slipping to reveal capitalism at its most covetous and depraved.

But there is another way.

Anti-consumerist protesters have taken part in International Buy Nothing Day since 1992, demonstrating against what activists characterise as the unthinking materialism of the Christmas shopping season.

Invented by Canadian artist Ted Dave, the concept was picked up by the left-wing Vancouver magazine Adbusters - also behind the Occupy Wall Street protest of 2011 - and was popularised in North America before spreading around the wider world as “a day for society to examine the issue of overconsumption” and the problems associated with consumer choices, not least the environmental impact of manufacturing.

Early events took place in typically progressive US cities like San Francisco where supporters marched with banners saying “Stop Shopping, Start Living”, imploring their fellow citizens to lead less status-fixated lives.

Their thinking can be traced back to Thorstein Veblen’s book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) in which the economist argued our contemporary obsessions with the magpie-like acquisition of luxury possessions and ostentatious displays of wealth are relics of the feudal era that we should seek to curb. It is to Veblen that we owe the phrase “conspicuous consumption”.

Other more unusual expressions of the anti-materialist ethos of Buy Nothing Day have included: mass credit card cut-ups, encouraging shoppers to free themselves from debt; “zombie walks”, in which activists wander around large chain stores in large groups impersonating the undead; and “Whirl-marts”, in which they form long disruptive conga lines of empty trollies.

International Buy Nothing Day has been criticised, however, with opponents arguing it is too passive, achieves nothing or is a gesture as empty as the activism chic of Kendall Jenner's Pepsi commercial.

Campaigns like Shift Your Shopping have been proposed as more practical alternatives, guiding consumers towards more ethical choices on the high street.

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As concerns about urban poverty, sustainable farming practices and climate change are increasingly coming to the fore, causes like International Buy Nothing and Shift Your Shopping are asking timely questions about how we spend our money, the global consequences of our selections and what we value as individuals.

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