Instead of ‘Buy Nothing,’ Why Not Buy for Impact?

For many Americans (and a growing number of Canadians) Friday, November 29th is Black Friday, a day of rock-bottom prices and a chance to buy, buy, buy. But for others, it instead marks a day that has come to be known as Buy Nothing Day, which is supposedly a day to fight against rampant consumerism by, well, buying nothing. The theory is apparently that if you don’t spend money, you’re taking a stand against over-consumption.

There are several problems with the idea of Buy Nothing Day.

First, as many have recognized, is that anything you don’t buy today you’re just going to end up buying tomorrow. That stereo you resist buying isn’t going to be consumption forgone, just consumption delayed. But the problem is more severe than that, because it is literally impossible to buy less. Every dollar you earn is going to be spent on something, eventually, either by you or by someone else. You can give it away (to someone who will spend it) or you can leave it in your will (to someone who will spend it). The only way to change that is literally to burn your money in the backyard.

The other problem lies in the basic economic fact that a dollar spent by one person is a dollar earned by another. So the dollars you don’t spend today are dollars not going into someone else’s pocket. And in some cases, those are pockets that could really use the dollars.

Yes, I know, it’s about symbolism. Every time I complain about Buy Nothing Day, I’m told I’m missing the point. And that might be true. It is of course no accident that Buy Nothing Day falls on the same day as Black Friday. And even a big fan of commerce has to admit that a shopping frenzy during which elbows are thrown and store employees get trampled is less than a swell thing.

I would simply respond that if you want to do something symbolic, why not do something smarter?

So here’s an idea. If you take seriously the idea that while trade is good, rampant, brainless consumerism is bad, why not commit today to buying a few things you want or need, but give some thought to the other end of the transaction. In particular, buy something from someone who needs it. That might be someone in your own community, or it might be someone (likely someone much worse off) in a far-away land (like Bangladesh).

So instead of buy nothing, how about buying better. Go ahead and buy, if you want, but do your best to buy for impact.

4 comments so far

  1. James Dempsey on

    I agree with your critique, Chris. Here’s another suggestion – rather than not buying anything for a day, don’t go to work for a day (and forego the income). That way you really will reduce the wealth generated within the consumerist cycle. This may not be so palatable to many ‘protesters’, but if consumerism is so rampant and so much consumption unnecessary, they won’t be missing out on much anyway.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      James:

      Thanks for your comment, and it’s exactly right.

      I think it was my friends Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter who reminded me, via their book The Rebel Sell, that production and consumption are 2 sides of the same coin. You can’t reduce one without reducing the other.

  2. John Hogg on

    That analysis is thought-provoking, but flawed on a key point. The money we as consumers spend isn’t necessarily cash we have. By not spending on impulse, we have funds to save. In the short run, that’s money to invest in more worthwhile endeavours. Further out, it may determine whether we’re subsisting on cat food in our old age.

    Arbitragers pulling in seven figures can ignore that longer view. They’re not likely to be lined up at Best Buy at 03:00 in any case.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Good point — up to a point. What you’re effectively suggesting is that “buy nothing day” should be “buy nothing on credit day”, which is a much more reasonable idea. In fact, I would whole-heartedly support it. But it doesn’t change the fact that all the money you have is eventually going to be spent on something. So the idea that we can actually consume less is still flawed.


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