George W. Bush wants us to shop. He says it's our "patriotic duty." Shopping, he argues, like corporate tax cuts, helps with the "War on Terrorism." We can fulfill our patriot obligations in the aisles of Target, Sears and The Disney Store. Bin Laden Sucks. Buy a toaster. Buy an SUV. Your greed can save the world. Ain't it great to be an American?
Next Friday, Nov. 23, is Buy Nothing Day, an annual revolt against consumer culture.
Ads you never saw
This holiday falls every year on the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year and the start of the annual Christmas shopping frenzy. The Buy Nothing Day TV ads tell us:
"The average North American consumes five times more than a Mexican, ten times more than a Chinese person, and thirty times more than a person from India. ... We are the most voracious consumers in the world ... a world which could die because of the way we North Americans live..."
It's a pretty good bet, however, that you haven't seen the ads. ABC, CBS and NBC have all refused to sell time to air Buy Nothing Day ads. A spokesperson for General Electric's NBC network brazenly told The Wall Street Journal that the ads were "inimical to our legitimate business interests," which include banking, weapons and nuclear power.
The range of other potentially "inimical" messages is limitless. Westinghouse's CBS network explained that they censored the ads because they were "in opposition to the current economic policy in the United States." It wasn't that long ago that a free press was a defining characteristic of America.
Yet there's a clear ecological component to Buy Nothing Day. We're consuming the planet to death, depleting resources while throwing the ecosystem into chaos with global warming, ozone holes and toxic waste dumps.
Working them to death
Ironically, we're selfishly at our worst at Christmas time when we vacuum up the bounty from the world's sweatshops.
Exploited laborers work in "export zones" for 12-hour days, 7 days a week for less than 20 cents an hour. Their struggle for survival is desperate. Their health care is non-existent. Their work places are toxic. Their stories are well documented but we don't seem to care. We are literally working them to death.
The consumption gap between the rich nations and the poor nations continues to widen at alarming rates.
Consumer culture is also poisoning our own society as the wealth gap between rich and poor Americans has been widening as well since the 1970s. At the top, conspicuous consumption among the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans has been rising for 20 years. The rest of us watch them on TV and engage in a grueling rat race to try to keep up with this virtual reference group, with catastrophic results.
According to Harvard Economist Juliet Schor, the average family's savings rate has decreased from 8 percent in 1980, to 4 percent in the early 1990s, to 0 percent today. High interest credit card debt, by comparison, has risen to an average of $7,000 per household. Bankruptcies have increased seven-fold in the past 20 years.
The increased spending has also meant increased work hours. American workers surpassed the Japanese in the mid-1990s to take the title for working the longest hours of any industrialized country -- with American workers putting in a full 6 weeks more of annual work than their German counterparts.
Our endless needs have forced many families to put two adults into the workforce and to divert spending from charitable pursuits to personal consumption.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that our consumption defines our class status, either allowing us entry into, or barring us from, circles of power. Juliet Schor takes Bourdieu's theory one step further, arguing that consumerism maintains "the basic structures of power and inequality that characterize our world."
But let's be real. We might take the 23rd off, but come the 24th most of us are gonna shop. We don't have to choose, however, between no consumption and conspicuous consumption. Instead, let's embark on a third path -- responsible consumption.
Going out and buying a new gas-guzzling SUV, as the White House and the automakers are admonishing us to do, is not patriotic. Such purchases lock us into an oil-, and hence, war-dependent future. Ditto on sweatshop-generated merchandise. Your purchases fuel global inequality and undermine global stability.
Be careful what brands you buy. Be careful where you shop. Big Box chain stores often drive small community-owned businesses out of business, then hire your neighbors at less than a living wage.
If you're one of the lucky ones who can afford to shop, shop smart. Purchasing that Indonesian-made shirt from Wal-Mart isn't going to help the U.S. economy. Wal-Mart gets a fat cut, as does the branded corporation who contracted out to have the shirt made.
Wal-Mart employees, however, will continue to earn among America's lowest wages. However, let's not be elitist. For many of us, our own exploited positions mandate we exploit others. However, we should, at all costs, honestly evaluate whether or not we really need whatever it is we are about to buy.
Get a massage
If you don't really need the Big Box's trinkets, find some better more productive use for your shopping dollar. Buy locally produced goods and services that employ your neighbors at living wages while having a minimal impact on the environment. Spend your money this holiday season supporting musicians and artists. Go to clubs. Buy art. Patronize struggling inner-city businesses. Spend money at local restaurants and leave generous tips. Buy a fuel-efficient hybrid car. Install a solar collector. Insulate your house. Buy organic produce from a farmers' market. Visit an independent bookstore. Buy used clothes. Have your house painted. Plant a tree. Donate to a peace center. Treat yourself to a professional massage or have an acupuncturist tune you up for the winter.
You get the idea. Spend your money in a way that it will stimulate the local economy, not aggravate the global economy.