Well, we’re already up to Third Advent, meaning Christmas is right around the corner. As the shops near my apartment have gotten busier and busier, I’ve been thinking about the “Buy Nothing” campaigns: Buy Nothing Day, which is a response to the excesses of “Black Friday” sales (which seem to have infiltrated Canada with a vengeance this year!); Buy Nothing Christmas, which encourages us to opt out of the consumeristic binge around Christmastime and give homemade gifts or gifts of time/favours instead (like a coffee date, or childcare); and this year, I even heard of someone who’s doing an entire Buy Nothing Year! The challenges to avoid consumerism seem to be getting more and more intense.
In one sense, I’m on board with these “Buy Nothing” campaigns. Living simply, not using more than my share, and avoiding waste are important to me, and I consider them part of living out my faith (specifically, the economic and environmental justice part). And when it comes to Christmas gifts, I’m all about homemade or thrifted gifts or giving donations to Mennonite Central Committee or another organization instead of gifts. But in another sense, these campaigns are somewhat problematic. I thought of two major issues:
1. They assume buying nothing is a choice.
You see, you have to have a certain amount of buying power in order to be able to relinquish that power. The implication is that only those who can afford to buy but choose not to are considered part of the campaign; those who can’t buy in the first place don’t even register on the radar. In this sense, these campaigns buy into (pardon the pun) one of the fundamental illusions of the capitalist system: that everyone is a free agent making his or her own largely abstract decisions about money. In reality, most people can’t afford to make unfettered decisions about money; that’s the prerogative of the privileged. If it goes unchecked, this unself-critical, privileged perspective loses touch with reality, at best. At worst, it condemns those who shop at discount stores like Wal-Mart out of necessity, based on the faulty premise that fair-trade shopping is easily accessible to everyone. Care needs to be taken that ideas about “ethical” shopping and “opting out” of consumerism aren’t used to judge those who can’t afford NOT to buy discount groceries and diapers, for example.
2. “Opting out” only gets you so far.
While buying nothing is a good first step in breaking consumerism’s spell and raising awareness about overconsumption, it’s a limited strategy. If it’s not accompanied by a mindfulness of how consumerism affects others, it can devolve into a self-centred effort to purify oneself of the ill effects of consumerism. For example, the participants in the Buy Nothing Year challenge talk about cutting out the use of public transit as part of their challenge. The problem is, transit is not a commodity (a “want”) but a service (a “need”), and one often used by people with disabilities and people of lower income. In individually “opting out” of transit instead of, say, lobbying for its improvement, these Buy Nothing participants are choosing to put their personal challenge above working for change that would benefit others. The same goes for the other Buy Nothing campaigns: if they stop at “opting out” of consumerism, they become inwardly-focused. It’s when they’re accompanied by speaking out for and working for fair wages, fairer trade, and better working conditions for factory and retail workers that things start getting interesting, in my opinion.
So by all means, have a Buy Nothing (or at least Buy Less) Christmas this year. I fully support the idea that homemade and simple gifts are more meaningful, and more true to the spirit of a time of year when we celebrate God’s birth into a homeless family. As American Catholic theologian William T. Cavanaugh writes in his book, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire:
“The first step to overcoming our detachment [from “production, producers, and products”] is to turn our homes into sites of production, not just consumption. Few of us have the means to make most of what we consume, but simple acts such as making our own bread or our own music can become significant ways to reshape the way we approach the material world. Making things gives the maker an appreciation for the labor involved in producing what he [or she] consumes. It also increases our sense that we are not merely spectators of life – for example, hours spent passively watching and listening to entertainment that others make – but active and creative participants in the material world. We can appreciate … our true vocation as sharers in the creative activity of God” (p.57).
Indeed, this can be one critical step in unravelling the hold consumerism has on us, learning to distinguish between our wants and our needs, and appreciating what we have – as long as we don’t limit ourselves to just this step, but go on to share what we have with others.