For many Americans (and a number of Canadians), Friday, Nov. 29 is Black Friday, a day of rock-bottom prices and a chance to buy, buy, buy. But for others, it 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 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 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 your money. 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.
Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education and Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.