In 2008, Buy Nothing Day—better known as Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year—was marred by the trampling of a Wal-Mart employee under the sale-frenzied heels of shoppers. This year, in protest of such rampant consumerism and in honor of the Copenhagen climate summit, Adbusters is calling for a Buy Nothing Day Wildcat General Strike. The strike will be a moratorium not only on purchasing, but on resource consumption in a broad sense. Observers of the non-holiday are urged to turn off their lights and refrain from driving and the use of electronics between sunrise and sunset on the last Friday in November in addition to putting away their cash, checks, and credit cards.
Buy Nothing Day didn't always take place on Black Friday. The event was originally scheduled to take place in September of 2002 by founder Ted Dave, a Canadian graphic artist. At the time, Dave worked in an office in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia and fell victim to the temptations of coffee shop consumerism on a daily basis. In the midst of some personal budgeting, he had a revelation about his daily spending habits.
"I thought, 'Oh my god, I just spent $15 on coffee and muffins!'" he says. "That's my first hour of work right there." The more he thought about it, the more Dave realized how prevalent this kind of consumption was.
"It was obviously a daily challenge that was not just my daily challenge," he says.
And thus the concept of Buy Nothing Day was born. Original posters billed it as a "24-hour, continent-wide moratorium on consumer spending designed to remind both the public and the retailer of the true power of the buying public. It's an exercise in financial self-control, a consumer reclamation of the marketplace. It is a gesture of protest for those of us who feel all too often that our lives and minds are being marketed back to us."
Or, as Dave puts it, "It was an opportunity to get our breath in this consumer hailstorm."
In its first year, 1992, the event came together primarily through the local organizing of Dave and his friends. The group put up posters across the city, advertised in local papers, and packed and shipped boxes of posters all over Canada. Most important to the day's future was the promotion they secured from Adbusters, where members of Dave's comic book collective volunteered as cartoonists.
Dave pitched the idea at a company barbeque, and Adbusters quickly agreed to take on Buy Nothing Day as an anti-consumerist campaign.
The day resonated with over-saturated consumers the world over, and quickly began to take on a life of its own. In the wake of its first annual execution, Dave received a photograph in the mail of a concrete retaining wall stretched across a lake in Washington state, emblazoned with 15-foot high letters that spelled out "Buy Nothing Day." In its second year, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times ran ads for the anti-holiday. By the time the third annual Buy Nothing Day rolled around, Dave's poster efforts were being upstaged.
"My friends and I were going to go poster and someone else had already done it," he said.
In 1997, Adbusters officially moved the holiday to Black Friday—a change about which Dave himself was slightly hesitant. He worried that any decline in overall consumption caused by Buy Nothing Day would be obscured by the inevitably high volume of shopping taking place that day.
Even now, he makes a point of noting that he never intended Buy Nothing Day to become a revolt against all things Christmas.
"It's strange how there's been a lot of anti-Christmas sentiment associated with it," he says. "I'm not an anti-Christmas person. I'll take any excuse for peace and love I can get."
Still, having overheard a fan of Buy Nothing Day raving to a store clerk about the genius of celebrating Buy Nothing Day on one of the biggest shopping days of the year, he admits there may be something to the event's new timing.
Dave's own involvement with Buy Nothing Day has fluctuated throughout its history. One year he printed and sold T-shirts, although he received sharp media criticism for using conspicuous consumption to promote an anti-consumerist holiday. In 2001 he pieced together a compilation Buy Nothing Day album, which can be found on his website. Another year, he led a rally of Buy Nothing Day celebrants down Vancouver's Robson Street, megaphone in hand.
However, now that the movement has acquired energy of its own, he prefers to be less of an activist. This year, he plans to celebrate simply by cooking at home and abstaining from making any purchases.
In 1999, activists were arrested in the Mall of America for dropping a 30-foot banner. Buy Nothing Day has also been connected with massive Indonesian labor riots in the past; the Buy Nothing Day Indonesia website has since been taken down.
This year, Buy Nothing Day celebrants will gather in the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, Mexico, Malta, Canada, Spain, Australia, Germany and Macedonia (among other places) to protest climate change and over-consumption. One group in Oklahoma City plans to picket Wal-Mart. Residents of Bristol, U.K. are organizing a Freeconomy Feastival, with free food and entertainment available to the public throughout the day. In Galway, Ireland, a band of zombies will take to the streets to walk with the living shoppers.
If none of these events catches your fancy, the Adbusters Buy Nothing Day website has an event forum to spread the word about Buy Nothing Day happenings. Or, if you're not feeling up to the task of being such a conspicuous non-consumer, take a cue from Ted Dave.
Stay in, cook your meals at home and put away your wallet for the day.
Interested? Find out more about the event or check out YES! Magazine's special issue .