Today is Buy Nothing Day, as brought to you by Adbusters for the last twenty-five years, apparently. I haven’t been aware of the campaign for that long and I am not writing here about Adbusters in particular, but about what this meme has meant to me. For I do remember that the first Buy Nothing Day I can recall found me shopping. I can’t remember the details, but I am pretty sure I went grocery shopping which I have a tendency to put off until desperate – out of food, or out of coffee, more likely.
I suppose I was already absorbing the lesson of how dependant we North Americans are, all but a very few of us in any event – whether we live in big cities, small towns, or sleepy rural villages – most of us depend on the work of thousands of people to sustain us: to feed and clothe us, to keep us warm, to transport us around. Should any of these systems fail we are in trouble, and that is rather contrary to the picture we like to paint of ourselves as free citizens exercising a choice. We consume because we have to, so the idea of Buy Nothing Day is an exercise – for a day – of examining what and when and how and why we consume, and I think there are some terribly interesting things to be learned from that.
Perhaps Buy Nothing Day has been misunderstood as a kind of earnest, lefty rant about consumerism, or maybe even conjures up the crusty old Scrooge or some such image. So I want to be very clear that I am writing about my experiences and what I have learned. I haven’t much interest in writing prescriptions for anyone else, save this: that in the quest for the ‘good life’ it is worth examining everything, I think. (I must insert here that I am irritated to have run out of lined paper to write my first draft on, and have resorted to the keyboard. I really do observe Buy Nothing Day, these days!)
I will take you back to when this began in earnest for me: I was running a business, a rather successful business with thirty full-time employees and usually another dozen or so part-time, and I simply couldn’t keep up with the demand from consumers. I did not see how I could logically manage more employees, more customers, more, more, more – that is, not if I wished to run a small business that brought me a comfortable living. My business consultant thought I should sell franchises, but that didn’t appeal: I did not have it in mind to be an executive, but a small business owner doing the things I loved. I set about creating a business that sustained a steady range of income, that neither grew too much, nor contracted too much, and that proved much more interesting to manage and required me to be much more creative in my planning too.
It was inevitable that I would look at my personal life too: I think in those days I spent a fair bit on clothes, and shoes, and cosmetics, and books and CDs and going out for brunch, lunch, dinner for lack of time, often, and I also had a small house. I loved the small house and wasn’t willing to move, so managing stuff took up time, time I resented. It was easier to stop buying some of the stuff in the first place, so I did. Everything I decided to stop buying at first was the obvious stuff; obvious because I didn’t miss it and nothing was missing in my life: just the opposite, I had more time and I wasn’t managing stuff. Naturally I had more money: money that went into a savings account, and money that I could be generous with when it came to charitable donations. That giving gave me a lot of pleasure, I found.
Of course, I am trying to compress here a kind of ongoing game I played for more than 15 years. Did I need it? Did I love it? These were always the criteria, and it is now an absolute reflex, and ingrained habit for me to ask of myself when buying pretty much anything. These days it is out of necessity that my purchasing is restricted – as is true for so very many of us – but necessity does not feel harder than choosing, paradoxically. True, there are things I must give up in order to drink the fair trade, organic, bird-friendly coffee that I love – Kick Ass Roast from Kicking Horse Coffee – but I love the coffee. It is a morning ritual to prepare it just so, and to spend an hour or so enjoying the flavour and aroma and terroir of the bean. More importantly, it is an integral part of my day that brings me immense pleasure and satisfaction. In the main, that has become the ethos of Buy Nothing Day for me: that I do less, and have less, but what I have and do is so much more intensely pleasurable and joy-constructed.
We are not what we buy, but what we love. No matter what the marketers tell us, we cannot be defined by our possessions. We cannot be defined by which of the colas we drink, and you know who they are, I refuse to name them, and I do not drink them – or what laptop we purchase or what cell phone we have. Neither by movies we might care to watch, or books we read, or what brand we purchase. For me, there are ‘right’ choices and ‘not right’ choices, and those choices might be different for you. But if all each of us does is to make the choice that feels good and right to us, that brings us pleasure or brings another pleasure, then we have set out upon our true path to a life of meaning. I think Buy Nothing Day is worth thinking about, and talking about, and reflecting upon for these reasons. We can awake to a sense of both purpose and pleasure in the day ahead of us, as well as constructing our days to bring us joy. I suspect that might mean less is more, for some things, and more, much more, of other things. But I am pretty sure we cannot get there without some deep reflection on the ways we spent our money and the things we do to get that money, and of course, all the things that money cannot buy.