The day following Thanksgiving was “Black Friday” in the United States, official start of the Christmas shopping season. While the phrase ”Black Friday” originally emerged in the 1960s to refer to the heavy traffic on the streets of Philadelphia on this day, today it is usually described as the point at which retailers begin to turn a profit, or become “in the black”. It is also a day noted for the unruly crowds of shoppers who flood stores, even occasionally trampling employees to death in stampedes.
In 1991, Adbusters Magazine declared this day “Buy Nothing Day” and urged us to consider how dependent we are on conspicuous consumption. My active engagement with anti-consumerism began in 1997 when I watched John de Graaf and Vivia Boe’s one-hour groundbreaking movie Affluenza, which aired on PBS. This event brought the topic of consumerism to a much wider audience and vastly increased public awareness. Since then I have continued to use this film in my classes at Ventura College and at Antioch University Santa Barbara.
“Affluenza” has been defined as “ a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more” (John de Graaf, 2001, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic).
Today, the anti-consumer movement has grown tremendously as evidenced by the number of communities worldwide who have joined the protests of the Occupy Movement (over 2600 according to Wikipedia). Adbusters, a Canadian activist group, partly inspired by the Arab Spring, played a central role in the organization of the movement. Using the slogan, “We are the 99%”, the Occupy Movement draws attention to the class structure of our global economy and to the massive concentration of wealth among the top one percent of income earners. Sociologists have long known that the top 10% of Americans own roughly 90% of our country’s wealth, but now more people are learning this fact.
We are not a nation of consumers. We are a nation of citizens, and I urge you to contemplate the difference before you begin your holiday shopping. We need to take back the power that we have given to massive corporations who have ceased to be concerned about us. This holiday season I want to urge you to break some of your typical spending habits, and to consider some alternatives.
Rather than shopping the way you usually do, stop for a moment and contemplate the (often unintended) consequences of your actions, and consider the ethics involved in your purchase. When we change our behavior and put our values into action, we engage in a process that philosophers sometimes refer to as praxis.
Praxis is an ongoing process of action-reflection in which our conduct is brought into alignment with our intentions. When we switch off that “auto pilot” that seems to run so much of our lives and act with
conscious awareness we have the ability to make the world a better place.
The very first step that we all need to do is to accept responsibility for the state of our social world and of our planet. If corporations that are “bad citizens” have so much power, it is because WE GAVE IT
TO THEM. Rather than focusing on saving a few dollars on some item that is important from some far away place and is made under sweatshop conditions, but something a little less expensive made locally by people in your commmunity!
Today we increasingly understand that the features of our social world are the direct consequence of our collective actions. This “reflexive” awareness that we make the world compels us to act with
intention. When we re-evaluate our patterns of consumption, and thus our patterns of shopping, and choose to alter these based upon knowledge of how corporations rule the world, we are doing praxis.
If you want to create a world in which massive corporations that act without compassion diminish in power, YOU need to re-evaluate the ethics of the companies with which you do business. An important step is to consider how any given corporation you do business with contributes to the social ills and ecological devastation of our world.
This might entail examining the differences between the salaries of top executives and their pension plans and those of the average worker. What is the quality of health insurance offered to workers? What level of worker participation exists and / or the state of union relations? Does this company openly share its environmental impact and plans to attain sustainability? How does this company recruit women, people of color and those with physical or mental challenges? How is the company ranked by the Better Business Bureau and what types of litigation is the company involved? What types of childcare and other family supports are given to new mothers and fathers? Do lesbian, gay men and transgender people have rights that are protected? What do the workers themselves say about their working conditions? Does the organization support non-profit agencies in its local communities? These are some of the questions one might ask about the ethics of any corporation.
While this might take a little bit of time, in our age of instant Internet information, this type of research is only a few clicks away. Wikipedia has a whole entry on “ethical consumerism” which
lists various “ratings tables.”
Rather than going to the mall and shopping at Robinson-May, WalMart,, or Toys R Us, or going online and shopping with Amazon, Sears or Best Buy, consider some of the following alternative gift-giving and holiday shopping practices:
Buy from smaller, local retailers
Buy from green companies who promote ecological sustainability
Buy from local artists and craftspeople
Give generously to a local non-profit in the name of a loved one
The important thing to do is to stop and contemplate your actions.
Moreover, do not do this alone. Talk to your neighbors, your fellow church goers, or others you know in your community.
Let us recast how we spend our money for the holidays. Think about whether the person you are giving to really needs any more stuff. Seize this opportunity to support local jobs, our nation’s economy and
our planet. When we act with intention and do what is best for our country and our planet, we can change the world. Praxis is a simple process which forces us to contemplate the ethical consequences of our actions. When we spend our money wisely, we change the world.
Continue to be generous, and share your gifts with the world, just change the places you get those gifts.