The Destructive Side Effects of Buy Nothing Day

December 21, 2016

The Destructive Side Effects of Buy Nothing Day

Dear Reader, 

It happens every year. Retailers push the boundaries of decency with their Christmas shopping promotions, and consumers retaliate by promising to boycott various ineffectual things. 

A few years ago the anti-consumerism "Buy Nothing Day" was rescheduled to coincide with "Black Friday". Take note here that the organizers didn't move it to coincide with Thanksgiving, which would have philosophically made a lot more sense. They deliberately targeted Black Friday retailers, and for a retailer of any size this of course means war. 

Black Friday is, as you probably know, the day of the year when retailers traditionally go from being in the red (losing money) to being in the black (making a profit). This is a necessary accomplishment for businesses that intend to survive, so it's obviously a very big and important goal that people in the accounting and marketing departments obsess over all year long. It's the same for micro-businesses like mine, except that one person gets to do all of the worrying. 

Now I'm going to take a little detour and tell you about what I've been hearing behind the scenes, and I mean everywhere, from high end art shows to craft fairs, book festivals, and comic-cons. Exhibitors do a lot of networking, and the one thing that I keep hearing over and over from almost every type of exhibitor is that their shows are going down the tubes. People are not buying artwork the way that they did five or ten years ago. 

I had just returned from a show where I heard all of these same things yet again, only to find my Facebook feed rife with people preaching the virtues of Buy Nothing Day. 

Before I go on, if you are one of the many people who didn't buy anything on Black Friday for some other reason (of which there are many), you can move along, this isn't about you. This is about misplaced pride.

So I posted the following on Facebook: 

"Are you proud of yourself for participating in #buynothingday? Refusing to spend money hurts your friends and neighbors because when you buy nothing they make nothing. If you want to avoid rabid crowds fighting over mass produced garbage that benefits the mega-rich then I'm right there with you, but if you're going to get all full of yourself for not spending any money at all then I'd like to know where you work so that I can not spend money on that. #shopsmall #sheesh"

Some people were supportive, others were grossly indignant, and some made thoughtful comments on why they disagreed. 

I do actually understand the indignation, my post was very ... in your face. But I stand by what I said and here's why: 

Buy Nothing Day is a hard-line ideology that leads to a certain smugness about the choice not to buy, while at the same time fostering ugly judgments about people who do buy. Ideology is great for when you're having a deep conversation about philosophy and the meaning of life but it's absolutely useless for solving problems, and that includes the problems that anti-consumerism attempts to address. 

Some have argued that Buy Nothing Day is a way to take a stand, but that doesn't hold up because doing something (or buying nothing) for just one day is a small gesture at best, and it's a gesture towards the wrong thing. The question isn't whether or not to buy (anyone reading this almost certainly has to buy at least a few things), the question is what to buy and where to get it. 

Now that Buy Nothing Day coincides with Black Friday, it has also become punitive in nature, casting retailers of every size as greedy bastards that need to be put in their place for having the audacity to advertise for the busiest shopping day of the year. This is nonsense. If consumers want to shop on the day after Thanksgiving, which many people do because they have the day off, then retailers who want to survive would be taking a big risk by not showing up for work. This is where paychecks come from, and I feel fairly safe in saying that earning a paycheck isn't greedy, it's a necessity in our cash based economy.

For those who think in binary terms I will point out that this doesn't mean you should just go out and spend all your money. It means that you can choose to spend money to get what you need or want in ways that help the people around you make a living. In other words, do your shopping at small businesses whenever possible so that you're paying for wages instead of over inflated CEOs and such. 

So if everyone did their Christmas shopping at small businesses would that fix the ailing art market? I have no idea. Even though my rant was spurred in part by the changing fortunes of indie artists, anti-consumerism and the lack of economic value placed on fine art are actually two very different issues. I took on anti-consumerism because it was timely and it affects all retailers, including artists. 

Counter to this discussion, our Black Friday this year was actually pretty good, so I appreciate that not everyone fell for the self congratulatory appeal of Buy Nothing Day. On the other hand, our Small Business Saturday was mostly a non-event, an indication perhaps that the Shop Small movement still has some work to do. 

Mirthfully yours,

The artist behind Chaos in Color, Annie Dunn

About the Author

Annie Dunn is the artist behind Chaos in Color. She's been a digital painter since 2003 and a scrap paper doodler for her entire life. She's kind of nutty about cats, has an odd affinity for skeletons, and likes to watch period movies on Netflix.