The day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, is also International Buy Nothing Day, a day to take a break from buying to question status quo capitalism and consider how we might participate in a more sustainable economy. There are many reasons to participate in International Buy Nothing Day, but in this modern, short-attention-span era, I’ll give you five, starting with the personal and working my way out.
1) It’s good for your wallet.
When I was a little kid, my grandmother would come home and proudly announce how much she had “saved” while she was out shopping. My grandfather would predictably, jokingly reply, “Vivie, you could have saved 100% by staying home.” It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate her efforts and he wasn’t trying to be a jerk; he was reminding her that he didn’t need a lot of stuff to feel successful. As corny as his humor sounds, it’s true -- staying home on Friday means saving 100%.
Evolutionarily speaking, we are hunter/gatherers; it is super hard to fight the primal urge to gather on Black Friday, to source necessary items for our families for a bargain. Finding a great deal can feel like stumbling upon a field of berries, and you have to fight every genetic urge to turn around and walk in the opposite direction. If you need more proof that Black Friday isn’t the most economical way to gather for your family, consider that multiple sources have indicated that “deals” on Black Friday are often no better than what you can find at other times of the year and, in some cases, not as good as those in the last couple weeks before Christmas, or in the days immediately after. Do you really want to brave the traffic and crowds for a mediocre deal?
Economists use the term “opportunity cost” when talking about how we choose what to do with our time. The theory goes that with each chunk of time, the logical choice is to select the activity with the highest financial or personal benefit.
In short, we should choose the activity that makes the most money (or provides the most happiness) with each chunk of time we have. This is a way to evaluate the costs associated with free time. For example, when considering camping out in front of a store for two weeks, you ought to ask yourself if the amount of money saved (on items to be bought) or the happiness accrued (by camping out) will be greater than the amount of money or happiness that could be had doing something else in those two weeks. If the amount saved is not larger, then camping out has a very high opportunity cost.
2) Quantity is not the same thing as quality.
In a tough economy, thoughtful spending is more important than amount of spending.
It’s generally assumed that spending helps the economy. When consumer confidence is up and people are buying, demand for goods goes up. Demand goes up, more production is required, more workers are needed. But in reality, there’s a big difference between raiding the $1 bin at a mega-chain and spending $30 at a local gift shop or restaurant.
Just like individuals, local businesses also need goods and services. Some of these goods and services include: banking, tax prep, cleaning, maintenance, catering, office supplies, uniforms, etc. – all of which are more likely to come from other local companies in the area than from chain stores (who have centralized these services to save costs and support a national store base). When you shop at a local store you are supporting the owners of the business, the workers at that store, AND all the other local businesses who provide services to that store.
At least one study in San Francisco showed that a spending shift of 10% (putting 10% of spending money toward local businesses rather than chains) could create 1,300 jobs for the Bay area. Keep in mind, that’s a 10% shift – it’s not an all/nothing proposition; that shift still leaves you 90% to spend at big chain stores, while you make a difference locally.
Black Friday encourages a mindless sort of consumerism. The idea is to show up at the mall and buy, buy, buy because everything is on sale. When you heed the hype of Black Friday, you’re less likely to scrutinize prices and recall that they aren’t much better than those Labor Day sales a few weeks back, and you’re also less likely to weigh the impact of the dollars spent at the mall that could be better spent elsewhere.
3) Solidarity with retail workers.
This is perhaps the point getting the most news right now. Black Friday keeps creeping earlier and earlier chronologically, and this year it has finally crept all the way up to the morning of Thanksgiving. We are hearing so much about the poor workers being forced to work ON Thanksgiving, unable to enjoy the holiday with their own families, and that is a valid point; it’s hypocritical for anyone who considers Thanksgiving a “family holiday” to be shopping on Thanksgiving.
However, the issue is much larger than employees being forced to work on Thanksgiving and to give up spending the holiday with their families.
Scheduling is a major issue among retail workers that doesn’t get nearly enough press. In addition to being paid at/near an unlivable minimum wage by exploitative billionaire employers, and often working without employer-paid healthcare or paid sick time, retail workers have little to no control over their schedules. Increasingly, retail workers can expect to be working anytime; schedules are posted with limited notice and changed at the last minute; requests for time off are denied.
Forget Thanksgiving; imagine trying to schedule time with your family to be there for important events (birthdays, school concerts, sports games, parent-teacher meetings, doctor appointments) when your schedule is perpetually subject to change. It is not uncommon for employees to be fired for missing a single scheduled shift no matter the reason.
Boycotting Black Friday is a good first step toward standing in solidarity with workers but it is not the end of the work. For extra credit, consider year-round boycotts of stores that are especially and needlessly stingy with workers – both with wages and benefits.
4) Solidarity with American and international manufacturing workers.
In the U.S., thanks in large part to the historic and ongoing labor movement, workers have some basic protections like: a 40-hour work week (beyond which we are required to receive overtime pay), child labor laws, and workplace safety laws. We take a lot of the basics for granted.
Don’t believe me? It wasn’t until 1998 that OSHA established rules for bathroom breaks, mandating: “… it is clear that the standard requires employers allow employees prompt access to sanitary facilities. Restrictions on access must be reasonable, and may not cause extended delays.” Yeah, up until 1998, workers had no protected right to use the bathroom. So what constitutes a “reasonable” restriction? In 2013, a plaintiff lost his case against his employer because he left his spot on the line three times in one shift. Ruling against him, the court declared:
While there is a clear public policy in favor of allowing employees access to workplace restrooms, it does not support the proposition that employees may leave their tasks or stations at any time without responsibly making sure that production is not jeopardized. In recognition of an employer’s legitimate interest in avoiding disruptions, there is also a clear public policy in favor of allowing reasonable restrictions on employees’ access to the restrooms.
So yeah, they have to let you go, but not whenever you want (or need) to go.
If you work somewhere that doesn’t track bathroom breaks, think about THAT the next time you duck into the can and sit down to enjoy a secluded game of Candy Crush. We’ve made a lot of strides, but the American factory -- from poultry and meat-packing to the Amazon warehouse fulfilling your Cyber Monday order can still be a really tough place to earn a living.
And, while American retail workers don’t have it so great, the folks across the globe making all our stuff have it considerably worse. From preventable factory fires in Bangladesh (the courts ruled that the deaths amounted to culpable homicide), to continued dangerous conditions in factories making all of our beloved Apple gadgets, to virtually every item of mass-produced clothing we buy. “Made in the U.S.A.” is not a guarantee that the person doing the making was treated fairly but any other label is a near-certain guarantee of low wages or even wage theft and indentured servitude, grueling hours, unsafe conditions, sexual harassment, child workers, and other exploitative practices.
Unless you’re planning to live like the Amish, it’s virtually impossible to entirely avoid buying any fruits of exploitation, but you can help by buying less, buying only what you actually need, and shifting to ethical suppliers when you can.
5) You’ll be part of a cultural movement that re-thinks what it means to celebrate, to express love, to reward ourselves.
Last week a photo passed through my Facebook feed. It was a man holding a sign with this text: “Nothing says ‘I love you’ like cheap crap made in China by slave labor. Sold by a company owned by billionaires benefitting from corporate welfare, paying slave wages to employees kept from enjoying Thanksgiving with their families.” And that about sums it up for me.
It’s not that poor labor conditions exist only in China or that people only need time with their families on Thanksgiving. It’s that it matters how we spend money. It’s that it matters that there are real people behind each product we buy and that we have a moral responsibility to consider them when making each purchase.
A few years ago, I suggested to my family that we all stop buying stuff for each other for the holidays. After all, we’re all grown-ups and can buy things for ourselves. (Side note: I also wanted to encourage giving gifts when the moment struck rather than on a cycle of obligation, i.e. holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, etc). I might as well have announced myself as the unreformed version of The Grinch. My family, my liberal, cares-about-the-welfare-of-others, have-all-held-really-crappy-jobs family, couldn’t fathom a holiday without a preponderance of THINGS.
Despite the familial disapproval, I still think that BEING with each other is more important than BUYING for each other. How much time were you planning to spend shopping on Black Friday? Between scouring the flyers, making a shopping list, driving to/from stores, parking, roaming the aisles, waiting to pay, paying the bills when they’re due – how many hours is that? 2? 5? 10? More than 10?
Why not use that time to make dates with family? Go out to lunch together, go to dinner, go to the movies. Invite each other over for dinner. Volunteer to watch each others’ kids. You get to spend time with little ones and you give the grown-ups a date night. If you live far away, make Skype or Facetime dates with each other. Or, if you’re old school, pick up the phone and have a conversation.
I can buy myself all the fancy hand cream, high-end gadgets, and skinny jeans I want. I can’t buy: a long walk with my partner and our dogs, a hug from my mom, an as-yet-untold family story from my Dad’s bottomless memory bank, a Skype date with my cousin and his family in which his daughter wants nothing more than to exchange silly faces with us, a plate of my aunt’s holiday cookies, a thoughtful hand-made card from my little sister, a shared trip to a nerdy con with my step-kid. That’s what’s on my wish list this year. What’s on yours?
P.S. Want to do more? If you want to do more than sit at home and buy nothing, you can do anything! From going to the mall to hand out free hugs, to cutting up your credit card, to bringing snacks and support to striking retail workers, to using everything you’ve learned watching "The Walking Dead" to organize a zombie walk.