It's almost Thanksgiving in the United States, which means lots of turkey and football and such, but also copious amounts of shopping. Many consumer economists call the day after Thanksgiving "Black Friday" and count it as one of the busiest shopping days of the year, as well as the official beginning of the holiday shopping season. Historians Elizabeth Pleck and James Baker explore historical practices of Thanksgiving consumption through an examination of the origins of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parades that emerged in the 1920s but that have antecedents in the nineteenth-century "Antics" or "Fantastics" parades. In the 1920s, the Macy's parade marked the opening of the Christmas shopping season and helped established the current tradition of Black Friday.
According to Zippia.com, during 2021's Black Friday, 155 million shoppers were out spending money, and businesses made $30-40 billion in sales in this post-Thanksgiving festival of consumption. On this same day, though, activists across the globe were celebrating a different cultural holiday, Buy Nothing Day (BND), which began in 1992 in Vancouver, Canada and has spread to over 65 countries. BND brings together citizens who seek freedom from the manic consumer binging currently colonizing the holidays, and call attention to the ecological and ethical consequences of overconsumption. Examples of recent activities from BND include:
- The "Space Hijackers," a group of activists in London, enacted the "Half Price Sale." Wearing t-shirts exclaiming "EVERYTHING IN STORE HALF PRICE TODAY!" they entered popular London retail stores and pretended to be employees, folding and straightening clothes and helping customers. They also paced leaflets explaining the philosophy of Buy Nothing Day in the pockets of the clothing items for sale.
- In Tokyo, activists collected free ad-carrying packs of facial tissue, which are typically given away in busy commercial shopping areas. Activists altered the ads and inserted Buy Nothing Day information sheets in the tissue packs before handing them out.
- In New York City, Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping held a Buy Nothing Day parade, which started at Macy's department store at 5 a.m. During stops along the parade route, Reverend Billy exorcized a cash register at Victoria's Secret and said an anti-consumption blessing in front of Old Navy.
In some of my academic work, my colleague Jennie Stearns and I have argued that just as the traditional story of the mythic first Thanksgiving works to obscure the injustices done to Native Americans, the holiday continues to similarly conceal the various forms of violence and exploitation on which the abundance we celebrate depends. While we believe that rituals to express generosity and thankfulness are positive ways to reflect on our privilege and to reinforce relationships with community and family, we also argue that as we repay our obligations for what we "have received," this sacrifice makes it possible to fulfill this obligation without acknowledging where our debt really comes from—as is demonstrated in the "first Thanksgiving" story of the Pilgrims "thanking God" for the "Indians' help." And as Thanksgiving is increasingly tied to the shopping ritual of Black Friday, our enactments of generosity and thankfulness (which, in the case of Black Friday, entails generously buying gifts for others, even if as a means of expressing thankfulness for the ways in which we have been "gifted" with good jobs and families) continue to be tied to the forgetting of suffering. In the case of consumerism, this forgetting includes the suffering of exploited workers who produce cheap goods for our consumption, as well as of the environment that is quickly becoming unable to sustain our consumptive habits.
If you're wanting to go the Buy Nothing Day route instead of your traditional Black Friday shopping, Adbusters has some ideas:
Now the Buy Nothing meme has undergone a further mutation. In over 6,500 Facebook groups representing hyper-local communities across 44 nations, millions now live by its tenets not just once a year but every single day. Among themselves they share tools and utensils, clothing and food, toys and travel mugs, hand-made goods, hand-me-downs and everything in between. Buying, selling, trading and bartering are all strictly forbidden. It's a network of generosity, a "gift economy" whose members are bidden to "give from [their] own abundance." Welcome to a cashless, wireless, wasteless world, a version of Buy Nothing for the social-media era.
COVID had no small part to play in its rise. Around the time of the Great Indoor Migration of 2020, Buy Nothing's Facebook-based offshoot saw a sudden surge in interest. Something about the intimacy of previously handled objects, about the gesture of fulfilling a fellow-resident 's need for baker's yeast or toilet paper made it a popular salve for the loneliness and strain of the pandemic season. Amid economic free-fall it also proved to be a refuge for solidarity, a place to foster fellow-felling among those similarly hard-up. For many, it was their very first glimpse of anything to do with Buy Nothing.
Read more about Buy Nothing Day here.