Thousands of people all over the world took part in the recent “Buy Nothing” movement, but as Christmas approaches, is it really possible to buy nothing?
The answer is yes - but you won’t find it easy, as I’ll explain. First though, it’s worth looking at the anti-consumption movement and what motivates people to join them in the first place.
Buy Nothing Day, which took place in Australia on November 28 - designed to coincide with retailers moving into high marketing gear for Christmas - has been going since 1992 and reflects growing consumer resistance movements in contemporary Western society.
Research into anti-consumption has identified a number of different groups different motivations. One group identified is motivated by a desire to save society or the planet and is mostly concerned with the environment or material inequity.
Another group, called “simplifiers”, make a conscious decision to “drop out”. They are not necessarily all about cutting back, but are looking for alternative ways to consume to assuage stress and a psychological emptiness that comes with consumption. One study found that 72% of people in this particular group agreed with the statement that “many of us buy and consume things as a substitute for what’s missing in our lives.”
Another group are those people who, simply by virtue of the fact that they don’t have the appropriate resources, are forced to buy nothing. While this isn’t a resistance movement as such, research into ethical consumption I conducted with colleagues at King’s College, London, found that this group of people - once they found some affluence - were more likely than others to reduce their consumption, rather than replace it with more “ethical” or values-based buying.
Yet, among these contradictions, one issue becomes clear - as the idea of the sovereign consumer (“customer as king”) becomes more prevalent, consumption becomes culture, and things like values, ethics and symbolism are infused into consumer behaviour.
So it makes it difficult for people to explicitly consider moral and ethical behaviour without it going hand-in-hand with material and economic progress. Coupled with this is a situation where the political and business elite tells us that we can find our way out of any crisis through consumption.
Also, at an emotional level, it makes sense. Consuming provides comfort, satisfies physical needs, and ultimately contributes to the construction of one’s self and the communication of it to others.
To some degree, capitalism itself is predicated on an ideology of dissatisfaction with our current state. So, most of us are constantly looking for ways to achieve a higher state and a better life through one of the few outlets that we feel we can control – what we buy. Marketers refer to this as the “ratchet” effect – people are never totally satisfied, so they will always be wanting something more.
So, it becomes easier to consume and buy than it is to resist. In some circumstances, buying nothing is actually hard to do, because resisting certain items can often be emotionally and financially costly. Which leads us to the ritual buying frenzy that is loosely referred to as Christmas.
Humans at their core need to create rites and rituals to create meaning and a sense of security. If we have these festivals it can connect us with a community, and gives us a perception of normalcy and predictability.
Marketers respond to these instincts, by drawing on a plethora of psychological and sociological research to develop tactics that nudge us towards consumption. At the same time, they are giving us permission not to think, by surrounding us with stimuli designed to overwhelm our cognitive processing.
One of things psychological research tells us is that are not very good at predicting the future. Or to put it better, we have an over-inflated sense of our accuracy in predicting the future - we rely on how we feel right now to predict how we might feel about something later. Psychologists call it affective forecasting.
So, in the moment, and just in that moment, we buy things that we think we will need. But we discount all the other things that we have bought, and also discount how having all that stuff didn’t necessarily make things great last time.
So when it comes to gifts, we don’t plan, and so are more susceptible to the gentle nudges that the marketers give us at Christmas time - when we are stressed, in a hurry, and trying to do ten things at once.
We are also incredibly social animals; so many of us are influenced by a need to provide a lot of food, or gifts, so that we will be valued by our friends and family. To not do so, especially at Christmas, means resistance to a whole bunch of rites and rituals. The issue is that it requires significant personal and psychological resources to actually resist the marketers’ view of Christmas.
However, movements such as Buy Nothing Day, Buy Nothing New Month, and even Occupy Christmas, do give us an opportunity to resist those societal norms and even opt out of consumerism.
To resist any natural response requires a commitment to the idea of resistance, a willingness to practice that resistance as often as possible (we know that the more we do something, the easier it becomes), and, importantly surrounding ourselves with people who will help us to resist, or at least won’t sabotage that resistance.
But constantly pushing up against all of the messaging around consumption is going to be hard and these campaigns aren’t for everybody. In the first place, you have to have some basic initial resources to be able to buy nothing.
Buying nothing for any period of time means that you should already have a fair bit of what is needed to function capably in society.
If you already have nothing, this is going to be difficult. If you have significant stresses in your life, it is also going to be difficult, simply because you won’t have the mental capacity and energy to process information (or even function) in a methodical, rational way. So, it is not simply a case of buying nothing for everyone.
But, for many who are tired of consumption as culture, any resistance is resistance, and can for some, lead to a long-term change in behaviour.