Rethinking the shop-till-you-drop mentality

Grass-roots efforts advance the idea of giving fewer lavish gifts this year

November 27, 2009|By Jill Rosen | Baltimore Sun reporter

As most in the Baltimore area headed off to bed last night, Will Cocks planned to settle into the parking lot of the White Marsh Best Buy so that when the store opened at 5 a.m. he would be in position to pounce on a 32-inch LCD TV for his kitchen.

To the organizers of Buy Nothing Day, Cocks, a 28-year-old from Baltmore, is everything that's wrong with America. Holiday doorbusters? Frivolous spending? Ratcheting up debt? Contributing to the Black Friday chaos that in recent years has sparked traffic jams, fist fights and a stampede that killed someone?

That new TV, even if it's a pretty sweet name-brand model at $100, they insist, symbolizes "the dark side of consumer culture."

"Black Friday has become a ritual of consumption in the United States," says Kalle Lasn, the creator of Adbusters, which founded the Buy Nothing movement that encourages people to meditate on the perils of reckless spending on Nov. 27 instead of hitting the sales. "Go ahead and buy that flat-screen TV, but don't be surprised if when your children get older the global economy collapses."

Cocks doesn't exactly agree - or care. "I feel like I'm stimulating the economy. It's kind of my duty as an American to go out and participate in crazy sales."

As Buy Nothing-ers urge restraint this holiday season, they'll be joined by the folks behind the Great American Sleep-In, Simplify the Holiday 2009 and the Advent Conspiracy - groups that want to keep people out of the malls for reasons ranging from environmental to charitable to spiritual.

"We want people to be more focused on what matters ... not on having to buy," explains Carolyn Danckaert, a program director with the Takoma Park-based Center for a New American Dream, whose motto is "More fun, less stuff."

Even though experts predict families will spend less on presents this year, market analysts expect brisk Black Friday sales.

"Sales keep going up and the interest level for Black Friday products that retailers advertise continues to go up," says Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for the NPD Group. "If you look at all the basic metrics, it would tell you that people want to shop, they want to buy stuff for their relatives, they want to get stuff for under the tree and if they see a great deal for themselves, they want to get that, too."

Renee Libby hopes to find a deal on a new printer and a laptop. She plans to shamelessly shop the sales at Best Buy, Target and Walmart.

"I see their point of view, but I feel like it doesn't make sense in this particular economy," the 25-year-old from Federal Hill says. "Right now we should all be trying to get the best deals we can."

When activists in the Pacific Northwest debuted Buy Nothing Day in 1993, they targeted a day in September. A few years ago, they switched their bleak holiday to Black Friday, to make more of a statement.

Since then, it's gathered support, with about 19,000 people pledging to participate on the group's Facebook page. It's also garnered accusations of quackery for leaders such as Lasn.

"People paint us as being crazy lefties or flaky people who don't know what they're talking about or understand the economy," he says, insisting that his efforts are sinking in, albeit slowly. "Cultures don't change overnight."

With its Great American Sleep-in, Globalgiving.com wants people to skip shopping Friday and instead, spend time with their family and give to international charities instead of buying gifts.

The Center for a New American Dream offers an alternative gift registry where people can ask loved-ones to forsake store-bought presents in favor of homemade things and nonmaterial gifts such as promises to clean the house or babysit.

At least one Baltimore church has joined the Advent Conspiracy, a global movement that is encouraging Christians to give time to loved ones instead of stuff, and use the money they save for charity.

"As Christians, we believe the first Christmas changed the world," says Joel Kurz, pastor of the Garden Community in Bolton Hill. "Why aren't Christmases still changing the world?"

Change is the aim of the Advent Conspiracy, started by three American pastors four years ago at five churches and now counting more than 2,000 faith communities worldwide.

Participants are asked to give at least some of their savings to expand access to clean water. Co-founder Greg Holder says millions of dollars have built hundreds of wells for hundreds of thousands of people in the developing world.

"We're not saying to spend nothing," says Holder, pastor of the Crossing Church in suburban St. Louis. "We're just saying, 'How about we all remind ourselves that the giving and receiving of expensive gifts isn't the best way to express love in the first place.' "

Kurz's church is asking members to pool the money they save into a fund that will be divided between a global water project and other needs in Baltimore.

Bradley Chwastyk of Glen Burnie is on board. "It's almost like a regression to how Christmas started. The tradition is jolly old St. Nicholas giving gifts to poor children because they don't receive anything at all. How many of us wouldn't survive if we only got a few gifts this year?"

Baltimore Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.

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