Buy Nothing Day: Sustainable Consumption at the Cost of Sustained Consumption

Black Friday.  The term evokes images of crowded malls and families rushing to get through Christmas shopping lists.  The Friday after Thanksgiving is always one of the busiest shopping days of the year.  With Christmas advertising arriving well ahead of Thanksgiving, this year’s Black Friday was sure to be a big one.  But citizens of America’s progressive cities, such as San Francisco and Seattle, got more than they bargained for—no pun intended—as some used Black Friday to protest what Adbusters, an anti-consumer activist group, labels “massive consumption and impulse buying.”  On <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />November 28, 2003, anti-consumer activists celebrated another “Buy Nothing Day.”<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


Created by a former Canadian advertising consultant 11 years ago, “Buy Nothing Day” has grown exponentially via the Web.  Adbusters, located in Vancouver, Canada, sees “Buy Nothing Day” as a step toward reexamining the consumption habits of industrialized nations.  In a sense, it is a true consumer’s holiday—a break from the mayhem ensuing at malls across America every Friday after Thanksgiving. 


Simple concept.  There are 1001 other places I would rather be than at a shopping mall on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  However, a closer look beyond the colorful “Buy Nothing Day” festivities of sheep costumes and ‘burping corporate pigs’ persists the repeated alarmist concern regarding sustainable consumption.  An old friend put it best when he said, “Sustainable consumption.  Few know the term, but many have heard the lingo.”  The concept of sustainable consumption, as related to sustainable development, surfaces on “Buy Nothing Day” by way of environmental protesters   Suddenly, bromides such as Americans are “consuming more quickly than resources could handle” or that “American consumption is pillaging Mother Earth at the expense of the Third World” are trumpeted in cities throughout the world. 


Perhaps by coincidence, the UN held a conference on sustainable consumption at Rio in 1992, the same year as Adbusters’ inaugural “Buy Nothing Day.”  This meeting of world leaders resulted in Agenda 21, a protocol by which subscribing nations would balance economic development with the efforts to preserve the environment.  Written in language broad enough to appeal to groups other than eco-fanatics, Agenda 21 seemed like a good idea. 


A closer inspection reveals a flawed regulatory approach that threaten economic growth and individual liberty by promoting misguided international agreements.  Principle 8, for example, stipulates, “Nation states should reduce unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies.”  This gives the illusion that nations, especially developed ones, are in dire need of cutting consumption to reach levels that allow for a healthy global environment.  Both drafters of Principle 8 and “Buy Nothing Day” activists seem convinced of the idea that Americans are consuming from a dwindling resources pool.  Nothing could be further from the truth, however. 


Take timber for example.  While it is true that the U.S. is the number one timber producer, U.S. forest resources are currently rising.  Since 1950, surveys of American forests revealed growth numbers that more than offsets harvests.  Consumption sends the message to suppliers to produce more forests.  Despite the federal government’s role as the largest landowner in the United States, approximately 86 percent of the reforestation is done by the private sector.  Because of farming and industrial innovations, America now produces more goods on less land and with less labor.  Contrary to “Buy Nothing Day” activist statements, American forests are plentiful and growing. 


Regulatory error is also obvious through Principle 15.  Principle 15 states: “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by states according to their capabilities.  Where there are threats of irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”  This sounds quite similar to the Precautionary Principle.  The Precautionary Principle was developed in Germany during the 1970s to initiate a ‘look before you leap’ approach toward scientific progress.


As sensible as this idea sounds, the Precautionary Principle poses great danger to global welfare and development.  The Precautionary Principle increases regulation through the assumption that all technologies and chemicals are dangerous until proven safe.  This statute stands in direct contrast with the trial and error system conducive toward innovation.  The Precautionary Principle seeks zero risk in a world where growth is achieved primarily by risk taking behavior.


The agenda’s inclusion of the precautionary principle clearly leaves open sufficient opportunity for regulatory err.  Under the Precautionary Principle, all cost-effective safety measures are suspended in pursuit of prohibiting the release of substances which might cause harm to the environment or humans even if proof of harm does not exist.  This has led to regulatory initiatives that have killed many.  Consider the case of DDT.  At the Sustainable Consumption conference in 1992, the United Nations Environment Program’s Global Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) banned DDT use.  DDT use, however, has proven invaluable in combating malaria breakouts since World War II.  Throughout developing nations suffering from malaria, DDT remains their best weapon in preventing this health dilemma from reaching severe levels.  “Buy Nothing Day” adherents contradict themselves by parading images of those suffering in the Third World yet maintaining an adversarial position regarding DDT and other advanced pesticides. 


Besides DDT Adbusters, and other green advocates, have supported the Precautionary Principle as a vehicle toward impeding biogenetically engineered agriculture.  As with DDT, environmental activists lack sufficient data to prove that genetically modified (GM) foods are harmful.  Lack of proof, however, has certainly not prevented activists from resorting to preventive action to block genetically modified growth.  In 1997, Greenpeace’s “Hazard Patrol” blocked a shipment of genetically engineered soya from the U.S to Brazil.  On the Adbuster website, environmental and human rights activists liken genetically modified crops to a harmful class of ‘Frankenstein foods’.  Genetically modified farming techniques, however, are invaluable in environmental stewardship as such techniques enable farmers to increase harvests without clearing away more wildernesses for agricultural purposes.  Environmental activists are pushing either a mistaken or hidden agenda when claiming that agricultural advances through biotechnology will hurt the environment. Human rights activists also make the same mistake when claiming that GM foods will exacerbate the woes of those starving in Third World countries.  GM techniques enable U.S. producers to send more food aid to developing nations while requiring less farmland.  GM farming techniques will result in increased incomes for farmers in developing nations while bolstering the available food supply.   Unfortunately, activists and some politicians allow the alleged risk of GM foods to eclipse the far greater risk of starving people in technologically underdeveloped nations who have nothing to lose but their hunger.  


Not only does consumption promote economic stability but, in a free market, leads to resource growth and replenishment.  As economist Julian Simon once said “the ultimate resource is people, especially skilled, spirited, hopeful young people who will exert their will and imagination for their own benefit and in doing so, will inevitably benefit the rest of us as well.”  Rather than contributing to global destruction and third world poverty, consumerism actually promotes technologies that serve to better environmental and human well-being. 


These anti-consumer activists fail to recognize any of the offsetting benefits of consumption.  Throughout 2003 Adbusters has been too preoccupied with raising scares about urban sprawl, SUVs, and the credit card culture, ignoring how consumption and demand gave way to cost-effective innovations such as consumer internet access, which, ironically, played a major role in organizing and building the anti-consumer movement.  Rather than promoting the spread of developed world technologies to third world countries, anti-consumer activists advocate sustainable consumption via the redistribution of resources from the developed to the Third World.  These activists claim to champion the causes of those suffering in the technologically disadvantaged nations, yet they adamantly oppose empowering such nations with the tools required for much needed economic growth.  Their actions are not of a humanitarian nature, but rather chauvinistic paternalisms that currently promote sustainable consumption by eliminating all progress made to achieve sustained consumption.