Thursday, December 2, 1999

Buy Nothing is a tough sell

Consumer rebels go to mall and tell shoppers to stop right there


HAMILTON -- International Buy Nothing Day is the time to hurl your purse against overblown consumerism. And in Steel City, the best place to do it is Limeridge Mall, whose more than 200 stores make it Hamilton's "major consumer temple," according to Mark Gehr.

He and three other "culture-jammers" -- the name invented by BC-based Adbusters mag, whose brainchild this day is -- spend some time (not money) there on IBND, putting their anti-consumerist principles on the line with a little "guerrilla theatre."

How will mall residents take to the idea of a "24-hour moratorium on consumer spending," a holiday when you're encouraged not to spend? "That's not what I want to hear!" exclaims Sharon, manager of the Collacutt luggage store.

A Collacutt customer responds testily that he will not participate. He spends $45.99 on a bag and says, "It's my money, and no one is going to tell me when or where to spend it!"

The four culture-jammers (Gehr, Sanjai Kumar, Ryan Heimpel and Tony Lombardo) are eager to get inside the Disney Store or, as Mark calls it, "the belly of the beast."

Inside, they compete with a nine-monitor video wall featuring adolescent singers, while customers and sales agents prowl the floor. The jammers speak into fake cellphones and to each other about sweatshop factories and child labour, to the discomfort of nearby shoppers.

I pick up a Mickey Mouse doll, symbol of American pop-culture primacy. "Made in China." Across the floor, store manager David says he heard about Buy Nothing Day on the radio (CHUM-FM) but didn't expect anything to happen.

Disney customer Richard Vrataric browses through product, Winnie the Pooh doll in hand. He heard about IBND on radio station Energy 108 that morning, and while he thinks it's a good idea, it will not influence his decision to buy.

Little scary

"It would be hard on retailers to tell them to stay closed. Maybe they should have it another time of the year, not so close to Christmas."

Gina, store manager at Le Chateau, says IBND is "a little scary," but she'd never heard of it and, in fact, doesn't believe it exists. She, too, suggests it's strange to have it a month before Christmas. "Maybe June or July I could see it."

In-the-know culture-jammers will tell you the day is chosen precisely because it's before Christmas and the day after American Thanksgiving, traditionally one of the biggest shopping days of the year.

The most interesting exchanges of the day take place at the Gap, another store singled out because it's a multinational conglomerate involved in the murky world of global trade, where human rights are a matter of degree.

"Stores like this can afford to get their products made in North America but actively seek out low-wage countries," says Lombardo. "The bottom line is what counts for them, not human rights."

The four attempt to engage the salespeople in a lively discussion of workers' rights -- that is, until staff are instructed not to talk about the issues. A prepared statement is fetched and handed to the culture-jammers. Head office in Toronto is where they're told to go to get answers. 416-921-2711.