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.

One of the Gap's managers, Cam Stableford, tries to sidetrack the discussion of human rights, labour practices, democracy and consumer responsibility into a discussion of hairstyle. "Maybe you should find out what school your barber went to," he offers. Not very helpful.

On Kumar's suggestion, the culture-jammers, with the help of game staffers, try to assemble a First World-produced outfit. They sort through racks reading out place names: Taiwan, Mexico, Indonesia, Canada, Israel, Hungary, USA, the Philippines, China, Sri Lanka.

Gap customer Heather, who's looking for a hat, overhears the discussion. She's never heard of IBND, but after a short explanation about this cheapest holiday of the year, she concedes she's been unknowingly "going against the grain" of the BND plan. Her purchases so far? Mittens from Dalmys, a child's hat and mittens from the Disney Store.

Will her brush with culture-jamming influence Heather's decision about whether to purchase more goods today? She tries not to think too much about labour practices, she says, but she knows sweated labour is a problem. She retreats a bit and suggests that the Gap is better than Nike, but immediately regrets that statement. Our conversation ends with her quiet confession that she doesn't shop here too much.

I think I witnessed an awakening. Freedom?

So this is all nice, you say, but what does Santa, supreme icon of overconsumption, think of it all? Limeridge Mall's Santa (Mr. Ho Ho) says Christmas should be less "buy, buy, buy" and more about love and caring.

"A lot of people can't afford much but they have a lot of love in them to give. Christmas can be as simple as a family holding hands around the table," he suggests. Nice.

But still there's that pressure to buy. One woman's bags hold an electric kettle, four dinner glasses, mitts, some Christmas icing, pyjamas for her granddaughter and a nativity scene.

Most of her purchases will end up as gifts. She says this is her first day shopping in almost three months and she likes the idea of getting away from rampant materialism.

"We've lost our Sundays to shopping. I feel for the salespeople," she says. She believes "everyone feels pressure to get their shopping done -- there's that deadline." But she thinks it's a wonderful season nevertheless.
So while culture-jamming and IBND celebrations take different forms, ranging from personal boycotts to choreographed street theatre, there's one thing you can count on: no one's buying.

30 | NOW DECEMBER 2-8, 1999

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