What if they called a consumer feeding frenzy and nobody came?
This year a growing number of businesses are giving employees Thanksgiving Day off work rather than trying to beat out competitors by starting Black Friday on Thursday. Reversing a decade-long trend, close to 100 familiar retailers are closing their doors Thursday, and a few will stay closed on Friday. Most Americans like that. In a survey done by BestBlackFriday.com, almost half of respondents actively disliked the idea of stores being open on the holiday. That’s from a website that actively promotes the gold rush. Retailers who close on Thursday, BestBlack reassures, can make up the sales afterwards. They can bank on the ads and discounts being simply irresistible.
But what if they couldn’t count on us to fall over ourselves in a stampede to get the latest shiny object at the best-ever time-limited, quantity-limited price. What if ordinary people reversed our own trend by opting out of the whole thing? To paraphrase the 1960s anti-war slogan, what if they called a consumer feeding frenzy and nobody came?
Opting out of holiday shopping doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Christmas spending is off the charts in the U.S. when compared to other countries. The average American could cut Christmas spending by half and still be in for three or four times more than the average Italian. In 2017, self-reported holiday gift spending ranged from $795 per capita in Oklahoma to $1567 in New Hampshire, adding up to a whopping 679 billion dollars across the U.S. Come January, thrift stores are flooded with clothes, toys, dishes, gadgets, and electronics that seemed perfectly fine until Christmas gifts (or gifts to ourselves—such a deal!) made them redundant.
Consider new clothes alone. Each year, Americans throw away over 80 pounds of textiles apiece—in aggregate 11 million tons. Most of these don’t get thrown away because they are worn out. They get thrown away because we buy more, and we buy more because they are cheap and because ads and media make last year’s clothes feel old, and so we treat them as if they were disposable. But if we had to make room for new clothes by throwing the old ones in our own back yard, we might not rush to the store so quickly. According to the fast fashion documentary, The True Cost, some fabrics take a century or more to break down. That’s a lot of ugly for a long time.
But we might as well shop the sales because we have to buy Christmas presents anyways. Do we actually have to? Gift-giving can be an act of generosity, but as the words “have to” imply, it can also be driven by social expectations or our instinct for reciprocity—or the age-old connection between gift giving and social status. These are powerful instincts and pressures, but none of them add up to have to. And by succumbing to these pressures we pass them on to other people. When you give a gift to another adult, ask yourself whether the recipient now feels pressed to do the same, or to give one even bigger. Better yet, ask yourself whether the recipient needs or even wants the gift. And if the recipient is a child, ask what the wish lists and shiny boxes under the tree are communicating about how to get happy.
Imagine if we taught our children to be filled with delight and wonder at just the tree and lights and songs and cooking and storytelling with people we love. That is how our ancestors did it and similar to other solstice celebrations around the world, and it is much more aligned with what is known about the science of happiness.
When a person is up to their eyeballs in stuff, as most of us—let’s be honest—are, sometimes the best way to deal with diminishing returns is to give something more personal or symbolic. Another option is to give the gift of relief—letting someone off the reciprocity treadmill by agreeing to give each other smaller presents or none at all. Also, there is plenty of genuine need in the world, and helping someone (especially a child) discover the satisfaction of purposeful giving can bring rewards for a lifetime.
But that’s a far cry from what retailers are hoping for on Friday. They want us out hunting bargains, and they have paid big bucks to Mad men and women—who are masters of manipulation—to trigger our sense of urgency about it.
Bargain hunting taps something deep in our hunter-gatherer past. The urge to seek and then squirrel away things that seem valuable likely once held as much survival value for humans as it does for—squirrels. But as anyone who has lived with a hoarder or an extreme couponer or a Scrooge knows, the gatherer impulse can go very wrong, even for a smart, otherwise-reasonable person.
It can also go very wrong for society as a whole. The ideology of demand-side economics has oozed deep and wide into American culture, and the gospel of free market fundamentalism makes consumption a virtue. After the 9-11 trade tower bombings, then-President Bush didn’t ask Americans to make sacrifices; he told us to go shopping. Our cult of consumerism is so out of control that we are destroying our children’s planetary life support system along with a whole world of wonders they have yet to experience, just so that we can buy them more stuff for under the Christmas tree.
What if they called a Black Friday and we chose not to come? What if we chose instead to eat leftovers, bask in the company of friends and family, and take our kids outside to explore a few of the small wonders to be found in their own neighborhood? Or maybe we should ask them to take us.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.