RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

'Tis the Season for Buy-Nothing Day

We Missourians deserve our long, comfortable autumns. After surviving unbearably hot and humid summers, we are rewarded with stretches of 70-degree days, crisp mornings, and soft, drizzly rains. Lawns that crackled underfoot in August become soft and green. Spring-blooming plants often surprise us with new flowers. Autumn is the best time for fooling with animals, too, and it's the time of the best social gatherings--Thanksgiving, of course, and Buy Nothing Day.

Thanksgiving is one holiday nobody has been able to pervert too much. There are beneficiaries--greeting card manufacturers and long distance phone companies and those guys who inject lubricant into turkeys, but for the most part Thanksgiving remains a day when people get together just to share a meal and catch up.

Buy-Nothing Day, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, extends the quiet. Instead of rushing out to the mall and maxing out our Visa Cards, Buy-Nothing founder Kalle Lasn suggests we find other ways to entertain ourselves.

Lasn's commercials, produced by his Media Foundation in Vancouver and described in the Wall Street Journal, remind North Americans that we consume "five times more than a Mexican, 10 times more than a Chinese person, and 30 times more than a person from India ... Give it a rest."

In 1997, Lasn tried to get time for his commercials on the major TV networks. He was turned down.

Richard Gitter, VP of Advertising Standards at NBC (owned, if you're keeping track, by GE) said "We don't want to take any advertising that's inimical to our legitimate business interests." The rejection letter from CBS (owned by Westinghouse) said that Buying Nothing is "in opposition to the current economic policy in the United States." The networks also rejected Lasn's commercials for TV Turn-off Week.

It's no wonder Lasn's commercials are rejected by the Big Boys. His advertising company produces parodies to strike at the biggest corporate advertisers. His ads run in some alternative magazines.

In one ad, he turned Joe Camel into Joe Chemo. In another, his Big Mac Attack victim collapsed on an operating table with a heart monitor throbbing out arches.

Recognizing that his commercials will probably never be bounced off a satellite to the world's consumers, Lasn compares the American corporate P.R. game to propaganda campaigns in the old Soviet Union saying, "suddenly I realized you can't speak up against the sponsor."

Lasn was a baby when his parents fled Estonia for the freedom of the west. He continues, "There's something fundamentally undemocratic about our public airways."

Lasn's business also designs slick ads for environmental groups and publishes Adbusters, a magazine that claims 40,000 subscribers. His supporters include organizations like the Foundation for Deep Ecology in San Francisco and other groups that champion simple living.

1998 will mark the fourth annual Buy-Nothing Day. Our family celebrates by inviting friends and relatives to bring their kids, musical instruments and Thanksgiving leftovers and nibble the hours away. We put out the signs saying "Harvest Welcome" and "Martha Stewart Doesn't Live Here." Then we pull out board games and playing cards. Some people--have you noticed?--aren't happy unless they are doing something.

Gifted folks like my husband and some friends play music. The rest of us tap our feet, make wise proclamations, help the little kids play pick-up sticks, and wash dishes. Once in a while somebody organizes a walk or someone else remembers how to dance.

Since we host Buy-Nothing parties, I've never celebrated in other ways, but this day is perfect for doing the million things you never get done. Going through winter things for stuff to give away. Getting a group together to paint a room in your community center, library, medical clinic. Helping an elderly neighbor winterize.

Or, you could spend the day doing something for yourself. Visit a museum. Read a book. Design a budget that will get you out of debt, and share it with family members who need to know. Really clean out your worst junk drawer.

Any group could plan a celebration to emphasize the fact that we can get by without buying on one day a year, the worst day in the year, after all, to try to find a parking place or a sales person. This kind of celebration is easy to pull off and only requires a sense of humor, a tolerance of mess, and a desire to be with others--the same qualities needed for shopping, by the way.

And if you don't make it to the mall to buy the 1999 Christmas Barbie for your fifth-grader or the latest Hilfiger shirt for your teen, take comfort in these fun facts to know and share: Americans produce an extra million tons of waste each week in the five-week holiday season; one day's junk mail could produce enough energy to heat a quarter million homes; we can do better.

As for your melancholy gift receivers, they'll understand some day. Make your purchases count. For Auntie Ruth, a part of next year's tomato crop or a couple of free-range chickens from your local farmer. For Uncle Don, a hand-knitted scarf from the Senior Center. And for the kids, those frilly dolls and chunky wooden cars from the sheltered workshop.

I won't waste time with the long list of things you can give instead of junk from the Box Store. Donations to a good non-profit; a painting from your favorite living artist and so forth, but I will pass along my bonus tip for special giving: Get something precious fixed. My sweetie is delighted to have his college-era wristwatch working again, his 1998 birthday present. And I can't wait to see his face when he opens the package with the newly-running Art Deco alarm clock he bought at a junk shop "as is" which meant "as is a fire hazard."

Or give one of the dozens of books on voluntary simplicity, sustainability, thrift, environmental activism.

Read it first, of course. On Buy-Nothing Day.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: See the Adbusters web site at

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