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Why I joined a cult last weekend

‘All hail McDonald’s! Marvel at its miraculous transformation of rainforests into obese children!’ thundered the ‘Rev E. Littlehelps’ as, watched by a crowd of amused and bemused shoppers, he dropped to his knees to worship the golden arches. ‘Oy mate, what are you doing?’ shouted an inquisitive teenager, trying to work out exactly how best to take the piss out of the Rev and his faithful followers, the iPostles.

And so I found myself last Saturday: with friends old and new, dressed in long white robes with meticulously-painted corporate logos and cheeky santa hats, prostrating myself in worship to the gleaming brands that dominate Oxford’s Cornmarket Street. It was international Buy Nothing Day www.adbusters.org/bnd and, given that I’ve just spent the last six months studying the terrifyingly wasteful whirlwind of global consumerism and its impacts for November’s issue of the NI (‘Ethical Shopping’), I felt the need to do something to mark the occasion.

So we created the ‘Cult of Consumerism’ – a bit of big-business-worshipping street theatre designed to get people to think about their shopping habits. Our aim was to be funny not threatening, to entertain not to entreat, to provoke not to preach. We figured that, on one of the busiest shopping days of the year, a band of white-faced freaks doing ten ‘Hail Claireys’ in front of Claire’s Accessories was pretty much guaranteed to get some attention.

Of course, as we made our way rapturously from one shiny chain store to the next, we did try to get some serious points across. We praised to the heavens Starbucks’ ‘divine business model’ of buying coffee from desperate farmers for pennies and selling it to us for pounds – and marvelled at their clever exploitation of the small amount of fair trade they sell to brand their entire operations as ‘ethical’. Outside Sony we rejoiced in the glory of ‘standby mode’ that allows us to waste huge amounts of energy even when we are not actually using our electrical appliances.

Disney’s sparkling wonderland of a store provoked exhortations of pure joy as we contemplated the endless bits of plastic tat ‘made by children, for children’ (allegedly!) that get played with once and then forgotten about. The Rev got very excited outside the Orange mobile phone shop: ‘Even though I’ve already got a camera, I need another one on my phone! I need a new phone every six months that tells me the temperature! Thank you Orange for extracting so many precious minerals using exploited workers in poor countries in order to provide me with such cheap and regular upgrades!’

Once we had peoples’ attention, we handed them a tongue-in-cheek ‘anti-catalogue’ of ‘amazing products, all available for non-purchase in your area!’ – alternatives to shopping such as a walk in the park, making Christmas gifts yourself, or phoning someone you haven’t spoken to for ages.

It had some serious stuff on the back about how ‘we are using up the planet’s resources and pumping endless amounts of climate-changing gases into the air in order to make millions of bits of pointless junk that add nothing to our lives.’ And that ‘millions of people around the world are forced to work in hideous conditions, earning pitiful wages, in order to fill our shop shelves with all this useless crap.’ It encouraged people to ‘Stop Shopping – Start Living’, and to get involved in campaigns that challenge government and others to take these issues seriously. Any interested people were directed to the Buy Nothing Day stall being run on Cornmarket by the Oxford Brookes and Oxford University People & Planet groups www.peopleandplanet.org.

We had a predictable range of responses, though less abuse and more support than I was expecting. Most people laughed and asked for a flyer so they could find out what the hell we were on about. Several people came up to us and congratulated us for what we were doing. One guy who worked in a food-selling shop on Cornmarket that shall remain nameless had a short battle with his conscience then asked us for some flyers to give to each customer he served.

Another bloke asked us, as we grovelled in supplication in front of the Sony shop, whether any of us had TVs, and if so, weren’t we being a wee bit hypocritical? Fair point (though I should mention in my defence I got my TV for free, because, though it works perfectly well, it’s too old to have a remote control (or the blessed standby mode) so its owner was throwing it away…)

But we weren’t trying to say ‘don’t buy anything ever, even if you need it’. Just that there is so much pointless waste involved in our consumer culture and it’s having a devastating impact on people and the planet. We all need to take responsibility for this, but it shouldn’t just rest on the shoulders of the consumer.

Yes we all need to shop less. But as a society we also need to push the powers that be – governments and business – to do what’s required to make sustainable consumption a genuine possibility. Standby mode simply shouldn’t exist. It should be made illegal, like CFCs or lead in petrol. Companies should be forced to impose decent labour standards across the board, not brand-by-brand depending on which company’s unlucky enough to feel the wrath of the anti-sweatshop campaigners this month.

Maybe what we were doing was patronising self-indulgent middle-class wankery. It’s quite possible. But hopefully we piqued some peoples’ interest and at least got them thinking. Given the scale of the challenge facing us, the ‘consume much less’ message needs to get out there somehow. Government won’t say it (too much in thrall to economic growth, too scared of incurring the wrath of industry.) Business won’t say it (they need us to keep buying their products.) NGOs aren’t saying it (they think it’ll turn the public against them). And someone’s got to…


Thought For The (Buy Nothing) Day (and more pictures) by Rev. E. Littlehelps:

McDonald’s destruction of rainforests:

Starbucks low prices to farmers, high prices to consumers:

Disney sweatshops and child labour: http://www.coopamerica.org/programs/rs/profile.cfm?id=213

Mobile phones: Africa - War, Murder, Rape… All for Your Cell:

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