Gerritt has combined “Buy Nothing Day” with a “coat exchange”, an effort to help the needy make it through the rough New England winters. Michael Bonanno, assistant editor for OpEdNews, caught up with the busy Green on Sunday, April 16, and interviewed him. Bonanno wanted to learn more about the origins of this Green Rhode Island tradition and where its green (Green) pioneer would like to see it go.
Bonanno: Greg, who’s idea was “Buy Nothing Day” and what inspired it?
Gerritt: “Buy Nothing Day” originally comes out of Adbusters in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Basically, Adbusters focuses on consumer culture and I think they just really got tired of watching ads.
Bonanno: Which is why this day falls on the day after Thanksgiving, which, annually, is the busiest shopping and sales day in America.
Gerritt: Right. So, in Rhode Island, we looked at this and said, “We ought to do something for this event.” We wanted something that not only had the political message but also was a way to give back to the community.
Bonanno: You sort of answered my next question which was going to be when did “Buy Nothing Day” turn into, for lack of a better phrase, “coat donation day”?
Gerritt: We call it “The Winter Coat Exchange” because it’s exchanging them between members of the community who have them and members of the community who don’t. Some people need to clean out their closets and some people need to fill their closets. It’s a good swap.
We started it in 1997, so this is going to be our eleventh year
We had a meeting – The Green Party of Rhode Island – and we were wondering what would be a great way to do this, to do something for “Buy Nothing Day” and this is what we came up with.
Bonanno: It sounds as if “Buy Nothing Day” has turned into a two-parter. Which is the most important part of “Buy Nothing Day”?
Gerritt: You’re right, it is a two-parter and they’re equally important. We definitely are very committed to the message of reducing consumption, making people think about the issues of poverty in America, issues of the environment. Over-consumption is an environmental disaster and then there’s the issue of poverty verses wealth.
Then comes the moving of coats from one part of the community to the other.
Bonanno: I know that “Buy Nothing Day” has spread from Rhode Island. How did that happen and how’s that going?
Gerritt: I’ve put the word out. In Utah, they’ve started doing an event in Salt Lake City and somebody who worked with us here in Rhode Island moved to Kentucky and I think they’re doing one in Louisville. There’s been some talk about it elsewhere, but nobody else has really done it yet.
Bonanno: Do you think that consumerist Americans and/or corporations are getting the message?
Gerritt: The corporations aren’t paying any attention whatsoever.
Many, many Americans, millions of Americans, are reducing their consumption, focusing on consuming locally, sustainably. I don’t know if that’s going as fast as we would like, but it is happening. Will it all come through an event like “Buy Nothing Day”? No.
The place where it’s most noticeable now is in local food. That’s probably the leading edge.
I think Global Warming, greenhouse gasses, are helping to drive a lot of things. I think the local food is very much part of that. We were talking about Global Warming being a part of “Buy Nothing Day” ten years ago.
Bonanno: This is a pragmatic question and I hope you don’t mind me asking, but how do you guard against those who might take advantage of what you’re doing? Are there people who are so dishonest that…
Gerritt: …they take extra coats?
Bonanno:…yeah, and sell them or something.
Gerritt: Yes, we’ve had that. We haven’t done much about it. We are thinking about it, though, because it’s getting a little bit out of hand.
Not everybody gets to our event. Somebody taking a few extra coats and making a few extra bucks hasn’t really bothered us much, but it’s gotten to the point where it may affect the ability to get the coats to the people who really need coats. We may need to have the recipients form a line or something as opposed to just placing the coats on a table.
Bonanno: It probably hasn’t gotten to the point where there’s an organized effort to rip you off, like some local retailer stocking up or something. I imagine you don’t deal in a large enough quantity of coats to interest anyone like that.
Gerritt: We give away two thousand coats in a day. But if there’s somebody taking them, it’s usually somebody doing it on their own; maybe they have a second hand shop or something.
Bonanno: And, of course, if the needy are taking them and selling them, they’re probably just prioritizing what they need more and selling them for something that they do need more at that particular time.
Gerritt: That’s true, but when people start taking fifty or sixty to sell, that becomes an issue. We’re going to start to try to deal with that this year.
Bonanno: What can people do to help “Buy Nothing Day” spread nationally?
Gerritt: As an individual, you can actually do an event. That may be the most effective thing.
I’m always happy to consult with anybody around the country who wants to set up one of these events. I’d be more than happy to explain what we’ve done and how to do it.
We work very closely with agencies in the area such as The Road Island Coalition for the Homeless, Crossroads Rhode Island, which is one of the shelters, People to End Homelessness.
Bonanno: It doesn’t seem, from where I’m sitting, that The Green Party of The United States has really picked up on what you’re doing.
Gerritt: This is the kind of thing where each local group has to figure out how it fits in with what they do. You can’t mandate this from up above. It’s got to be done locally.
Those Greens who want to do it in their neighborhood have. For those who haven’t figured out how to do this…you know…for eleven years I haven’t been able to go away for Thanksgiving. If people have family obligations or have to go out of town, well, it makes it really difficult.
It’s one of those things where, if the right people pull together, it’s going to happen.
Bonanno: Yes, but it seems as if the national party made “Buy Nothing Day” part of their platform, it would help immensely. If this went national, then corporations would take note, don’t you think?
Gerritt: The odds are that, as much or as big as we could get, it wouldn’t have a whole lot of effect on corporations.
The people it effects are the people in the community who get coats as well as all of the people who donate coats.
Rhode Island has three sites that operate each year and we’re still looking for more.
Bonanno: You said that this has begun to happen in Utah and Kentucky, but what about right there in New England? Do you know of anywhere else in New England where this is happening?
Gerritt: No, I haven’t heard of any place other than right here in Rhode Island, the places that we’ve helped. We’ve written letters to the editor and other articles and it’s well received here. Right now it’s hit or miss elsewhere.
It has to be presented right, the timing has to be right and you can make this somebody’s day. There’s nothing you can do to force these things, though.
Bonanno: Is there anything else you’d like to add, Greg?
Gerritt: No, I think I’m pretty well talked out.
Bonanno: Greg, I admire what you’re doing. It truly is grassroots. You’re in the local trenches.
I know that you’d like to see “Buy Nothing Day” become nationally recognized…
Gerritt: Adbusters has a web site where they list lots of events, including “Buy Nothing Day”.
Bonanno: Thanks for taking time out to talk to me and maybe you’ll see “Buy Nothing Day” in other American communities soon.
Gerritt: Let's hope so.
If you're interested in initiating a "Buy Nothing Day" in your community, email Greg Gerritt.