Some consumers, on the other hand, will shun shopping and observe "Buy Nothing Day," a loosely organized protest against conspicuous consumption. The idea comes from Adbusters, an artsy glossy that counts a circulation of 100,000, plus 80,000 online members of its "culture-jamming" network of social pranksters.
Participants in a wiki for the event have planned demonstrations at shopping centers around the country, including the mammoth Mall of America in Minnesota. Some San Franciscans are opting to swap used stuff at the Really Really Free Market outside in Dolores Park. Wikipedia entries track activities in 65 countries.
The Adbusters Web site suggests repeating pranks performed by tens of thousands of people at malls in recent years, like wandering around in zombie gear. Some might stage a "Whirl Mart," roaming in packs at Wal-Mart stores with packed shopping carts, yet declining to buy anything. Armed with scissors, other participants may offer strangers the free "service" of a credit card cut-up.
Millions of people have heard of Buy Nothing Day by now and it grows each year, although there's no official count of the faithful, according to Kalle Lasn, Adbusters editor in chief and co-founder.
As lists of corporate collapses and layoffs lengthen, the notion of buying less or nothing is becoming less an option and more of a necessity for many people. That's an "I told you so" moment for activists such as those at Adbusters.
"If people had heeded the buy-nothing message, then we wouldn't be in this mess," Lasn said. "This glorified spending and borrowing of the past 10 years is really the root cause of this financial and economic meltdown we're in now."
The event launched in 1992 in Adbusters' pages and sparked a small following in the Pacific Northwest. It started attracting attention internationally in 1995--long before Twitter and other viral, Internet-enabled phenomena like flash mobs took hold--after the magazine touted Buy Nothing Day on a Web site.
"It was stunning for us at the time, that we just put up some information and a few photos and all of sudden without us even knowing it, we heard about some prank that people pulled off in Melbourne, Australia, and then people in the U.K. decided to call it "No Shop Day,"" Lasn said. "It was like what I call a 'metameme' that started spreading on its own power."
We're entering a "post-materialist" era in which people are weaning off an addiction to consumption, he says. "That era has got to do with buying more green and greening your life, having a lighter footprint, buying ethically and above all buying locally, not from big malls and stores with stuff that comes from China."
He seems to have company among an emerging crop of consumers. Recent polls show that younger adults are willing to pay a premium for green products, for example. Marketers are painting consumers as "bright green" or "dark green" according to the lengths they'll go to lighten their environmental impact.
Among the latter group are Compactors, 10 San Franciscans who pledged to buy nothing new for a year, then found themselves joined by thousands around the world, and overwhelmed by media requests.
Green blogs and Twitter feeds abound that chronicle individuals' efforts to lessen their economic and ecological debts, or to live off the grid entirely, rediscovering forgotten frugality. There's the well-publicized blog of Colin Beavan, aka "No Impact Man," a New Yorker who rejected toilet paper and electricity for a year. In California, bloggers Beth Terry, Dave Chameides, and Ari Derfel turned their lives inside out saving their garbage and struggling to cut out certain types of waste, like toxic plastic packaging.
Such bloggers have lauded "The Story of Stuff," a short, animated online film about the material waste of consumerism, which has been viewed more than 4.5 million times in the past year, according to its star Annie Leonard. She aims to turn the message into a sustainable-consumerism movement.
Technophiles appear to be increasingly concerned with energy efficiency and keeping old hardware from landfills; the growth of blogs like EcoGeek are one indication. Corporate and municipal e-waste collection programs have expanded, and entrepreneurs run sites like BuyMyTronics and Second Rotation that pay people to mail in their tired gadgets for recycling.
As disposable income shrinks and people must save goods and energy to trim necessary expenses, is conservation becoming cool?
You might see it in the big grin President-elect Barack Obama flashed Barbara Walters this week as he talked about greening the White House, and admitted flicking off the lights in each room at home in Chicago to shave electricity use. It's a far cry from President Carter's dorky, cardigan sweater-clad plea for people to dial down the household thermostat.