For three years, I lived and taught in Japan, where shopping is a national pastime. I studied the language, but I struggled to express nuanced ideas—which made it tough to debate the environmental and social side effects of overconsumption.
Until I discovered my inner Zenta Clause.
On a sunny Saturday in late November, I printed some bilingual fliers, donned a Santa suit, went to the busiest shopping plaza in Okinawa, and sat down to meditate in front of a Starbucks and multiplex theater.
I was participating in Buy Nothing Day, a global day of protest. Since its creation in 1992 by Vancouver artist Ted Dave, Buy Nothing Day has taken place on the busiest shopping day of the year in the United States, the day after Thanksgiving. Countries in Asia and Europe observe it on the following day, Saturday.
"The idea is that you don't have to buy," says Dave, who wanted people to take responsibility for the waste and environmental damage that holiday shopping can create. Dave's vision was adopted immediately by the Adbusters Media Foundation as a formal campaign and has gained momentum around the world ever since. Last year an estimated 10,000 people in 65 countries participated in Buy Nothing Day events such as Zenta sit-ins, credit card cut-up booths, no-logo parades, free food parties, bartering markets, and free concerts. And more than 2 million people adopted the 24-hour moratorium on spending any money, says Adbusters editor in chief Kalle Lasn.
"Many people feel Buy Nothing Day is a new, edgy kind of Earth Day," Lasn says. "It's always been a way for people to have less impact on nature and ecosystems, but more of a psychological element has come in—[as a reaction to] the mass media urging us to consume more."
Living purchase-free for one day proved more difficult than I had anticipated. When I felt thirsty, I had to seek out a water fountain rather than a bottle of water. I also had to consider how I would manage without my daily ritual of stopping by the market for veggies. Still, I found incredible freedom in leaving home without a holiday shopping list or a wallet.
My Zenta sit-in lasted for four hours, with passersby mostly laughing or taking pictures of my protest. But on one meditation break when I opened my eyes, a semi-bilingual woman read the illustrations and signs, emphatically nodded her head in agreement, smiled, and said to me, "Shopping too much," and explained the cause to her friends. My fake white beard couldn't hide my ear-to-ear grin.
Not shopping speaks volumes. My meditation, too, helped me communicate a powerful message, and, finally, my concerns were no longer lost in translation.