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Ethical Consumption: In Pursuit of the Faith-Inspired Shopping Basket

Monday, 30 March 2015  | Jai Sharma


Imagine for a moment that your Church or bible study has just decided to run a fundraiser to fight human trafficking and forced labour. Ideas whizz around the room excitedly as the urgency of the problem and the zeal of the Church members combine in a spirit of hope and optimism. “Let’s get tee-shirts printed,” one member suggests. “It could be a really powerful tool for raising awareness,” another chimes in. “Done!” exclaims the minister. “I know a site online where you can get tees printed for $10 and shipped anywhere in Australia”. Now pause for a moment.

From here, things could go one of two ways. One magnifies the positive impact of the event, empowering even more victims of trafficking to overcome the injustice they have faced; the other entrenches the very injustice the event was seeking to work against. Suppose firstly that the group goes ahead and orders the online tees. The reality is that there is a good chance that the $10 tees are made from cotton picked in Uzbekistan, one of the world’s largest cotton producers which also has state-sanctioned forced labour, including for children as young as 10. Beyond this, the cotton is most likely processed, dyed, cut and stitched by a string of sweatshops, each hiding its own secrets of exploitation, labour abuse, and even sexual abuse. Suddenly the tee-shirt choice doesn’t make much sense for an anti-trafficking and anti-forced-labour event.

Now imagine a second option. A voice chimes up in the back saying, “Great idea! I know of a company named Freeset that employs women rescued from sex trafficking in Kolkata. I’ll order from them and we can support the cause that way as well.” Until not that long ago, I was quite literally the person in option 1. Over time however, I have come to gradually realise that, as the anecdote above illustrates, our spending at both an individual and corporate level generates impact. It could be argued that we shape the world more by what we buy than where we give.

Many will have heard this refrain from Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”. It is a truth with many layers, and one that applies in interesting ways to our own consumption. What we buy and perhaps just as importantly why we buy is an element of Christian life that very easily gets thrown in the ‘God doesn’t really care about that’ pile. In truth, this basic function of modern living actually has immense potential to honour God and express our love of neighbour. 

Let me offer just three examples of how your purchases could can be used to love God and neighbour and help Truth to be made known.

One of my favourite companies is Raven and Lily. They are a fashion house that works with marginalised women’s groups around the world to manufacture their lines. From refugee women in Afghanistan to HIV+ women in Ethiopia, this faith-driven organisation enriches the lives of over 1000 women to make jewellery and clothing for the everyday consumer.

Then there’s a more mundane product – toilet paper. This is where ‘Who Gives a Crap’ really shines. The company not only uses 100% post-consumer recycled paper, but also gives 50% of profits to support the building of toilets and sanitation projects in the developing world.

And finally there’s JOYN, a company making bags in the foothills of the Himalayas. At first glance the bags look like fairly standard, nicely designed backpacks, handbags and clutches… until you read about the manufacturing process. From the cotton which is hand-spun in a workshop employing those with leprosy, to the sewing floor which employs some of the most marginalised in the community, each piece is worked on by 12 people. Most importantly, each of those 12 people gets the opportunity to gain dignified work in a context which allows them to experience and hear of Christ’s love.

Despite my optimistic tone, at the end of the day, I’m a realist and I’m well aware that realistically we aren’t going to ponder long over which capsicum is going to have the greatest kingdom impact at the local grocers! Applying gospel principles to our buying can feel like a burden. To those who feel this, I would share two lessons I have learned. Firstly, it is possible to have fun doing it! God loves a cheerful giver and I assume this applies to time as much as money. Watching inspiring videos of companies doing amazing things doesn’t feel like dry market research. It is invigorating and challenging to see faith applied in non-conventional settings. The second thing I would say is that the burden of research is feather-light in comparison to the burden of exploitation borne by the millions of people making your products. When I look at the conditions of the 4 million workers in Bangladesh sewing my cheap $20 shorts, suddenly my complaints about having to think before buying seem trivial at best.

One quick word of warning. While I am a big fan of gospel-informed buying, it is not without its risks. One of these is that we inadvertently buy into one of the biggest lies of our age: that we are what we buy. Consumption can very easily become an idol. In becoming an idol, it can grow to be that which brings us pleasure, what we toil for, and with even become where we find our meaning. Our purchases should be a reflection of our identity, rather than that to which we look to form our identity.

In the previous two decades, the conversation in this field focused primarily upon the problems with business as we knew it; the scandals of sweatshops, the pollution of big business and even the greed at the heart of the economic system. This conversation engendered outrage but was ultimately unsatisfying in its failure to offer a genuine solution. Gradually, upon this foundation of awareness, a new conversation is emerging. It is centred around solutions and the exciting new wave of commerce that turns its back on traditional notions of ‘profit at any cost’ and the segregation of business from social and spiritual goals. Anecdotally, of those who graduated with me from university (in the late 2000s) who I know to have gone on to start businesses, more than 90% have had a social or environmental purpose at their core. My bold prediction is that just as the internet and associated technologies ushered in a new era of business, the next wave of change will come not from technology but from the idea that business can be used to achieve more meaningful goals beyond mere profit generation.

The Apostle Paul says, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). As we, the Christian community, seek to apply this to our actual or virtual shopping baskets, we face the exciting prospect of leading this consumer-driven change. We have, right now, an exciting opportunity to not only expand our application of the gospel but to redeem the very motivations at the heart of why we buy what we buy.


Jai Sharma
is a worker at the intersection of faith, business and social change. He is the co-founder of  www.threadharvest.com.au,
 an online boutique selling fashion with unique backstories of social and environmental change.

 


Comments

Gordon Preece
March 31, 2015, 9:51PM
Great piece Jai. And glad to hear those great piles of Who Gives a Crap my wife buys aren't crap. Thanks for a really well balanced, thoughtful article with a nice balance of justice and grace.
Annette Sharma
April 12, 2015, 11:09AM
I like the fact that buying with conscience is a quiet and humble means of bringing about the most powerful and striking changes to lives and environments. Love the way this article explores that!

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