Allow me the privilege of preaching from a soap box for a moment.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, consumerism is defined as “the preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods.”
Americans are known for consumerism, but it is a quality of many Western-culture countries. Both the American and European fashion industries promote seasonal closets, and Marie Kondo of Japan (creator of the KonMari method) teaches in her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up that you should discard the things which do not bring you joy. Is there inherent truth to this lesson? Are there moral problems with a consumeristic culture? What does this have to do with the Theology of Justice?
When I asked my students to name some of the long-term negative consequences of consumerism, immediately they fired away. Indulge me in a few different trains of thought here.
One is maybe a little more obvious: consumeristic habits lead to a greater demand of goods. When businesses are trying to produce as much as possible as cheaply as possible in order to turn a large profit, more often than not they turn to international labor. Let me ask you- who made your t-shirt? Look at the tags on your clothing. Most of our garments are made in Asia or Central America. In and of itself, this is not necessarily problematic, but we as consumers bear the responsibility to take some things into consideration:
- Who made this item? What do we know about them and the business that they work for?
- What is their work environment like? Is it safe? Sanitary? Is it a positive environment? (Consider some of the factors that contribute to your decision to take a position. If you would not work in a position because of safety concerns or verbally or physically abusive employers, why should someone else?)
- What are they paid? Do they make a living wage? Do they get paid at all? (You might be surprised to hear how commonly people work under indentured servitude “agreements.”)
- Are they old enough to work (especially considering their work environment)? All too often I hear people joke about children working in sweatshops, but this is a reality. Are they missing school in order to help a single parent pay rent? Are they the primary caretaker for younger siblings? (Yes, discontinue support of businesses who hire children, even if these are their personal circumstances. Further into the article I’ll talk about how to make a difference for those children.)
Another long-term negative result of consumerism is the amount of our planet dedicated to landfills, the amount of waste ending up in water supplies, etc. But maybe even worse is the pile of unwanted clothing rotting in third world countries. Let me paint you a picture.
It’s time to clean out your closet, so you go through pieces you wore for a season or two, maybe you didn’t love, maybe they don’t fit as well as you’d like, etc., and you donate anything unwanted to your local thrift shop. By a few weeks’ time, those pieces will be sitting on the rack in that thrift store for someone else to consider purchasing (at a fraction of what you paid, might I add). However, have you ever been that person, the one who just didn’t know what to do with a damaged garment, an old camp t-shirt, or something else that no one would want? What happens to those items? What about when seasonal items cycle out of the racks or a thrift store is overstocked? Do you know what thrift stores do with the unwanted of the unwanted?
They ship it off to developing countries. There are markets with table after table piled three feet high in discarded American clothing.
At one time, the textile industry in Kenya was prosperous. You could purchase a t-shirt, look at the tag and read Made in Kenya. This is no longer the case. Why pay money for something you can get for free?
In a documentary called Poverty Cure I heard a story about a church in Atlanta, Georgia, that heard about the hunger crisis that occurred in Rwanda after the genocide in 1994. Moved by compassion and irrationality, the church decided to ship eggs- that’s right, eggs- from Atlanta to a village in Rwanda. What they didn’t realize was the impact their generosity would have on the village’s local chicken farmer. After weeks of continually being supplied with free eggs, the local chicken farmer sold his chickens. People don’t buy eggs when they can get them for free. As needs in other parts of the world shifted the attention of the Atlanta church, the donations ceased, and the village no longer had eggs, period. They had to import them from another village.
The West has long considered developing nations to be underfed, under-clothed, and undereducated, but instead of calling out the ingenuity, creativity, and expertise that these communities undoubtedly possess, the West has paternalistically shipped all our clothing to their countries. We’ve dumped our unwanted things in one developing nation and demanded that another developing nation create more unwanted things to appease our appetite. This is the ironic paradox of consumerism.
How do we alleviate poverty? We first must answer a difficult question: how am I contributing to people’s poverty?
One of the best ways to help someone solve a problem is to support them in solving that problem themselves. When a country has a shortage of clothes but a thriving textile industry, the answer is not to ship all your unwanted clothing to them. Invest in the local people, encourage their ingenuity, and watch what happens. Believe in people’s capability to be all that God created them to be.
This subject is difficult to process and even harder to implement, as I know from experience. I’m writing to you from the perspective of someone who has wrestled with this issue for more than two years, who truly loves Target, who has indulged many times in Western consumeristic ideals. It’s ok to have grace with yourself. At the same time, honestly evaluate your habits. What needs to change? Where can you make better selections that will have positive ramifications?
I’d like to leave you with some ways you can affect change for the better:
- Use the ethical fashion pyramid to evaluate your shopping habits:
- Value and take good care of the things you already own
- Swap items with a friend if you want to change things up
- Borrow if you need something immediately
- Shop less, choose better: only buy things you absolutely need, and give considerable time and research to those choices
- Purchase items that are made to last a long time
- Buy vintage or second hand when possible/practical
- Support ethical brands
- Purchase items that are fair-trade certified (look for the symbol) or use retailers that work directly with local communities. Even better, shop local (or leauxcal, if you live in Louisiana) to invest right back into your own economy, and encourage others to do the same. This reduces the demand for unfair working conditions and pay in other countries, and it forces the hand of innovation to create better opportunities for people currently working in those conditions.
- Sponsor a child through an organization that invests in holistic community development, such as Food for the Hungry. I have personally seen their work in action, and they are always my number one recommendation for child sponsorship. (Click here to read about my experience with Food for the Hungry.) Organizations like FH are helping to keep children in school, many of them even going on to university, creating less need for them to work to provide for their families.
- Invest in a small business in a developing country through micro-finance organizations. Although there is some debate still about how this will benefit developing communities over the course of time, the research I have seen points to community-led improvements and case studies where small businesses actually end up investing in other local small businesses. I always recommend Hope International for a biblically based micro-finance organization that also prioritizes discipleship within communities.
It can be intimidating to think through complex issues like sustainability, particularly when it feels like an unsolvable problem. However, the Theology of Justice would have us consider the impact each of our actions has on humankind and all of God’s creation. To be good stewards of the planet we’ve been entrusted with, we must be good stewards of our money and possessions. To be faithful ambassadors of the Gospel, we must be faithful advocates of justice for the people God created. While we wrestle with the paradox, we must be willing to examine our hearts and allow the Lord to show us where we need to make adjustments.
Sources: PovertyCure: a Six Part Series by Acton Institute; When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert