Live Simply or Buy Justly?

If you’ve been watching us on Facebook and Twitter, or saw our blog from last week, you know that Elizabeth and I have committed to Micah Challenge USA’s Ethical Shopping Challenge for the month of July. Using the Better World Shopping Guide (and its convenient app), we are attempting to shop only from stores earning a “B” or higher in this ranking system across five different social, economic, and environmental variables.

I’ve been working on improving my consumption patterns for several years, but this challenge is showing me that I still have plenty to do. It’s also forcing me to consider a question that I’ve heard on and off since I started on a journey of changing what I buy and where I buy it:

Why focus energy on buying more justly? Why not just concentrate on living more simply—consuming less— in order to give more generously to organizations working against injustice?

It’s a valid point and it gives me pause. After all, the skepticism around various forms of ethical consuming, particularly fair trade, play out in a range of corollary questions:

How do we know that buying fair trade products sufficiently benefits the poor farmer?

Isn’t ethical consuming just for the rich?

Doesn’t buying ethically-made products just salve consciences so that people don’t engage in more difficult social action for the marginalized and oppressed?

Isn’t it just faux activism for yuppies?

At the surface level, one impetus for these questions is a tendency to view ethical consuming and fair trade as interchangeable. Since many fair trade products can reasonably considered luxury goods, some critics might ask why you wouldn’t just give up, say, coffee and chocolate, and give the money you save to the poor?

Good question.

But buying ethically—or buying more justly as I prefer to think about it—is much more than supporting fair trade or organic products. In fact, just buying practices do not even need to include fair trade goods (although they might provide good options). Buying more justly is one of several elements of economic discipleship, combined with the complementary actions of living simply and giving generously. And the process involves evaluating all of our purchases, to the best of our abilities, first asking, “Do I really need this? Could I do without it?” then, if the answer is affirmative, continuing, “How is it made? Are people helped or hurt in the process?”

Because in the end, short of homesteading and going “off the grid,” we cannot escape participation in some form of the market, no matter how simply we live. As a resident of the City of Boston, even with the most minimal budget I would have to make choices about where I purchase electricity, where I buy food, where I bank my paycheck. So in that sense, when combined with reducing consumption in general, no, I don’t think ethical consuming is only for the very rich. We all need to make some purchasing decisions.

Where buying more justly might come easier to those with means is when it comes to the time and energy it takes. Certainly, if day-to-day survival is your first priority, researching companies might fall low on the list of things to do. So let’s say mostly people with some degree of affluence engage in ethical consumption. If they were to shift their purchases of necessary items to support companies with good records on human rights, community involvement, and fair treatment of workers, these decisions could move the market in a direction that would make those companies more mainstream and thus more accessible to people at all income levels.

As for the last question, whether buying ethically is actually a distraction from efforts toward larger and more meaningful social action, I’d say we’re getting into the proverbial baby and bathwater scenario. This binary thinking is unnecessary. Ok, some people may buy ethically-made products and convince themselves that they are saving the world. Human nature. But why is it an either/or proposition? Of course changing economic markets alone won’t eradicate poverty and oppression—but does that mean we shouldn’t even try to think about what we buy? We shouldn’t give any attention to the possibility of changing the structure of the market through consumer demand?

Considering where we make necessary purchases and supporting companies that help rather than harm people is one way our personal decisions can contribute to a more just economy. But ethical consumption should be viewed as complementary to, rather than in competition with, living simply and giving generously as a comprehensive approach to following Jesus with our money.

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