Shopping is fun, especially when buying things for yourself. In fact, shopping may have even replaced baseball as America’s favorite pastime. We just love to spend money. It’s a social indicator of class and esteem; the more expensive our lifestyles, the higher up we are on the social ladder.
In this age of globalization and interconnectivity, we no longer enjoy the same sense of locality as our predecessors before us. When we shop, we can’t normally influence the hand of the one who made (or grew) our purchase. Instead, we lay down money for the efforts of some amount of nameless, faceless entities thousands of miles away whom we know nothing about. This, on surface level, may be perceived as a good thing. After all, this new age of capitalist consumerism has increased our luxury, our extravagance, and vastly increased our options. But behind this shining, shimmering face there lurks a nasty reality that supercenters and corporations pay good money to keep hidden from us. This productive underbelly is directly related to our consumptive relationships.
What exactly are we buying? Where did it come from? How was it made? Who made it? These questions used to be easier to answer. The woodworker lived down the road, the blacksmith was in the next town, and the baker lived across the street. You didn’t have to worry about the mysterious ethical practices of the farmer; you probably knew the farmer quite well. Durability, beauty, and pragmatism were equal concerns of both consumer and producer. But now we have dozens of walls and thousands of miles between the table and the farm, between the gas tank and the oil fields, between the iPhone and the mineral deposits. It has become so much harder to know where what we are buying comes from, even harder to know how it was made, and almost impossible to know who made it.
To this effect, Fight Slavery Now comments,
Like magicians skillfully using misdirection, the corporate giants of discount retail are happy to tell us the price, but loath to let us see the real costs. Beside labor abuse and environmental degradation, we incur a host of down-stream costs from our discount culture. Jobs are lost as entire industries relocate. Wages are depressed, health and safety are compromised. The toxic waste stream is compounded by endless goods that barely last as long as their warranty. We are left alienated and ignorant of where and how our things are produced. Though oddly unsatisfied we return for more of the same. There is another way.
Christians have an ethical responsibility–a moral command–to concern themselves with these details, and to act on that knowledge to promote life and peace. While the biblical authors did not deal with the same kind of market complexity that we do today, their markets had many of the same problems. Slavery (sexual or otherwise), bloodshed, overworking, overuse of the land, and a host of other tyrannies littered the cultural landscape in the Ancient Near East, and the Bible has a good bit to say about engaging in these topics:
- God works through Elisha in 2 Kings 4 to miraculously save a widow’s sons from being taken into slavery by a creditor. Today, many companies are supported by such practices of debt-based child slavery.
- Proverbs 14:31 states, “He who oppresses the poor taunts his Maker,
But he who is gracious to the needy honors Him.” While few of us set out to participate in oppression, nearly every one of us benefits from corporations that actively taunt God by mistreating and abusing the world’s impoverished communities.
- Again, in Deuteronomy 24:14, “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land in your towns.” Many of our favorite companies are involved in the exploitation of their employees, taking advantage of their desperate situations. While they are not Americans, God draws no distinction between countrymen and foreigners.
- Paul reminds us in 1 Timothy 5:18 that the worker deserves his wages. To withhold proper and fair wages is sin, and the marketplace is full of stores who underpay their employees, giving just barely enough to survive on, both domestic and abroad.
These are not the only verses that deal with these marketplace issues. Far from it. In Amos 8, God deals rather harshly with those who trample the needy. In fact, God lists it as one of the main reasons Israel will be put to an end, reduced to many corpses. There is also much reason in Scripture to believe that God cares deeply about the way our practices effect the environment, a topic that is long forgotten in church discussions of ethics (Lev. 25:2; Deut. 15:1-11).
It is impossible to read the Bible and not see God’s heart for the poor and afflicted. In Isaiah 58, God declares to His people what He desires from them:
Is this not the fast which I choose,
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke?
“Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless poor into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
God cares deeply for the poor and mistreated of the world, and deals harshly with those who take part in the abuse. In fact, He pays little attention to the cries of those who participate in the oppression (Isaiah 58:1-4).
But what does that mean for us in America, a church separated by many middleman steps between us and the oppressed? How can we be guilty of oppression if we’ve never struck the poor, refused them wages, or facilitated a slave-transaction?
I think, to some extent, that all of us have blood on our hands (or in our shoes). How could we not? It seems like everything we touch nowadays could have come from a sweatshop or been made by a child slave. Again, as Fight Slavery Now so aptly states,
You check your email over morning coffee, stirring in just a bit of sugar. As you put on a fresh cotton shirt, you’re planning a special dinner for someone close to you. You need to prepare that shrimp dish with saffron rice before they arrive. You hope they’ll like your gifts of chocolates and gold jewelry. The balloon decorations are in place. You make a cell phone call before you get ready to drive to the market.
You’ve now been slapped in the face with slavery over a dozen times before you even leave your driveway!
But will Jesus hold us accountable for the sins we don’t commit? How about the sins that we benefit from?
I think so. For example, I recently took a survey that calculated my slavery footprint by considering what I wear, what I eat, what I do, and where I live and how likely my answers were to be unethically sourced. I figured that because I was a college student in Hollister, Missouri, I would have little to no slavery footprint. I was wrong. According to what I buy and where it comes from, my impact in this world is equivalent to owning nineteen slaves right here in the Midwest. The number hit me like a steam engine. Nineteen slaves. It may not seem like a lot, but to me it seems like the whole world. With all the thrift shopping, all the frugality, and all the post-hipster upcyclying, I am still playing the oppressor in the lives of nineteen Image Bearers of God.
From this table in this room at this college campus in the American Midwest, it would be easy to say something like, Yeah, but I can’t change it, so why bother? or I’m not the one doing it, so I’m not the one to blame. If I stopped buying X, they would still be enslaved. It would be easy to say this because I am separated from my slaves by numerous middlemen. I don’t know there names or their faces, and I probably never will (in this life). But cut out the middlemen and bring me face to face with the women and children who make the things I buy and their “employers.” Would I still purchase the goods reaped from their toil and suffering? Would I still doubt my guilt if I bought my coffee directly from the slave-driver himself? I don’t think so.
The truth is, my guilt is no different whether or not the products pass through middlemen or not on their way from the plantation to my table, the factory to my feet. To be ignorant is one thing, but to know their pain and still benefit from it? Such knowledge without action is sin (cf. James 4:17). It would be participation in evil systems and support of corruption, something God cannot abide (1 Corinthians 10:20-21). However, to purposefully continue in ignorance would be just as bad. Such willful ignorance is akin to hearing a dirge and refusing to mourn (Matt. 11:17). It would be choosing the darkness and lies of this world over the light and truth of God.
The bottom line is that when we buy products from unethical, slave-run companies, we created a demand for a product that we know will be filled by cruelty and unfair practices. By creating a demand, we provide an incentive, a temptation, and God has much to say about those through whom temptation comes (Luke 17:1-4; Romans 14:13). We are perpetuating a cycle that systematizes death, oppression, and abuse, rather than working for life, peace, and beauty.
We can no longer turn a blind eye to these systems of oppression. Nor can we willingly participate in their cyclical chains of commerce, filling greedy pockets in return for bloodstained products. But what do we do? After all, this world is so corrupted, and so much of the corruption is hidden. How do we live out our calling as God’s people who are in the world but not of the world (John 17:15-16)?
We have to strive to be more knowledgeable about the practices of our neighbors, both close to home and abroad. This can be hard to do (as businesses have spent a good deal of money covering their tracks), but isn’t most of the Christian walk a difficult stride toward holiness and love? It takes time and resources to no longer be ‘of the world,’ but as we have seen, it’s vital. To help make this process a little easier, check out BetterWorldShopper.org, a site dedicated to providing comprehensive, up-to-date, and reliable information on some of our favorite companies, even basing them on the A to F grading scale for easy comprehension. Another handy resource is Shop Ethical.
If you can’t find the information you are looking for online, try emailing the company or getting in contact with a manager at one of their storefronts, for starters.
2. Stop Shopping.
This one is pretty simple. Once you know that a business is involved in slavery, human trafficking, child labor, or even unjust wages, we have an ethical and spiritual reason to stop supporting their company. Stop shopping at places that participate in trampling on the heads of the poor (Amos 2:7). While this may not immediately change things, it separates you from the systems of oppression and cruelty. And as we stop supporting cruelty, we de-incentivize such practice. History has shown that when demand for unethical products decreases, so does the supply and practice.
So, what do we do when we find out that a favorite company of ours is actively involved in the trampling of the poor? If, for instance, a factory investigations show that Apple products like the iPhone 6 relies on abused and mistreated workers, forced to work in dangerous and fatal conditions, could we still keep up with the frequent and unnecessary upgrades? Or, if we found out that Nike does business with the largest processor of forced labor cotton in Uzbekistan–which threatens, tortures, and imprisons those who stand opposed to it–could we still, as Amos puts it, “sell the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 2:6)?
3. Shop Elsewhere.
The good news is, we don’t have to just give up shopping altogether. As our globalization and interconnectivity has made us more aware of the sins of megacorporations and big name companies, it has also encouraged a movement of ethical business practices that are easy to find out about (usually grass-roots, small, or local). By not supporting unethical practices, we de-incentivize corruption. By supporting ethical businesses, we incentivize fairness and social justice for the mistreated. One good place to check is Etsy. Most shops on this site ethically source their products and try to be fair, information you can usually find on their shop’s bio. Plus, by shopping at Etsy you know exactly where the money is going, where the product came from, and who made it, so you can sleep peacefully.
Other options include Fair Trade section at Overstock.com, various member companies of Made in a Free World, Bella Luna Toys, Everlane (a Fair Trade fashion company), and Fairphone. For others, check out the Ethical Shopping Guide.
If all else fails, there’s always thrift shops and small, local business. The smaller and more local, the more transparent (or accessible) their business practices will be. You will also have more influence in their business practices by creating direct consumer-supplier relationships. Plus, you get the added benefit of supporting your local economy. And on the side of food, there’s always good reason–practical and spiritual–to pick up gardening.
The most powerful weapon available to this movement is prayer. Our God is bigger than all of these problems plaguing our world, and He promises to set it right (Rev. 21:5). We pray, in line with the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6, for His kingdom to come and His will be done on earth, just as it is in heaven. We pray that He would reveal oppression and expose corruption. We pray that the Holy Spirit would convict cruel hearts of their sin, convict us of our part in systems promoting death, and that He would comfort the hearts of the poor and afflicted. We pray that God would move mightily in this world to liberate the oppressed and have mercy on those we’ve trampled. Finally, we pray for answers, that God would lead us to action that changes this world in the manner of His Son.
As Shane Claiborne says in his book, Becoming the Answers to Our Prayers, “When we ask God to move a mountain, God may give us a shovel.” How true. We should not, as God’s people, be satisfied with simply separating from this world and its culture. We are still in the world, and so must engage with it. We are called to love the hurting with the love of Christ, who came to set every captive free. If we are to walk as He walked, maybe its time to start freeing some captives.
To this, I have no sure answer, but I want the church to start asking these questions and engaging in serious, ecumenical dialogue on how to solve these problems. Perhaps what we need is some prophetic imagination, some sign-acts to get our minds churning, like Ezekiel burning his own hair or laying on his side for day on end (Ezekiel 5:1-4; 4:4-8). Or maybe we need a church-wide modern fast, abstaining from these immoral companies and corporations and instead focusing our efforts on undoing heavy burdens, clothing the naked, and breaking every chain (Isaiah 58). I don’t know if in the current disorganized state of the church this kind of movement would even be possible. But with God, nothing is impossible (Matt. 19:26).
Imagine with me, for a moment, if every Christian on the planet stopped purchasing from unethical businesses. With a good chunk of the worlds population professing Christianity, demand for bloodstained products would plummet, and businesses would no longer have an incentive to source and practice unethically. Things would change. Things would get better. But we underestimate the influence the church has in this world; worse yet, we underestimate the power of the God who calls His Bride to action.
No doubt, this is a harder way to live. But the Christian life was never supposed to be easy. It was supposed to look more like dying to yourself than living the American Dream. It was supposed to look more like carrying a cross than carrying an iWatch. Still, if we choose to be faithful to God’s heart, it might mean we have to go with less. Less electronics, less luxury, less convenience, less self-absorbed pleasure. In short, we might have to go with less stuff. But isn’t that what Jesus would have done?
Think about it, what would Jesus buy? Would Jesus have kept up with the latest iTrends, especially given Apple’s consistent human rights violations? Would Jesus have preferred cheaper, unethically sourced food from a plantation thousands of miles away over slightly more expensive food from a local farm? Would Jesus spend a bunch of money on Nike shoes and brand name clothing when he could support the local economy for cheaper at a thrift shop, at the same time avoiding the nasty business of human trafficking and forced labor?
I don’t think He would. I think Jesus, in His love for humanity, would have gone to great lengths to make sure that He was not wrapped up in such corrupt systems of oppression. I think Jesus would have abstained from bloodstained products and refused to financially support the greed and oppression of the global market. I think Jesus would have made it a point to know what He was buying, where it came from, and who made it. And I bet He would have loved them, just as much as He loves you or I.
So, let His kingdom come, and His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.