Consumptivism: kənˈsəm(p) təˌvizəm/ – The art of aligning what we believe with what we buy.
I read an article last week that really made me think. It talked about the inconsistency between advocating for the poor while buying products that keep them poor. The article argued that living this way is like “protesting a politician while donating to his campaign.” This illuminates the insanity of saying you believe something while behaving in a way that betrays that belief. As someone who has committed the last 5 years of my life to ending extreme poverty and mobilizing young activists for this cause I’ve been wrestling with the ways that my behaviour doesn’t align with what I say I care about and believe.
Perhaps the area I wrestle with this the most is in buying products. Buying something is much more than just an economic exchange; it is a value statement and a sacred act with profound implications that we don’t often consider. One of my favourite authors, Ravi Zacharias, often says that “money is congealed life”, meaning that how we spend money is an extension of who we are and reveals what we really value and believe about ourselves and the world. If you want to know what someone cares about just look at their bank statement.
So here is my question. Do the things you buy affirm and align with what you say you believe and care about or do they conflict? If you consider yourself an activist and are passionate about changing the world does that filter down into the decisions you make at the mall or on Amazon? After thinking about this for about a week I posted something on Facebook that has created a bit of a stir. I said: “It is impossible to love someone while actively participating in their oppression. Cheap for you comes at great cost to those who are vulnerable and easily exploited.” This whole realm of conscious consumption and supply chain ethics is a complex one but worthy of careful consideration for those who desire to lead an authentic integrated life where there is integrity and alignment between belief and practice. Changing the world is not about causes, issues, and policy it is about people and loving people enough to fight for their liberation and flourishing.
This is where things get real and practical: there are always people on the other end of the products that we buy! Your purchases directly connect you to those people and either contribute to their empowerment or to their oppression. If we say that we care about people and are against their oppression and exploitation then we have to be courageous enough to start asking ourselves how the things we buy affects the people who produce them. This isn’t easy and it can get really frustrating. I have a friend who committed to only buying products that were made in Canada for a year and it was incredibly frustrating and difficult, especially since many products that say they are made in Canada use materials that are sourced overseas with no transparency. But we can’t simply plead ignorance and bury our heads in the sand pretending like our consumption doesn’t affect real people.
I am profoundly aware of how far I still have to go in this area and my own hypocrisy as I type this on a computer that likely contains metals unethically mined in DR Congo where I lived as a boy.
So what do we do? Here is my suggestion for a way forward: become a Consumptivist (yes I made that up but roll with me). Consumptivists combine their activism with their consumer power to create a ripple effect that impacts their own lives, the lives of the people and communities that make our stuff, and changes the way companies behave. Here are a few ways to get started…
1. Humanize: Restore the human element to our consumption by constantly reminding yourself that “someone made this” and asking the question “how does this purchase affect their life?”
2. Simplify: Live a simpler life by buying less stuff, selling stuff you don’t need and refusing to buy into the culture of more. Carefully define need and want and focus on buying things you actually need with the occasional indulgence.
3. Analyze: Have a look at your bank statement over the last 3 months and see what your spending says about your priorities.
4. Vote with your $$$: Buy products from companies who are transparent about their supply chain and where their products come from and how they affect who made them. Don’t buy products from companies who are not transparent about where their products come from. Companies can and will change quickly if their current practices are no longer profitable.
5. Educate: Learn about the importance of Fair Trade and share what you learn with your friends. Use resources like Made in A Free World, the Free 2 Work app, the Better World Shopper app, and others like these to guide your purchasing decisions.
6. Pay the price: We can’t keep demanding cheaper prices on the products we buy from companies while punishing them for using unethical means to provide them to us. Cheap is costly! Someone pays the price for cheap goods and if it’s not you it is almost always the producers on the other end who are easily exploited because poverty makes them vulnerable. We have to be willing to pay more and adjust our budgets to make this possible.
7. Advocate: Use your voice to advocate for people who are exploited by unjust labour practices and exploited by corporate greed. Check out World Vision Canada’s No Child for Sale campaign at www.nochildforsale.ca for resources and opportunities to get involved and start a fundraising campaign of your own to help victims of child labour and exploitation in Thailand.
8. Don’t go solo: Invite others to become a consumptivist with you! You will need the support and accountability when making hard choices and when you’re tempted by convenience over doing what’s right.