Consumerism from a Christian perspective

A side note:  I’ve been terribly self-conscious about blogging these past few months.  Because I know people are reading what I’m writing.  Yes, I do realize that’s how the internet works.  But it’s unnerving because I tend to blog like I’m journaling, and though I may write about cooking or painting I also write about things I’m thinking about or experiencing as part of my own personal growth.  I don’t mind sharing these things with the world (otherwise I wouldn’t be blogging), but I’m just a random person with my own reflections.  I’m not an expert on life and how one should live it, and the things I write about have already been learned by many people before me.  This is just my ongoing story about learning and re-learning about me and how God wants me to live as I ride this rock around the sun.  

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The new year is a natural time to reflect on life.  Where we are, where we’re going, who we want to be, what we should change to become that person.  I applaud those who make new years resolutions; I think it’s great to pause and take inventory, and never grow stagnant or complacent.  (And a reminder that we don’t just have to do so at new years or birthdays.)  

Something that’s been on my heart a lot recently – as in the last few years but especially during the season of Black Friday, Christmas shopping, and new years resolutions – is consumerism.  It’s news to no one that our society constantly tells us to buy buy buy, and pretty much the first aim of advertising is convincing us that we have a problem that will be solved by purchasing a certain product.  But I can’t blame my consumeristic mindset entirely on society and advertisers.  They can do this because it works.  The truth is that if I were content then I wouldn’t so easily fall prey their voices and the messages would be as ridiculous as being told, “You won’t be happy until you are burning alive in lava!”

My rough definition of contentment is being happy with where I am and what I have, secure in the knowledge that God knows what he is doing and has a plan and will always take care of me – even if I can’t see how.  (See the key?  I can’t be content unless I am trusting in God.)

Two of my favorite verses are 1 Samuel 7:12, where Samuel reminds the Israelites that God has watched over them in the past (the implication that why would he fail to continue to do so), and Proverbs 30:7-9, which asks God only for our daily bread lest we forget that he is the one that provides it.

One of my new favorite verses is John 6:68, where many leave Jesus but the twelve do not and Peter says where else could they go since Jesus has the words of life.  It’s a reminder to me that if I seek Christ first in everything, everything will fall into place.  Life won’t be perfect or easier, but it will be better.  Of that I am certain.

So contentment and consumerism are related.  Now let’s talk some more about consumerism.

It’s easy to go through life looking at things just as things.  A recurring prayer of mine has been for God to show me his perspectives.  And as a result now more often I find myself looking at things not just for their function, but in terms of the people involved.  And I  think about everything differently when I look at it in terms of the people who get it to where it now sits in my possession.

Take the computer I’m typing on.  It started out as a bunch of raw ingredients in the ground.  These were mined by people trying to earn a paycheck.  These ingredients were refined, the oil was turned into plastic.  All of that happened in factories filled with individual people.  Each component was designed by person.  Then the component was built by someone.  After that it was packaged by someone, loaded on a boat or truck by someone, shipped in a vehicle piloted by someone, probably assembled with other parts by someone else, packaged and loaded and shipped again to a distribution center in a truck driven by someone, packaged and shipped again to a store in another truck driven by someone else, someone stocked it on a shelf, and someone rang up my credit card before it finally became mine.  Not to mention all the someones who didn’t touch my computer directly but built the factories, serviced the trucks, ran payroll, and emptied the trash bins.

You get the point.  There is a staggering number of people involved in every single product that I own.

Take a look at something next to you and try to put together in your mind the process and people that it took to bring that cell phone or Kleenex box or apple or couch or envelope.

Seriously, think about it.

It’s so much easy for me to not think it.  All these people and the amount of labor involved, it’s inconvenient and overwhelming to acknowledge their existence and the fact that each of them has hopes and fears and wants and needs.  It’s much easier to not think about anyone but myself maybe the few hundred people that I regularly interact with.  Relevant: this video about how everyone has a personal story.  (Warning, it makes me cry every time.)

Instead I try to imagine putting the face of a person that I know at each step of all of these processes.  It’s Alan managing the farm where the cotton is grown.  It’s Heather that spins it into threads.  It’s Abby running the machine that weaves the threads into cloth.  Cameron dyes the fabric grey.  Emma cuts out the pieces of a skirt and Steve sews them together.  Josh loads them onto a truck driven by Don to a warehouse.  Adam programs the website that sells it and Cheryl processes my credit card.  Eventually Hailey sets it on my doorstep in a box that was made in another process that involved Caitlin, Ron, James, Emily, Laura, John, Suzanne, and Sarah.

Each of these names signifies someone that I care about.  How do I want them to be treated in each step of the process that brings this skirt to me?  Do I want them to work in a place with well-maintained machinery and life safety codes?  Of course!  Do I want them to make enough money to be able to live in a safe home and feed their families?  Naturally!  Contrastingly, much of what I own is made by people who do not have great working conditions or a livable wage.  I know that when I see a label that says “Made in Bangladesh” or “Made in Taiwan” and even sometimes “Made in the USA”, but it’s easy to ignore that voice in the back of my head that reminds me that this is something that should concern me.

We should improve working conditions and wages, but just doing those won’t solve the problem.  Because ultimately all of the products are being made because I am consuming them at a staggering rate.

On recommendation I read the book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.  On some level I was aware of much of the information it contained, but it still laid out in uncomfortable clarity the wastefulness associated with my consumerism – in spite of my already-small wardrobe.  I have become accustomed to or demand artificially low prices (in the case of this book with clothing, but it could be applied to everything).  To comply with this demand, manufacturers reduce quality and have employees that are overworked and underpaid in awful conditions.  But I conveniently ignore all that because in return I get a shirt for $10 (that may last for a year before I need to replace it due to low quality).

The more I thought about it, the more intolerable this seemed – both for the environmental factors and the social justice factors.  You’ve doubtless already heard plenty about environmentalism and social justice, and there are more than enough other places that you can Google to see those facts.  But this post isn’t about those; it’s about the heart.

Yesterday I passed a booth that was advertising its product by giving away cheap, logoed sunglasses.  For a moment I was drawn to “ooo, free stuff!” before remembering all the people and resources behind that pair of glasses that I didn’t really need and would undoubtedly ultimately end up in the trash.

I was appalled at how easily I could be tempted by cheap little trinkets.  As a Christian I have a responsibility to take care of this planet that God has entrusted to us, and all the resources on it.  But most importantly, each and every single person involved in the creation of those sunglasses is a beloved child of God.

That’s ultimately what God’s been opening my eyes to lately and I want to say in this post.  Why should I care about consumerism?  Because every product I buy is inextricably interconnected to the people that made it, and God cares about each of them.  He cares about every single person on this planet.  Which means that I should care that a factory worker is working 80 hours a week in unsafe conditions for $45 per month.

As I continued pondering, I debated with myself.  “But Alissa, if you raise the salaries for all these people, the cost of the products will go up, and no one will be able to afford them!”

Correct… if we keep consuming goods at our current rates.

I look around my living room and imagine purchasing each item in it for five times the cost.  It’s overwhelming!  But what if I didn’t have as much stuff so I wasn’t spending as much?  And what if each item had much higher quality so I didn’t need new stuff as often?  And what if I could live in a smaller place, paying lower rent and utility bills because I needed less space for my stuff?  (By some accounts the size of new, single-family homes has nearly tripled since 1950; how much of that is because of the stuff we fill them with?)  And what if many of the people involved in the creation of my stuff had a better quality of life because they were paid a reasonable wage working a reasonable work week at a reasonable pace to make a higher-quality product rather than 1300 poor-quality garments per twelve-hour shift for $68 per month in factories that collapse?

Seriously, wouldn’t it be worth it?  We have such a skewed understanding of not only the cost but the value of everything that we own or use!

If you have a chance, read the children’s book Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder and be amazed at how only 150 years ago it was not uncommon for families to produce almost everything they needed from scratch – from raising sheep to shearing them to weaving the cloth and sewing each article of clothing.  Not to mention making your own candles from beeswax you gathered and churning butter from milk from your cows and growing your own food and raising your own meat.

I think about if I had personally made an article of clothing from scratch (that is, from sheep or plant and every step in between) how valuable that item would be to me and how I would want it to be highest quality so it lasts a long time.  I would repair it if it got damaged, and I surely wouldn’t toss it out if the color or style was no longer in fashion.  In a society where we now purchase rather than make just about everything, I admit have trouble valuing my possessions, their quality, and those who produce them.

I don’t claim to be an economist, but I don’t think a living wage and environmental sustainability are out of the realm of possibility if we seriously examine our addiction to excess as manifested through product consumption.  

But it does require a drastic change in mindset about our “stuff”, and what and how much we really need.  The recent flood particularly solidified in my mind how unimportant and unnecessary so much of my “stuff” is.  And ultimately this means realizing the value of our planet but more importantly the people on it.  To not value people as precious and dearly-beloved children of God means that I’m only using them for what they can do for me.  Treating them as slaves or machines.  Thinking about it in those terms is quite sobering.

This means I have to value and care for the things that I own rather than treating them as disposable.  It means I have to think long-term about needs and thus if I really should purchase something it’s necessary versus cheap.  And it means when I do purchase something I have to do my homework to find products that, as much as possible, are of good quality and made in a ethical way that respects God’s creation: the Earth and the people.

None of these things is easy to do.  All require a change of heart.  All require seeing things the way that God sees them.  All require a resolution.

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