Attention, K-mart Shoppers


When was the last time you baked a cake, built a birdhouse, or crafted a Christmas present “from scratch”? Some of us do these things when vacations or weekends afford the leisure, but as a rule, most of us buy. We live in a world of ready-made products, attractively packaged, aggressively marketed and voraciously consumed by a public that has learned to identify itself as “consumers”more commonly than as citizens—a shift that signifies a profound change how we participate in the processes by which we acquire the means of survival, distribute them, and dispose of them.

“Attention, K-Mart Shoppers….” On the rare occasions when I wander haplessly among the shelves of plastic bowls and paper towels, I am struck by the irony of that alert. We “K-mart shoppers” are not, in fact, paying attention. We are, in fact, deeply enmeshed in a political and economic system that relies on and does its best to insure our inattentiveness to process. The only questions we’re encouraged to ask about the products we consume is how much they cost in dollars and what they can add to our comfort, convenience, or sex appeal. But I want to suggest that as people of faith who believe we are stewards and heirs of the world’s resources, we need to bring our consumer habits under close and critical scrutiny. Every time we buy we participate in economic processes that involve exploitation, waste, inequitable access, and resource abuse. Examples of this are companies that hire cheap labor in poorer countries, often disrupting local economies and expropriating local natural resources; over-packaging; agricultural practices that rely on migrant workers who have no legal status and so no access to health care benefits; and water-polluting cleaning products.

This is not to say we shouldn’t receive the gifts of abundance gratefully. But if our abundance rests on carelessness and greed, naïve gratitude is specious. One of the responsibilities that comes with liberal education is to cultivate the habit of asking questions about process. Some companies are more responsible than others. Calpirg and other organizations can provide you with a “report card” on particuclar companies’ hiring practices, environmental policies, production processes, and marketing strategies. Every time we buy, we vote. Every time we buy, we buy into something.

Does that mean I’m delusional enough to think that if I boycott a particular store the management is likely to notice? Of course not. But boycotts and protest letters do work. And if I inform myself about pesticides, for instance, and choose to buy organic food from local farms, I will certainly make a difference to my health and my family’s. Perhaps more importantly, I can gradually alter my spending habits as a spiritual discipline that helps me reflect the mandate to care for creation and especially for the poor.

It’s easy in discussions of this kind to sound self-righteous, so let me acknowledge that by virtue of living in Santa Barbara, driving a car, and buying clothes and household goods, I participate in the inequities that trouble me. A compassionate word about the problems of conscience these issues raise came from Michael Ableman, director of Fairview Gardens, a Goleta organic farm. When he spoke here a student asked, “The forces against alternative choices are so immense, how can any of us do anything meaningful to bring about change?” His answer was, “Just pull out of the system where you can.” I take this to mean ask questions about what you buy, use, and dispose of, about your own processes, and change your practices as you can, without condemning others who are living under the same pressures. We’re “target markets.” We are subject to forces we can’t, individually, control or stop. But we can prayerfully decide how to live in this world but not of it.

I’d like to conclude by offering a few questions you might think of as a “shopping list”—questions to ask before you hit the mall: Where was this item made? What was involved in growing the raw materials, processing them, transporting the finished goods, housing them, and marketing them? Whose labor was involved? Were the laborers fairly paid? Were the raw materials grown in sustainable ways? Are the marketing strategies manipulative? Are there alternative companies and products that can provide what I want or need more responsibly? How do I discern the difference between “need” and “want”? What’s shaping my material desires? How will I know when I get to “enough”? Where do the waste products go—the run-off, the transportation fuels, the packaging? What am I sacrificing in the hours I spend shopping?

This last brings to mind a prophetic couple of lines from Wordsworth: “The world is too much with us, late and soon. / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. . . .” They’re good lines to remember as stewards not only of the world’s resources, but of our own time, money, and energies. We’re not all called to work on the same issues at the same time, but we’re all called to live generously, caringly, with open eyes and open hearts for the creatures of this earth. And to resist, where we can, precisely those forms of temptation we tend not to see because they are so incessant, they feel so “normal.”

•    The Utne Reader
•    The Progressive
•    The Christian Century
•    Alternatives for Simple Living
•    Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, by John C. Ryan
•    Fast-Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser
•    Culture Jam by Kalle Lassn
•    Diet for a New America by John Robbins
•    The $100 Christmas by Bill McKibben

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