Trolling the aisles of my favorite discount store, I see sweatshirts on sale for a few dollars. I love a bargain, but can't help but wonder, How is that possible? I couldn't make a sweatshirt (assuming I knew how, which I don't) that cheaply. Add in the store's overhead and shipping costs, and how did that foreign worker even get paid?
The fact is, many foreign laborers are paid very little. The cheapest clothing, chocolate, or coffee you can buy is often produced by virtual or actual slave labor, which includes children. These children, who have never even tasted chocolate, must meet quotas or risk being beaten or not fed.
The journey from field to factory to store is long and complex. So while we may congratulate ourselves for being "good stewards" by buying inexpensive items, doing so may actually injure the poor.
While the Bible says we should handle our money wisely, it never tells us to be frugal for the sake of frugality. In fact, it gives a lot more ink to generosity than thrift. The Bible speaks out against being stingy and extols generosity: "Give freely and become more wealthy; be stingy and lose everything" (Proverbs 11:24). The New Testament takes it further, saying that after the day of Pentecost, "All the believers … shared everything they had … with those in need" (Acts 2:44-45).
While stewardship and thrift may be related, thoughtless thrift can sabotage our stewardship. But we can be good stewards by being conscientious consumers. When we choose to care about the people who harvest our food and make our clothes, we obey Jesus' command to love.
When we take the time to research or choose to buy Fair Trade certified coffee or chocolate, for instance, we can know that we're being better stewards of our money because we're helping workers to earn a living wage and be treated justly.
The Bible says, "Blessed are they who maintain justice, who constantly do what is right" (Psalm 106:3, TNIV). Do our buying patterns maintain justice, or do they perpetuate injustice (even if we're unaware of it)?
There's a human cost to cheap consumer goods. And the question is, are we willing to support inhumane working conditions and wages in order to have the privilege of inexpensive candy?
The Kingdom Is Now
Two of Jesus' favorite teaching topics were the kingdom of God and money.
When a rich man asked Jesus the path to eternal life, Jesus saw that this man's god was money, and told him to give it all to the poor. The man refused, and Jesus observed: "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Luke 18:24-25, NIV).
Jesus also said that you cannot serve God and money. We often think of those who "serve money" as the very rich. However, focusing on being thrifty can easily morph into serving money. Our thrift should never be for money's sake, but so that we can be generous, so that we can bring God's kingdom to those who are in need.
These two topics are deeply connected. To pray, "Your kingdom come, your will be done," but then go out and buy food or clothing produced by laborers in inhumane ways is a contradiction.
That said, it's nearly impossible to make every purchase completely "ethically traded" because of the prevalence of items produced in sweat shops or in fields by child laborers, and because supply chains are so long and complex that we can't track the source of every item. But we can try to buy from companies known to be ethical, without making ourselves crazy with guilt over the things we don't know.
My family and I sponsor a little girl through World Vision. We can afford her $30 per month sponsorship because we live within our means. Some might say we're "good stewards" of our money and are helping the poor. But if I buy clothes, coffee, or chocolate made with slave labor, often the labor of children, so that I can "afford" to sponsor a child, am I really being a good steward?
It takes effort to look into the source of our clothing, food, and other items. Such effort is a deeply spiritual discipline, one we cannot afford, for Jesus' sake, to ignore.