Doing Good by Buying Well

Embark on a journey toward compassionate consumerism

I love choices. Unless there are too many of them. Do I really need to consider 231 shades of green, 188 shades of blue, or 184 shades of white when selecting the wall color for my bedroom? (Yes, those are real numbers from a nationally recognized paint store.)

Will my ice cream purchase be a grievous disappointment if I'm not presented with 103 flavors? (Also a real number from a popular ice cream manufacturer.) American materialism and consumption are out of control. But who cares? After all, we're not hurting anyone. Or are we?

Unbridled consumption

Some Christians think we should feel guilty for our blessings—that we're hypocrites because we don't obey Jesus' admonition to sell our possessions and give to the poor (Matthew 19:21). Others comfort themselves with Jesus' declaration that the poor will always be with us (Matthew 26:11), so there's no use trying to eradicate poverty.

But the reality is that while American consumers are doing their best to contribute to the global economy, we're also contributing to a global problem. Many people in developing countries pay a high price to support our consumerism, especially in providing us with choices, say for paint, ice cream, and clothing. For example, whether you're a bargain hunter buying a $5 T-shirt at Walmart or a fashionista purchasing a $93 G-Star Raw T-shirt at Nordstrom, your clothing was probably manufactured in China, Cambodia, or Bangladesh.

Importing apparel manufactured overseas is not a new practice. But years ago, it was easier to distance ourselves from foreign labor injustices occurring on the other side of the world. Now, images of sweatshops in China or a building collapse in Bangladesh appear in our online newsfeeds in immediate, living color.

Consumerism and calamity

Bangladesh in particular has seized our headlines with dismaying frequency. Second only to China as the largest exporter of apparel to the United States, this developing country has experienced a series of heartrending tragedies in recent months.

Bangladesh in particular has seized our headlines with dismaying frequency. Second only to China as the largest exporter of apparel to the United States, this developing country has experienced a series of heartrending tragedies in recent months.

But this thriving industry has been plagued with calamities and misfortunes. Eighteen hundred Bangladeshi garment factory workers have died over the past seven years—1,200 in the past year alone.

Investigations into these tragedies have revealed negligence on behalf of indigenous factory owners and managers. Unsafe working conditions, long hours, orders to ignore fire alarms, and a lack of emergency exits are only a few of the contributing factors. But responsibility extends beyond the borders of the countries that feed our consumerism.

Who else is responsible?

Ignorance may be bliss but it's not credible, at least not in this context. Corporations know the extraordinarily reduced cost of merchandise could only result from savings at the expense of safety and living wages.

The international community recognizes contracting companies bear some responsibility for these deaths. Seventy-five international retailers and trade unions recently agreed to a legally binding plan to inspect clothing factories and to provide funding to correct unsafe working conditions.

This agreement provides financial assistance to factory owners to help them meet minimum safety standards. According to Christy Hoffman, Deputy General Secretary of UNI Global Union, the cost of the plan would translate to a minimal increase, "something like two cents per T-shirt." Other estimates are higher, ranging from one to three percent price increases—a small price to pay for safer working conditions and livable wages.

Noticeably absent from this plan are North American retailers. Only three have joined the agreement. Instead, 17 North American clothing brands and retailers created their own alliance as an alternative to the predominantly European plan. But the North American alliance is not legally binding.

However, this is one time when it's not enough to point a finger at big, bad corporations. Individual consumers—you and I—bear responsibility, as well.

Good stewards

The Bible has much to say about how we are to handle our resources. According to Crown Financial Ministries, there are more than 2,350 verses on money and possessions.

God calls us to be wise in the way we handle our finances, including how we spend our money. We are to be good stewards who seek the best possible prices for our purchases.

But good stewards do more than spend wisely; they give generously, too. The apostle John wrote, "If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God's love be in that person? Dear children, let's not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions (I John 3:17–18).

Still, it's easier to be generous to the homeless person I see during my morning commute than it is to help someone who lives half a world away. What can you and I do when we have no contact with those we want to help?

According to Crown Financial Ministries, there are more than 2,350 verses on money and possessions.

Awareness and action

We can complain about how a corporation is taking advantage of people who have few options, but our protests are hollow if we still seek out their bargains. In order for me to purchase that T-shirt for $4.99 in Florida, a worker in Bangladesh labored for barely more than a dollar a day. Although a highly skilled seamstress may earn three times as much as a factory worker—up to $100 a month—she works 12-hour days to do it. On the other hand, if we stop purchasing these products, then people will lose the little wages they have, leaving them with no viable means of support.

So what should we do?

Of course, we can pray, asking God to help the less fortunate and to give us wisdom to know how to proceed. But it's easy to spiritualize a problem without actually acting on our convictions. I'm reminded of the story of Israel's defeat at Ai in Joshua 7:1–12. Although Joshua spent all day in prayer before the Lord, God rebuked him for failing to act.

We can pray about a situation for weeks or months, but there comes a time when we need to act, too. James 2:15–16 tells us, "Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, 'Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well'—but then you don't give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?"

These verses could be said to apply only to fellow believers. But God's desire is for all people to come to a saving knowledge of him (1 Timothy 2:4). So how can we earn the right for the gospel to be heard in far-flung cultures if we don't care for people, soul and body?

Spiritual impact

Owning an abundance of possessions is not inherently evil. However, there is a three-fold danger in a lifestyle of materialism. Accumulating "stuff" can distract us into forgetting God is our provider; our material blessings ultimately come from him (1 Timothy 6:17). It can also cause us to become obsessed with amassing more and more possessions, never satisfied with what we do have. Finally, accumulating possessions can cause spiritual myopia. Things become more important than people—people for whom Christ died.

Tragedies such as the ones that have occurred in Bangladesh and other foreign countries can either be obstacles or opportunities for the spread of the gospel.

In speaking about the building collapse that resulted in the loss of more than 1,000 lives, Dr. Stephen Kelley, missionary surgeon at Memorial Christian Hospital in Malumghat, Bangladesh, said, "It has provided opportunities to talk about the tragic results of the 'love of money as the root of all evil.' The owner of the building showed a complete lack of integrity in building a much larger building than was safe in order to have less expense and more money in his pocket."

Despite the fact that Christians total less than one-tenth of one percent of the Bangladeshi population, believers there are turning these tragic obstacles into opportunities to spread the gospel. Dr. Kelley describes one such instance. "There is a church near the site of the building collapse in Savar. The church people have had numerous opportunities to come around the victims and their families to show love, compassion, and share the Good News."

I sometimes wonder what my life as a Christian looks like to marginalized or persecuted Christians. While I'm agonizing over 184 choices of white to paint my wall, many of my brothers and sisters in Christ around the world don't even have a wall to paint. I know what their lives look like to me—lives of deprivation and suffering. Yet these are the same people who are sharing the joy of Christ with the unsaved in the midst of tragedy.

I like having choices. And I like saving money. But when unbridled consumption causes me to lose my perspective and my compassion, I need to rethink my choices and be more intentional about living out my faith.

Ava Pennington has an Adult Bible Studies certificate from Moody Bible Institute and teaches a weekly, interdenominational Bible study class of 200 women. Ava is also the author of Daily Reflections on the Names of God: A Devotional, published by Revell Books.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Activism; Christmas; Consumerism; Consumption; Money; Social justice; Stewardship
Today's Christian Woman, November Week 1, 2013
Posted October 22, 2013

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