by Nick Schwarz
When you consider buying something, what factors do you weigh up? Necessity? Price? Quality? Style? Features? Benefits or usefulness?
These considerations and others may come into play whether we are looking to buy a small item or service such as a book, fresh food, movie tickets or a haircut; a more costly purchase such as a mobile phone, household appliance, furniture or holiday; or even when we make a major financial commitment in buying a car or house.
Advocates for ‘ethical shopping’ encourage us to also weigh up the ‘ethical status’ of things we buy. They say that some products are morally better than others and that where possible, we should choose them.
By ‘ethical status’ they most commonly mean how ‘responsible’ a product is in terms of its:
- environmental impact (at all stages of the life of the product);
- social impact (its effect on people, relationships and morals); and
- corporate governance (does the producer of this product deal honestly and fairly with suppliers, employees, contractors and consumers?)
How nice that by just shopping we can benefit people and the environment!
Christians look first to Jesus’ life and teachings and the Bible more generally for guidance on ethical matters. Concerning business practices, the Bible teaches that:
- bosses are to treat their workers with respect and pay them fairly (see Deuteronomy 24:14,15; Colossians 4:1; James 5:4). (Slavery was common and accepted as part of life in biblical times but is never presented in the Bible as ‘God-approved’. The prophets warn that God will judge harshly masters who treat their slaves as mere possessions and exploit and abuse them. Christians have always been at the forefront of campaigns to eradicate slavery);
- primary producers are to take care of the land and waters so that they remain fruitful (see Genesis 2:15; Leviticus 25:2–5); and
- merchants are to deal honestly with their suppliers and customers (see Deuteronomy 25:13–16; Proverbs 11:1).
Jesus weighed up our lives and found them so valuable that he gave his life to save us. Now he calls on us to love others as he loves them. He wants us to help people in need – including people who are strangers to us and people we are accustomed to thinking of as enemies (see Luke 10:25–37).
Jesus said that God will bring into his glorious presence forever people who follow his example of helping the needy, but people who could help, but don’t, risk being left out (see Matthew 25:31–46).
Lutherans also look to the confessions of our faith for ethical guidance. In Martin Luther’s explanations of the Fifth, Seventh and Eighth Commandments (against killing, stealing and lying) in his Small Catechism and Large Catechism, he says that in positive terms, these commandments call on us to treat our neighbours with dignity, respect, honesty and fairness.
So, it seems we can make a good case for Christians to demonstrate love for their neighbours and care for God’s earth by considering the environmental and social impacts of the products and services they buy and the way the companies that produce them do business.
However, discerning a product’s ethical status is not always easy or straightforward. Sometimes it is confusing and disheartening. Let’s consider three ways that this can be so, then look at the motivation for shopping ethically.
- THE ETHICAL PICTURE IS INCOMPLETE OR A MIXED BAG
Producers know that ethically minded shoppers are a growth sector with substantial spending power, so they advertise their products’ ethical virtues prominently. Some make environmental claims, e.g. ‘organic’, ‘non-toxic’, ‘unbleached’, ‘compostable’, ‘biodegradable’, ‘recyclable’, ‘sustainable’, ‘earth-friendly’, ‘climate-friendly’ and ‘ozone layer friendly’.
Some describe how well they treat their suppliers and workers or how well they treat any animals involved in production, e.g. ‘fair trade’, ‘slavery-free’, ‘child-labour free’ or ‘cruelty-free’. Some tell us that money from the sale of the products will go to good causes, such as schooling for poor children, cancer research, or the preservation of endangered species.
How can we trust that these claims are true? Fortunately, Australia and New Zealand have advertising standards and consumer protection bodies to investigate suspicious marketing claims and penalise companies for falsely labelling products with ethical certification.
We live in a fallen world, however. If we look hard enough, products marketed as ‘ethical’ often turn out to be tainted in some way.
We will never have all the information about products we need to assure ourselves that ethical claims are absolutely true. Still, that shouldn’t make us throw up our hands and reject ethical considerations as a waste of time.
- COMPETING GOODS
We can also find ourselves stuck trying to decide between products that make different ethical claims. There may be no obvious ‘right’ answer to the question of which claims carry the most ethical weight. For example, should I prioritise environmental responsibility by buying my fruit and veggies from local growers (on ‘food miles’ grounds) or from growers who farm organically (on soil protection grounds)? Or should I prioritise social responsibility by buying them from poor growers (on charitable grounds) who may not farm organically or live nearby? What if there are no poor local organic farmers to make my choice easy?
Again, this is a situation in which there is no clear answer. We are free to weigh things up for ourselves, and we should be slow to judge others who choose differently from us.
- OTHER VALID WAYS OF DETERMINING WHAT IS ‘ETHICAL’
If you have a low income and/or a family to support, the cost of goods and whether they are essential or optional will loom large in your thinking. You will likely prioritise your duty to your family over your duty to distant strangers, wild animals or future generations. The reality is that ethically certified products are unlikely to be the cheapest on offer. Ethical production comes at a cost and ethical certification adds to the cost. If ethically certified products are just as affordable as others, the case for choosing them strengthens. But if not, the ethical (or morally right or good) choice for a low-income shopper is probably to buy the cheaper items so that their money stretches to buy as many of the essential items on the shopping list as possible.
Wealthier shoppers who want to be able to maximise their charitable giving might also feel justified in buying cheaper options.
Will you judge them and tell them they are wrong?
Some people might argue that it makes no practical difference whether I buy an ‘ethical’ product for altruistic reasons or selfish reasons. That’s true. In either case, the purchase of the product (hopefully) contributes to some environmental or social good. Christians believe, however, that motivation is important. We think there is virtue in buying an ethical product out of a desire to make some small change for the better in the world. But we also think the virtuous act loses its shine if it is done to bask in a glow of moral superiority or show off our virtue to others. Advertisers of ethical products don’t make this distinction, however. They flatter shoppers by saying every ethical purchase is virtuous.
In Matthew 6:1–4, Jesus warns against making a show of our righteousness so that others may see and praise us. Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment (we are to fear, love and trust God above all things) warns against making an idol of our reputation.
So, yes, even show-offs do good. And they often receive the feel-good praise they want. But Jesus encourages us to do good without fanfare and leave any rewards up to our Father in heaven.
Christians seek to please God by making good choices. But they realise that a few (or even a lot) of good choices don’t earn us our salvation. Our ‘best ethical life’ falls far short of God’s standards. We try to please God out of gratitude for saving us already through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus, and because we want to follow Jesus’ example.
So, take some time to think about how you spend your money. Reflect on your motivation for buying what you buy. And be slow to judge others who might choose differently to you.
Nick Schwarz is the LCANZ’s Assistant to the Bishop – Public Theology and a consultant to the church’s Commission on Social and Bioethical Questions.