Laura Hartman contends that Christian ethical reflection (on consumerism) is not about defining whether particular types of consumption constitute low moral or social status, the real purpose is to discern what is right.
(I liked her example of cheap, low-cut jeans having low social status and low moral status!)
Moral questions around consumption relate to concrete questions around its physicality: its extraction, transportation, production and the environmental and social impact that follows.
She’s concerned about how buying, having or using the item may impact a person’s spiritual condition and his/her relationships with others.
Consumption ethics, is, at bottom, a species of stewardship ethics, asking questions such as: What does God intend for humans in their interactions with the material world? What is creation, and what are humans to do with it? How are humans to relate well to one another concerning the proper use of the material conditions of life? (15)
Coffee is a classic example that could apply to all consumption: at least 4 ethical realms come into play
i) The impact on the individual consumer – health & well-being. Coffee like most products has mixed attributes here. Overconsumption of most things leads to bad outcomes.
ii) Immediate social impact: coffee is consumed mostly in social settings (cafes, coffee shops, work etc). This gives work and income; it facilitates relationships, but regular consumption of over-priced drinks can mount up to significant strain on finances.
iii) Impact on others the consumer does not know and can barely imagine: regional managers of coffee shop chains; executives running large companies; marketeers etc. Consumer preference for Fair Trade coffee begins to impact the growers in getting better prices for their raw materials. Global demand for coffee can mean land-grabs and the ruthless expulsion of native indian communities (I added this last sentence see also this post by Daniel Kirk on ‘The Dark Side of Chocolate’).
iv) Impact on the non-human world: Hartman quotes a study that concludes that the unquenchable Western desire for coffee has had devastating effects as vast tracts of rich bio-diverse rain forest are cleared for coffee plantations. Each stage of subsequent production from roasting, to packaging, to transportation all contribute to environmental impact.
Hartman’s purpose is simply to illustrate how all consumption is an ethical act on multiple levels.
Now, even to begin to think about our daily consumption in those terms is, I propose, a radical shift from our default Western assumption that all the stuff in the supermarket just ‘is’.
It is there for our convenience and need – always has been, always will be. We don’t begin to think about the people and processes by which it arrived on the shelf. The only thing we have to think about it is what to consume (depending on choice and money). Ethics and morality belong in church, they don’t have anything much to do with shopping – except maybe for gross conspicious consumption of luxury goods or when ‘we’ are ‘ripped off’ in the prices we pay compared to somewhere else.
In other words, our thinking about consumption is generally self-centered and shallow. And it is very much in the interests of many major companies to keep it that way, especially around points iii) and iv).
So how to begin to ‘think Christianly’ about consumption without ending up in ‘paralysis by analysis’ every time you go shopping? Hartman begins to go there next.
Comments, as ever, welcome.