There is a commonly held idea that in order to be a responsible steward of the planet whose consumer habits could be labeled socially and environmentally “ethical” or “responsible,” one has to be wealthy. While I don’t believe this is true… it is not categorically untrue either. In reality, ethical consumption is an incredibly nuanced issue that warrants a thoughtful, globally-conscious perspective.
Simplicity, formerly a lifestyle by way of necessity, has circled back around in our modern (First World) day of plenty, gaining popularity within the stream of “minimalism,” generally focused on bright, yawning spaces that boasts a crisp, beautiful aesthetic and ethical, but very expensive, capsule wardrobes. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with either form, I think it’s important we identify the distinction between an intentionally curated life of simplicity and the fad of minimalism.
Recently, zero-waste activist, Lauren Singer, came under fire when her and her high-end, Manhattan based store, Package Free Shop, systematically shut down criticism from followers who pushed back on an Instagram post that betrayed a rather naïve assumption regarding the accessibility of the zero-waste movement. A post that was quickly taken down, but never apologized for, read like this:
‘No matter who you are, where you come from, what your background is, how much money you have, every single person can make changes in their everyday life to have a positive impact.’
Unfortunately, when the post received negative press, the company strategically silenced their followers’ concerns rather than open a dialogue about the responsibility that comes with privilege, which effectively undermined the waste-free values Lauren and her company profess to stand for.
I use this example simply to demonstrate the way in which the age-old commitment to a well-curated life marked by intentionality and simplicity (a hallmark of the earliest Christians) has, in many ways, been coopted by Western consumerism under the guise of another name. In other words, we can sport all the ethical brands, eat all the organic food, fit all the trash we produce in a year into a single mason jar, and still miss the very heartbeat of an important movement in a massive way. That heartbeat being of course concern for the global poor who do not have access to the same options that those with means do. In other words, how, and for whom, we leverage our privilege matters.
For those who subscribe to the most basic tenants of Christianity, certain Biblical texts might be emerging to the forefront of your mind right about now, such as, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal… If I give all my possessions… but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-3). Sadly, it is entirely possible, and exceedingly easy, to do all the right things for all the wrong reasons.
Still, the question posed by Lauren and her team remains: Can “every single person” really make changes in her or his everyday life to have a positive impact? Well, in short, not necessarily. The majority world is honestly just trying to survive; when they have options at all, they are extremely limited. The truly impoverished, or those devastated by natural disasters (which are being progressively aggravated by climate change) don’t have the option (read: privilege), for instance, to refuse water or food bottled and packaged in single-use plastic, and they certainly don’t have the privilege to ensure their clothes have been lovingly stitched by free, well compensated workers, employed by companies that are committed to earth-friendly practices. But they also aren’t the ones contributing the most to the problem either—not even close—and yet they often suffer the worst of the consequences, a form of environmental racism.
Still, if you’re reading this article, it’s likely you have enough privilege (specifically: options, and the ability to choose between those options- not necessarily lots of money) to make significant strides in a positive direction without breaking the bank. I say this with considerable confidence because a truly responsible approach does not merely seek to substitute one item for a more expensive substitute of better quality, rather it seeks to confront and disrupt our rapacious consumption patterns at their root. This will undoubtedly require a deep reevaluation of our consumer habits, a long, hard look in the mirror, perhaps some confession, and a reprioritization of our lives.
All too often when these conversations emerge among the privileged, the questions stop at “Was this article of clothing made by slaves?” If the answer is “No,” then it is okay to make the purchase. If the answer is “Yes,” then we go looking for a more “responsible” alternative. But questions like this one, while worthy ones, do nothing to address our underlying, insatiable desire to acquire and consume in the first place. What if for you, or for me, the truly responsible alternative in such a moment might simply be to forego the acquisition altogether?
To go without…
How might a choice like that make us feel?
Ultimately, of course, we each have to determine what “responsible consumption” looks like for us in our particular and diverse seasons of life. There is no one-size-fits-all option for everyone. Perhaps for some this means practicing delayed gratification, waiting until a suitable alternative can be found second-hand. But regardless of where you land in any given season, the first real step in learning to become a responsible consumer is to face and address the root of our desires, and then begin to exercise our muscle of self-restraint by learning to incorporate the word “No” into our vocabularies as it pertains to excess—No, I don’t need the free swag (read: junk bound for a landfill) that vendor is handing out; No, I don’t need another coat in a slightly different shade of grey (sorry, Portlander joke here) because it’s on sale; No, I don’t need the latest iPhone or gadget just because it’s available to me. From there, we learn to reserve “Yes” for those things in life that are truly worthy of our time, energy, and investment.
At first, this is bound to sound restrictive, to sound like a diminishment of our vibrant, very important lives. And yet, ironically, what every person who has embarked on a journey of intentional simplicity will tell you, is that rejecting the consumer-driven narrative that media and society force-feeds us is one of the most liberating decision they’ve ever made. When people reprioritize their material gain, they are freed up to be more generous with both their time and finances, which cultivates an abiding sense of joy better than material gain ever could. Contentment is a fruit produced by practicing gratitude rather than the acquisition of wealth or possessions. We don’t realize how thoroughly our possessions possess us until we begin the detoxifying process of letting them go, both literally and figuratively.
Bottom line, it’s a process, an ongoing journey with grace and humility to be found along the way. But as people of faith, we mustn’t take lightly our charge to steward the created order with integrity, care, and a whole lot of hope. We are called not only to steward creation well (Gen 2:15), but to consider and care for the marginalized (James 1:27). Sometimes this will mean making fewer, but more expensive purchases, and sometimes it will mean refraining from consuming altogether. Regardless, as people who profess Jesus, particularly those of us with so many options at our fingertips, we have the responsibility to take this call seriously, and to leverage our many privileges for the benefit of the world; it’s a call that rings truer and grows more urgent every day.
Cayla Pruett is a student at Portland Seminary working on her Masters in Theology. With a deep love for learning and education, she aims to remain “in school” forever by becoming a professor. Her affection for the Scriptures, love of nature, and passion for social justice have compelled her toward advocacy for Christian responsibility as it pertains to social and environmental stewardship. When she is not reading or writing papers, you can likely find her cycling around the city, playing tennis, or sipping Pinot at an Oregon vineyard with her best friend, Amy. Cayla is part of Bridgetown Church in Portland, Oregon.