In the first post I tried to explore what role purchases have in the consumer religion. They both create meaning and identity for us as consumers and also absolve us from the sins of the market and convey righteousness for us compared to other, less holy shoppers. The problem with our purchases serving these purposes (creating meaning and identity or absolving and conveying righteousness) is that none of that is really true, or at the very least not the whole story.
Clean and Unclean Products
We all know people (or have been that person) who seems to rack up points based on their purchases. With food maybe the person is ultra local, or only buys organic, or fair trade from the store. Maybe they refuse to buy bananas because of the dark and ongoing history of that industry. Maybe you or someone you know has insisted on cleaning products, paper towels or toilet paper that are somehow sustainable and healthier for us and the planet. Maybe they even refuse some consumer electronics for fear of enslaving Chinese workers and/or destroying the environment. Sometimes these people achieve a saintly sort of status in which they look down their nose at anyone with inferior purchases.
I think getting over the self-righteousness of our consumer choices is the first step. “There is no one righteous, no not one.” (Romans 3:10) This is especially true in our global consumer economy. We are all, in ways we are often unaware of, participants in the systems that oppress, marginalize and hurt other people. We can take responsibility for ourselves and how we treat people that we encounter, but we are not responsible for the affects or implications of the entire global system.
Don’t get me wrong. We all have choices to make, including what we buy and those choices matter. However, no amount of purchases will either make us more holy consumers or be able to change the entire system. The problem really comes when we delude ourselves into thinking that, because we have made particular consumer choices that we are somehow no longer complicit or part of the systems and structures that oppress people or hurt the earth.
The other more insidious reality, that Kyndall points to in her post, is that the absolution we receive from our consumer purchases is a privilege of those with the wealth to buy more “ethical” products. If buying “ethical” products is not equally available to all, then the purchase of these products will never solve the problem. There is something more fundamentally wrong with our economics, our way of relating to our fellow human beings, locally and globally.
This is exactly how indulgences functioned prior to the Reformation. If you could not afford to purchase a way for your loved one to get out of purgatory, then they would have to be there a lot longer. The difference then between getting into heaven or not had more to do with the inequality of wealth on earth than the righteousness or sins of anyone in the afterlife.
So, do we really want to blame the single parent for getting the most out of her WIC and SNAP dollars by buying products that are cheaper (or in the case of WIC their only options) in order to make it go further? Obviously we all find ourselves at different places on this economic spectrum and, like Kyndall, must wrestle with how to both meet our budget and not feel bad about our purchases.
The next post will address more metaphysical, spiritual and macro aspects of this issue, but I want to bring it home in the end to some very pragmatic practices that will help us in the end 1) not feel guilty and 2) practice an alternative way of being.