Jesus calls us to consume less and to live simply. To “live simply” in itself varies by person, situation, income, and values. While I still fantasize about becoming a new-age Laura Ingles Wilder, building a log cabin and weaving my own clothes, I have accepted that I need to interact with a consumer culture. Consuming is not a bad thing and is a necessary part of life. However, consuming becomes unhealthy when we find identity in our “stuff,” live beyond our means, or hurt others with our purchasing power.
I learned about alternative giving from a flier in my college dorm bathroom. Ithaca College and the surrounding town are notorious for progressive politics, activists, and a thriving farmers market on Cayuga Lake. Progressive politics were a part of the classroom, and I quickly learned about the often unhealthy connections between corporations, government, and the products we use. I remember feeling overwhelmed, powerless, and confused.
I considered the following options:
- Retreat into the woods and live off the grid.
- Become the next Hillary Clinton and save the world.
- Pretend like there is no problem and continue as usual.
- Not shop at Wal-Mart and call it a day.
The flier from the bathroom stall proposed another option: alternative and ethical consuming. That year for Christmas, families in Africa received a duck, fish, and chickens on behalf of my various family members.
After we had opened all of our gifts, my mom pulled me aside and said, “Katie, I think this is the last year you should give a present like that.” At the time, I was mildly offended that I wasn’t given a gold star for best Christmas gift and disappointed that my family hadn’t excitedly jumped onto the charitable giving bandwagon. In retrospect my mom brought up a valid perspective: people like stuff! I like stuff! I like getting stuff from other people! I like giving stuff to other people! We are a culture of stuff.
As Christians we are commanded to give 10 percent of our resources to the church. But what about the other 90 percent of our resources? Does this 90 percent express our commitment to social justice, our love of Jesus, and our desire for God’s reign here on earth? Alternative giving and consuming offers an option that takes morals, values, and the Reign of God into consideration. If I am going to consume, I strive to make my necessities ethical, my excess minimal, and my gifts thoughtful to all!
Even within alternative giving and conscious consuming, the social issues, certifications, lingo, and ingredient labels can get overwhelming. I have never found a fair trade, union-made, non-GMO, Product of the USA, ecofriendly, animal cruelty free, organic, conflict free, recyclable, slavery free, compostable product. We can’t have it all. So I pick what’s important to me. I am deeply passionate and supportive of workers’ rights, living wage, benefits, and unions that work for their workers. My solution is to focus on supporting businesses that treat their workers well and put people before profits.
Now for the elephant in the room: yes, these products are often, if not always more expensive. A $15 pair of shoes or a $5 t-shirt is great, but I often ask myself “Why is this product so cheap? What is the true cost of cheap products? If I paid for the depleted resources (farming, mining, deforestation, etc.), the pollution caused by production, a fair wage and benefits for workers, and transporting costs due to outsourcing, those products would cost the same as ethically made products. Occasionally there are times when I just can’t afford ethically made products, and in these situations I strive to adopt a new attitude; I don’t treat cheap stuff as disposable! I reuse water bottles, try my very best not to lose phone chargers, find ways to repurpose holey tank tops (that I bought six months ago!), and I fix as opposed to buying new.
After a few years of trial and error, shopping around, and exploring alternatives, I no longer feel powerless and overwhelmed by the quantity of my stuff, how it was made, and who and what was hurt in the process. I value my cheap stuff, am mindful of how my consuming affects the common good, and I buy ethically whenever possible. The result? I consume less, appreciate more, and feel confident that I’m spending my 90 percent with the common good and God’s reign in mind.
Katie Zimmerman is Advertising Sales Associate for Sojourners.
ImageL Simple living concept, Aleutie / Shutterstock.com