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Learning to Shop Ethically (Issue 26)

By Robin Raymond

I’ve struggled for a long time to write this. As someone who’s paid to write, and writing about something important to me, this article should be easy. Yet I can’t shake the feeling this is all a load of sanctimonious nonsense from someone who doesn’t walk the talk.

Confused? Earlier last year I set out to change my world and rock yours (or at least, the readers of the Salvation Army magazine I write for). I’ve been interested for a long time in fair trade and ethical buying. As a Christian, I believe God’s desire for us to show his love everywhere includes having a deep compassion for the poor, not exploiting them to make ourselves more comfortable.

And I believe the market forces of unethical shopping create a huge amount of the preventable suffering in the world today. It genuinely isn’t an exaggeration to say that with our shopping we fund wars, sickness, slavery and the destruction of God’s creation.

In one of his more famous sermons, American pastor Tony Campolo described the Kingdom of God as “transformed people, living in a transformed world. People who radiate love – a society marked by justice.” I want to be part of that Kingdom, and if unethical shopping is getting in the way, I want to change it.

However, doing things the right way doesn’t always seem easy in New Zealand. So, I set out to find out how I could transform my shopping to be fully ethical and write a guide to help other people do the same.

Predictably, I dug up some great info, made a cool looking list of ways other people could change their spending … and barely changed my own. I stopped eating Vegemite, changed the brands of some grocery items, bought a couple of ethically made t-shirts. Still it all amounted to a pretty small part of my spending.

Everywhere I looked I found something more I could or should do, till it became overwhelming and felt like it would never be sufficient. It began to feel like the scene at the end of Schindler’s List where Oscar Schindler breaks down, feeling like he didn’t do enough and pointing out at all the different things he could have sold to save more Jews from the concentration camps.

Steps forward

While it’s true I could always do more, it’s not all hopeless, and this article is not a massive pity party. The reality is we’ve made huge strides in the area of ethical shopping. Even in New Zealand it’s clear Kiwis care. In 2014 (the most recent figures I can find) we spent $85 million on Fair Trade products. That’s just on stuff with a Fair Trade or Trade Aid label, not including all the other ethically-minded brands, and it’s up 28 per cent on 2013.

Ethical shopping is now a huge market and even the biggest, most cynical brands are paying attention. Fair Trade coffee is in almost every cafe, ethical bananas and chocolate in almost every supermarket. Why? Because people like you and me insist on it. We’ve even forced Nestle and Mars to try and buy us back by adding a tiny run of slightly more ethical chocolate bars. (This practice now known as ‘fair washing’ is frustrating, but also a sign of the power ethical shoppers worldwide now wield.)

It’s true: every dollar you spend (and don’t spend) is a vote for what you believe in. Every dollar we spend adds up to millions of votes for change and changes the world – easy right?

Steps towards change

Well, no, clearly not easy, but fortunately it’s just like being a disciple. As disciples of Jesus, we’re trying constantly to become more like him and in doing so we build God’s Kingdom. However, as frustrating as I find it, that doesn’t happen overnight; it is a slow walk of small changes that are heading towards a bigger goal.

It’s the same with changing the global market place and its ethics. I’ll never change the ethics of the global market and neither will you – but together huge numbers have and will. Our job is to join those numbers: to commit to small, practical steps that change our world.

I started with only buying ethical coffee and chocolate. Then I got an ethical shopping app to get informed and make changes in my supermarket shop. This year I hope to make more use of the Internet, where there’s an ethical company for anything you want, doing cool stuff at decent prices. I’m also aiming to fight our obsession for new and commit to buying more second hand or not at all. And hopefully, slowly, I’ll move from being a hypocritical religious person to a humble disciple, maybe even a person who radiates love and leaves a mark of justice.

Robin works as a writer for the Salvation Army in New Zealand. His research into ethical shopping can be read at http://goo.gl/7FeR9x

For discussion

If every dollar you spend is a vote, what sort of vote have you been casting?

What can you do to become more informed about the products you purchase?

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Exploring today’s missional issues from a variety of angles, each edition of Intermission will equip you and your group to engage with God in your community and beyond. Why not take up the challenge and start using Intermission in your community? For more information or to order copies click here.