Ethical Holidays, pt. 2

Currently we are doing a blog series entitled, Ethical Holiday.  The first purpose of these blogs is answer many excuses, questions, or even address areas of ignorance when it comes to ethical purchasing, consuming with a conscience, and slavery in product supply chains.  The second, which will come in the last blog, is to supply you with links, suggestions, and resources to help you use ethics to guide your purchasing this Holiday Season.

Each year around this time I do a series of blogs about this very subject, but this year I wanted to do something different.  I wanted to interview different individuals who I believe to have authority and knowledge with the questions we are dealing with.  

Last week I interviewed Shelton Green, to discuss transparency in supply chains and why our government allows US Corporations to deal so readily in the unethical.  If you haven't read that interview and would like to, please click HERE

This week I had the privilege of interviewing Ken Wytsma.  Ken was one of the key note speakers at our SlaveFree City Summit.  He is the president of Kilns College, and founder of The Justice Conference. Ken is also a church planter and the lead pastor at Antioch Church and author of Pursuing Justice, a book I personally believe should be on everyone's reading list this holiday season.


MH: Ken, first of all, thank you for taking the time to answer these three questions.  I know you are a busy man, so let's do this.  First, question:  When I talk to people about the importance of consuming ethically over the holiday season (i.e. - buying fair trade chocolate, coffee, and sugar; paying attention to the supply chain ethics of a corporation, etc), one of the common objections is, “no matter what I choose to do, my personal purchase is not going to make a difference, so why should that matter, why not go ahead an purchase according to what I want, what my kids want, or whatever happens to be the cheapest or most convenient?”  Ken, how would you address that?

KW: Your personal purchase can make a difference. But even if it couldn’t, James gives us a warning we can’t ignore in James 5:1-6.

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you… You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.”

When we read this it’s easy to point our fingers at the rich. We love to make ourselves feel more righteous by comparing ourselves to others – putting ourselves on the good side and them on the bad side. Once we have ourselves set up on God’s good side, we can brush past this passage and onto the next verses, thankful that this isn’t a warning we have to worry about.

But the rich oppressor is in each of us. 

You’re probably thinking, I don’t even have any workers who work for me and I certainly haven’t condemned or murdered anyone!

But do you know who made the shirt you’re wearing? Do you know who picked the fruit you’re eating? In our increasingly global economy, it’s very difficult to know who made what we’re consuming and what business practices are involved in the supply chain of products we buy. 

We’ve all heard the stories about horrific working conditions, accidents and fires in garment factories and slavery in our supply chains but we often go on shopping the way we want. We want new things and we want to keep up with the latest trends. And changing our habits is difficult.

When we buy what we want at the expense of others isn’t that self-indulgent? Are the wages of the workers crying out against us? 

Our consumeristic society and our greed drive us to demand lower prices and therefore cheap labor. When we use other’s selfishly for our own, or take advantage of their situation for our own benefit then we are exploiting them—and exploiting people is not an option if we follow God.

God reveals himself as God for us; as God for those on the margins, those who are vulnerable, those separated from God and trapped in injustice. 

God reveals himself as love. Love that humbled itself for others. He is not static in his love, he is dynamic. He is not passive in his love, he is active. This active, self-giving love is the very antithesis of exploitation and calls us to love others, to actively reach out to them and elevate their needs above our own. 

We can either exploit people or value them and empower them. Very little of our purchase decisions are neutral. God’s example in this area is clear.

MH: WoW!  Thanks for that response.  And the truth is, if we make more than $35,000 a year (something we would consider an entry level job) then we are in the top 3% of the richest people in the world.  So, we are "the rich".  Now let me ask a follow up to your last response.  Isn't the biggest issue the self? I mean, let’s just pretend our choices to consume ethically make no difference in the lives of slaves or those around the world, what does it say about us that we would be willing to participate in and purchase products made unethically since it might not change the issue of slavery?

KW: Even if individual actions don’t make a difference (but they do) God calls us to follow him, to live as part of his newly established kingdom. That is a kingdom of self-giving love, a kingdom that values others above ourselves. Unfortunately, this is counter to our notion of American Individualism and the American dream, which has become so driven by materialism and a desire for more. God’s kingdom doesn’t prescribe a specific economic system but it does tell us how we should relate to God and how we should relate to other people – it tells us that we must work for justice and restoring shalom in all aspects of life, including our purchase behavior.

We may not choose apathy, but when we choose anything other than love and empathetic justice, we get apathy by default.

MH: Okay, one final question: if we are going to 'sacrifice' price and convenience for dignity, value, and ethics, it would be nice if it could actually make a difference.  Is there any example in history where a group of people banded together and actually caused changes with ethical consumption?  

KW: Our attempts at ethical consumption to drive a cause are not new. Just like today, slavery existed in the 18th century because there was a market for the products and services that slaves provided Eighteenth-century abolitionists made effective use of empathy, combined with boycotting and advocacy, to bring an end to legal slavery. 

A small, emblematic image of a kneeling and shackled slave was created in 1787, ringed by the now-famous question, “Am I not a man and a brother?” This powerful combination of image and text was stamped into pottery, jewelry, and medallions. The logo was designed to help people make the connection between goods they consumed, such as sugar, and the unjust system that produced those goods. As this logo and other empathetic propaganda from the abolitionist movement became more widespread, collectively they began to move public sentiment in favor of the abolitionists’ cause. Tea became known as a blood-sweetened beverage and conscious consumers went without sugar in their tea, or used sugar from the East Indies, which was produced by free labor. 

Markets have always been driven by supply and demand. If consumers demand ethically produced, slave-free products, then companies will respond. However, if we remain apathetic the market will continue to operate as is.

MH: Ken, this is great stuff - thank you for your time.  My favorite "one-liner" was this, "We may not choose apathy, but when we choose anything other than love and empathetic justice, we get apathy by default."  So true.

The issue of consuming with a conscience and allowing the belief in a shared and common human dignity be our guide is much deeper than a tangible decision, it's a heart posture.  One time GK Chesterton was asked to work with a group of writers to figure out, "what's wrong with the world."  In response he simply wrote back, "Dear Sir, I am."  What we must understand, is that it's the little everyday things we do - purchasing, responding, learning, teaching, etc that make ripple effects for a better or worse world - for shalom or chaos.