Most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as consumers. I know I’d always hated the term. I’m a human being, after all, not just a buyer of things. I disliked the word “lifestyle” for similar reasons; I live a life, not just a “style” that naturally requires buying more things.
Then a magazine story I was editing about Rob Walker, a consumerism critic for The New York Times, called me out. He was explaining why the Times needs such a thing as a consumerism critic.
“People constantly tell me that they’re ‘not much of a consumer,’” he said. “That’s the mindset everyone comes to this with. Everyone thinks they’re sharper, less greedy, and more virtuous than average. They recognize the silly decisions of others, who are influenced by status and marketing and other non-rational things. But people tend to see themselves as immune to all that.”
Oh, Rob. When did we meet, and how did you get to know me so well and so quickly?
The shock of self-recognition forced me to admit I am a consumer. I buy things — in fact, over time, lots of things. I choose which things to buy — sometimes for smart reasons and sometimes for silly ones.
Last year I decided to make that a positive power by buying more wisely for the world. I’d always tried to buy smart financially for myself to get the best deal. Now, instead of buying the cheapest products to benefit me, I regularly spend more to reward companies that are doing the best by the environment, their employees and their social contract.
My research reminded me that buying wisely starts before the act of purchasing. Choosing to reuse, buy secondhand or go without some things is still the wisest option for society’s triple bottom line.
Still, I need to buy new food, toiletries, cleaning products, clothing and plenty more. A fellow parish member recommended something called the Better World Shopper. Better World was multi-pronged: a rating system that grades companies with the highest regard for human rights, the environment, animal protection, community involvement and social justice. There is a website that explains how the ratings were arrived at, and an app to help people buy wisely on the go.
I purchased Better World Shopper for a few dollars (my first wise outlay). Right there in the store, choosing among brands of OJ, TP or beer, I could quickly choose the company making the best impact. I just pull up the category of products I’m looking at and see the major brands in order from A+ to F.
Often companies that put their environmental commitment right in their name or packaging, like Seventh Generation, top Better World’s grade lists. But there are surprises! Tropicana gets a B grade, while organic-looking Simply Juice gets an F.
Company characteristics like treatment of employees aren’t the only ways in which to assess compatibility with our spiritual beliefs, of course. Another app I’ve discovered, Free2Work, scans bar codes and reports back on how well the company tries to prevent child and forced labor.
My parish bulletin had recommended Free2Work in a section about human trafficking. That was an uncomfortable jolt. I hadn’t connected my purchases with the idea of human trafficking, which I had associated more with the horrifying reality of sex slaves. But factory conditions can be imprisoning as well.
I wish I could tell you that I’m totally there, buying few products and investing only in “A+” ones when I truly need to make a purchase. I wish I could say I do all my grocery shopping between the farmers market and the local co-op. And I wish my clothing purchases in particular were not so tagged to the most flattering fit and best sale.
I’m not there yet; but I do feel that triple bottom line — impact on the environment, employees and wider society — is connected to biblical teachings about love, justice and community. Catholic social teaching about the rights to human dignity and to work are not for nothing. My “steal” of a purchase would be named all too fittingly if it took away from another person.
So am I at greater peace with being a consumer? Consuming still connotes a certain powerlessness — at least compared to its opposite in economics: producing.
But I’ve started to think it’s not as different as you’d assume from being a child of God. Being a child is not a position of power. But a child can do her best in her own small way, in her own little corner of the web. That’s exactly what I try to do now as a consumer.