Americans do the most shopping during the last two months on the calendar, fulfilling Christmas gift lists, taking advantage of online deals, and snagging up holiday favorites at local stores. But the spendiest season of the year also offers a broadening array of moral dilemmas regarding our consumerism and a yearning to make something better of it.
Beyond Black Friday and Cyber Monday and Giving Tuesday—lest the holiday gift of charity be overlooked—the shopping season now brings sustainable gift guides, fair trade festivals, promotions from charity-minded startups, and shop local movements like Small Business Saturdays. The ethical options force us, as Christians and as consumers, to think more deeply about the items we buy year-round, the companies we support, and how we steward our money and resources.
Take any product we’ve purchased, and we could probably tell you how much it cost and the store it came from. A $55 duffel bag from REI. A $9,000 used Subaru Impreza. A $10 V-neck tee from Target. But beyond that, plenty of questions go unanswered: What materials were used? How much waste was created? Who made the components? Were the workers cared for at each step in the process? How far did these elements travel to get here?
“The modern market economy adds layers of complexity between production and consumption, which makes it hard to see the impact of each choice we make,” said Hunter Beaumont, pastor at Fellowship Denver and a board member with the Denver Institute for Faith and Work. “A lot of our Christian moral convictions were shaped in a simpler economy, and it can feel paralyzing to apply those convictions to our complex, modern economy.”
We want to become more conscious consumers, and more shoppers are weighing the global consequences of their purchases before they click “checkout.” Millennials are the generation most likely to care about corporate behavior, and Gen Z is catching up fast.
But for every feel-good story of a socially conscious company, there is a report exposing the other side of the marketplace and our worst fears about what major companies do with our dollars: Nike sidestepping responsibility for human rights abuses in its supply chain and Amazon selling counterfeit books.
It’s no surprise that modern consumers are well versed in the moral dilemmas accompanying every purchase. We’re confronted with the choice between unprecedented convenience and affordability and a sense of responsibility to hold companies accountable to honor all their stakeholders and care for God’s creation.
So how are Christians called to faithfully steward our consumer decisions? Is it even possible? The answer may lie in the unlikely founder of the fair trade movement and the Christian convictions that can lead us to challenge the system of consumerism itself.
The Mennonite crafter who unintentionally started a movement
When Edna Ruth Byler began selling textiles from the back of her car in 1946, the concept of conscious consumerism was far from mainstream, and no one had heard of fair trade. Byler, a traditional Mennonite who donned a head covering and was known for her homemade donuts, started with a simple desire to help vulnerable women she met in the La Plata Valley of Puerto Rico.
Byler taught baking, sewing, and canning and belonged to a group that formed a new local church in Akron, Pennsylvania, where she and her husband worked for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Their involvement eventually opened up opportunities to visit vulnerable communities in Puerto Rico and later in Hong Kong, Jordan, and beyond.
In each place, she connected with women who overcame enormous obstacles to provide for their families and serve their neighbors. Like many who would come after her, she jumped without looking—promising to help these women by selling their handiwork in the United States, not knowing how she would make her idea work but determined to do so.
She led MCC’s Overseas Needlework and Crafts Project for over 20 years before it was renamed SELFHELP Crafts of the World, which grew into the now independent and popular chain Ten Thousand Villages.
Ten Thousand Villages is the first fair trade organization in the world and remains one of the largest and best-known. Byler never intended to pioneer a movement that today connects shoppers to over a million small-scale makers around the world. But her Christian commitment to treating these makers with dignity and celebrating the beauty of their craft developed momentum.
Similar organizations emerged in Europe, and by the ‘60s and ‘70s the movement entered the political sphere to advocate for greater equity in international trade—not only in handicrafts, but also in agricultural commodities such as coffee and cocoa.
Around the same time, America’s understanding of corporate social responsibility began to thread together. The Committee for Economic Development—an American public policy organization— declared that there was a “social contract” between business and society, building on economist Howard Bowen’s 1953 book Social Responsibilities of the Businessman.
The idea of businesses working for a greater good, and not just a bottom line, grew over the ‘80s and ‘90s, spurred on in part by President George H. W. Bush’s call for organizations to serve each other and create a “thousand points of light.”
The double bottom line
While the fair trade movement focuses on caring for people and the planet first, corporate social responsibility is intended to keep companies accountable to social impact as a secondary objective. Both movements have intensified in recent years, raising the bar for ethical standards and giving us new opportunities to have a positive impact with our spending.
From Fortune 100 companies like like Disney and Apple to the oft-cited champions of social responsibility Patagonia and TOMS, and even to Hollywood’s red carpet and the Super Bowl, paying attention to social impact and performance—the double bottom line—has grown. Now it’s everywhere we look.
It’s firmly rooted in the mainstream business world; so much so that consumers, the media, and even governments have come to expect companies to do some form of social good.
Large corporations’ sustainability efforts can have the potential to make a major difference and influence a whole industry—but only if companies are following through with the do-good promises pushed in their brochures and ads.
Though corporate social responsibility has become part of doing business, the level of commitment to the cause varies. As companies get bigger, it’s hard to hold them accountable to ethical practices, said Whitney Bauck, assistant editor at Fashionista.com and a Christian writer covering ethical consumerism.
Even with the advent of a conscious consumer spending index, watchdog groups like Transparentem, social business legal structures like L3Cs and B Corps, and brand-ranking organizations like Ethical Consumer, it’s still overwhelming to try to figure out who is actually doing good. Large-scale consumerism is convenient, but it is complex and hard to navigate.
And on a smaller scale, the market for fair trade enterprises has continued to expand, thanks to the demand of consumers and the convictions of their founders. Today’s Christian entrepreneurs have launched a range of these cause-driven ventures selling gifts and goods: Akola Project, Giving Keys, Sseko Designs, Noonday Collection, Jonas Paul Eyewear, Tegu, Westrock Coffee, Krochet Kids, and dozens more.
These companies are rooted in creative ideas and redemptive entrepreneurship, using their processes and profits to create jobs for women, fund college scholarships, develop artisan businesses, expand access to healthcare, support sustainable farming practices, and provide social services for people in poverty. Like Byler and Ten Thousand Villages before them, their leaders seek to care for makers and the environment alike.
Melody Murray, the founder of JOYN bags, shares Byler’s commitment to dignify the people who create the goods we buy. Murray coined the phrase “purposeful inefficiency” as a way to honor those involved in every step of production—for her company that means harvesting cotton, weaving fabric, printing designs, sewing bags—rather than wishing for a mechanized solution to speed up the process.
But Murray, with a background doing marketing and sales for major companies, also brings business savvy and ambitious vision to the venture.
With her husband and fellow John Brown University grad David, Murray felt called not just to provide makers like her team at JOYN with a global market to buy their goods, but to resource and train local entrepreneurs to start their own agricultural or handicraft ventures to impact their communities.
Through JoyCorps, they have offered training and resources for a range of ventures in rural Asia. JoyCorps’ accelerator and incubator programs focus on innovation and restoration, believing that sustainable business spurs social change.
Over the years, their initiative has launched six businesses through its incubator program, with ten more coming through the accelerator program. For the Murrays, fair trade is all about local ownership and making things that are good for the world. Each entrepreneur they work with, they say, is rooted in their community and committed to holistic impact.
The kinds of companies the Murrays help create, ones where buyers can read stories of Dina who stitches the bags and Uma who does the packaging, put people and their stories up front.
“It’s easy to forget that real human hands make products,” said Bauck. “Fair trade organizations communicate to consumers that there is a human story behind every product.”
Llenay Ferretti, former CEO of Ten Thousand Villages and founder of the social enterprise of Bhavana World Project, puts it this way: Fair trade organizations invite us to “know our neighbor enough to love them.”
But there are still blind spots and areas of critique. Some worry about ventures that emphasize the story over the product, as customers may be tempted to approach it as charity rather than business. In certain companies, fair trade arrangements stop with the small-scale producers and do not extend to the people they hire. And arbitrarily fixing prices high above a product’s market value can create negative unintended consequences for those it aims to help.
Plus, everyday shoppers aren’t always familiar with sustainable options or don’t have the resources to purchase the higher-priced fair trade products.
Godly consideration over mindless spending
But even when we identify fair trade organizations or socially responsible corporations we trust and can afford, buying better is not the whole picture. It may ease our consciences and increase the likelihood that our money is doing good when we buy placemats from Ten Thousand Villages or handbags from JOYN, but purchasing different goods is simply choosing an alternative form of consumerism.
Faithful consumerism is about far more than which products we buy; it’s not a matter of who does the most research or knows how to read the labels (though those skills can reflect a more thoughtful approach).
Ferretti sees each purchasing decision as an opportunity to look to Christ’s life and how our faith ought to inform all our decisions. It’s an invitation to consider not just what we do, but how our decisions are shaping us and affecting our communities and the world.
While Edna Ruth Byler was, in many ways, a foremother of the conscious consumer, she wasn’t motivated by a desire to influence consumer decisions at all. “She was trying to love her neighbor,” Ferretti said.
Beaumont, the pastor in Denver, agrees community is intertwined with consumerism. “Our modern economy is built around a limited definition of wealth—that you can have more stuff, more money, more time,” he said. “But that doesn’t factor in the relational, psychological, and spiritual components of wealth. The biblical definition of wealth includes our relationships with God and others.”
When Beaumont’s barber moved across town, he could easily have found another shop nearby. But it was important to stay with the same guy. “We have a relationship,” he said. “We talk about what’s going on in our lives. I hear about his fishing trips with his grandkids, and I know my business helps to pay for that.”
Beaumont cites 1 Timothy 6 as Paul’s instruction for how to be faithful stewards of what the Lord has given to us. For those who are “rich in this present world,” Paul urges them to “do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.”
“If we really take that to heart,” Beaumont said, “it bends us toward the communal, toward sharing and giving.” It leads us to focus less on “spending more and more on ourselves,” he said, and more on giving, sharing, and enjoying what we already have.
Less is more
Based on her reporting on ethical fashion, Bauck suggests that buying used products is the most morally responsible mode of shopping. Keeping existing goods in use longer means producing less waste as the byproduct of creating new goods. And in most thrift or charity stores, shoppers see where their money is going and can be confident that their spending is supporting their community.
Our faith also prompts us to contemplate what we really need. When we aren’t focused on asking, “What products should we buy?” we may realize that we already have enough.
Here again, Byler can serve as role model. In her close-knit Mennonite community, they didn’t have much more than the bare necessities. But even during the years of wartime rations and the Great Depression, the Byler children remember a happy home. We can buy better, but even more, we can challenge ourselves to practice contentment.
“The most ethical clothing is the stuff you already have in your closet,” wrote Kohl Crecelius, founder of Krochet Kids, which sells ethically made clothing and knit goods.
Even with minimalism and Kondo-ing becoming trendy, it’s still countercultural to decide we can happily live with less, to reject the idea that we need a new phone, car, television, winter coat, Christmas wreath, or whatever else. Yet we believe, as Scripture warns in the account of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19, that God grants us freedom through a modest and simple life.
Tish Harrison Warren, author of Liturgy of the Ordinary, said in an interview last year that while she believes simplicity is essential to our faith, it’s a hard path: “As consumerism eats away at every bit of our lives … Christians have to think really radically, honestly, and strategically about simplicity.”
For some believers, that means reining in Christmas spending, going for quality over quantity under the tree, or even opting to do homemade, found, or repurposed presents. Putting a pause on Target runs and Amazon “Buy Now” clicks can even serve as a spiritual discipline as people challenge themselves to do a “no spend” month—restricting purchases to the necessities. Christian author and Cultivate What Matters founder Lara Casey just completed her “no spend” year, challenging herself to “grow a faithful life over a comfortable life.”
We will never fully avoid the moral dilemma accompanying our every purchase, but maybe our unease can push us to think more deeply about what we need to buy and who our purchases impact. Even in a broken system, where can our dollars be a blessing? As we seek to follow the Greatest Commandment, our biggest consideration should be loving our neighbor.
The call to be faithful stewards of our consumer decisions is an invitation to consider how Christ’s example may challenge how and what we buy, propelling us to love our neighbors—both near and far—and to practice simplicity, knowing that God is the provider of all good things.
Claire Stewart is a writer, rock climber, and graduate of Wheaton College, where she studied philosophy. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and is the strategic initiatives manager at HOPE International.
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