Many emerging/emergent folks have been considering the issue of consumerism
, and how it affects our souls, families, communities, and environment. There have been calls to repentance from our greed and materialism, and there is a renewed desire to recover the virtue of simplicity.
These are all good developments. But while we reconsider our relationship to money and our “need” for shopping and material goods, we need to be careful to not succumb to the notion that simplicity and “saving money” are the same thing. In fact, in our attempts to save money so that we can be “better stewards” of it, we may be contributing
to the evils of consumerism, rather than separating ourselves from it.
I recently spoke with someone who was complaining about the high cost of food at a local independent grocery store. He insinuated that people only shopped there because of its “snob appeal”. I sheepishly explained that I’d been known to shop there myself. Why? Well, the food is indeed more expensive than at many of the corporate chains. It is also of much higher quality: I know that the food that I buy at this store is free of hormones, pesticides and other disagreeable chemicals. (Plus, the food just plain tastes better!) I also know that the producers of the food are often small farmers (and artisan bakers, cheesemakers, etc) who take care and pride in what they create and who are making a living wage.
The same principle can be applied to clothing
: We might fancy ourselves virtuous if we purchase less expensive, less fashionable clothing at a discount chain, but the truth is that synthetic fibers are often petroleum based, cheaply made clothing wears out faster (thus requiring replacing), and is often produced in sweatshops.
The desire to not overspend should not trump a commitment to fair wages and humanely/sustainably produced goods. Nor should it trump a desire for true quality (i.e. reliability, durability, and beauty) in those goods that we do
purchase. Having a few extra dollars to give to our church’s food pantry is a noble thing, unless
those dollars were saved at the expense of the environment (or on the backs of child laborers). When we spend, we should not just be concerned with whether we are spending “too much”, but whether enough
was spent to fairly compensate those who created the product, to protect the natural resources affected by its production, and to ensure its quality. Simplicity may be our goal, but getting there may be more complex than we thought.