a christian perspective on the world today

Ethical consumption and the gospel

The Ethical Consumer Group annually produces The Guide to Ethical Supermarket Shopping. It’s a testament to the concerns many people have about the impact of our consumption on our lives and our planet. The Guide offers a simplified means of choosing between similar or identical products by distilling a huge amount of information, including the record of the companies behind the products, down to four simple check marks and x’s.

The idea of “ethical consumption” is based on two simple primary principles: First is our need to reduce unnecessary and frivolous consumption, thereby reducing the strain on the earth’s resources and on the other creatures that share this planet. Second is our need to encourage production processes that take better care of people and the earth. Generally, but not always, this involves being prepared to pay a higher price for the products we buy.

As simple as the principles sound, implementing them in day-to-day life is immensely complex because the impact of consumption on people and places is somewhat hidden from our view. That’s why, over the past 30 or 40 years, a large amount of work has gone into developing some easily recognisable substitutes for these principles that allow the average person to translate their ethical aspirations into action at the checkout. Some are becoming more familiar, such as fair trade, organic, No Sweat, free range, palm oil free, non-GMO, 100% recycled, etc. But there are other considerations, too, including company ownership, the amount and type of packaging, and the distance a product has to be transported to the market.

Nick Ray, one of the authors of The Guide, is painfully aware that such checks and x’s cannot adequately represent the situational and moral complexity of the choices we’re faced with. However, he’s well aware of the need to help people move beyond analysis paralysis. Thus, when standing at the supermarket shelf looking for olive oil, rather than agonise over a series of conundrums and lack of information, I can choose one that’s made in Australia or New Zealand (or Europe or United States, etc), a local company. That product gets a check mark for company record.

So I choose products that get the check mark for the Fair Trade badge or for being certified organic. And I try, despite myself, not to choose multinational fast food. But in following these suggestions to guide what I buy, have I unwittingly subscribed to a new kosher? Do we now, in ethical consumption, have a new form of clean and unclean foods, the consumption of which marks the righteous from the unrighteous? If I say that I make these choices based on faith and conscience, am I saying that God requires them? Is not this then justification by works rather than by faith? In short, is there a danger that by adopting an ethical code of conduct about what we buy and eat, we are in fact setting up a new legalism, the sort of religious system that was overthrown by Jesus and the apostle Paul?

One of the defining conflicts in the Gospels is between Jesus and those who stake their faith on observing the torah: the Pharisees. Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees is strident and unrelenting, pointing out that in developing ever more intricate rules to live by, they “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

In Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces an extended indictment of the rules-based religion of the Pharisees. The torah that was intended to give guidance in the ways of justice and peace ended up squeezing out love for one’s neighbour; it replaced the need for honest and humble self-reflection in the presence of God; and in the end it became a vehicle of death rather than life. Jesus’ reinterpretation of a series of torah commandments in Matthew 5 and His general disregard for rigid Sabbath observance reveal His purpose both to reclaim the intent of torah but ultimately to go well beyond it in fully revealing the way that leads to life.

Paul is, on the one hand, adamant that the life of faith is the life of grace and therefore cannot be lived by a written set of rules; yet, on the other hand, he’s also adamant that the life of faith in Jesus requires conforming our whole conduct in this world to “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:2, KJV). He calls for our bodies to be given as “a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1) and declares that the ethical standard of life is now simple yet profoundly demanding: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ ” (Galatians 5:13, 14).

That’s why in Romans 13:10 Paul says that “love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.”

What does all this mean for us now?

From my observation, there’s sometimes a real danger that discussion of ethical consumption among Christians can implicitly assume—without ever quite articulating it—that the goal is “not doing the wrong thing” or “staying clean.” Perhaps even more concerning, the goal can subtly even shift to being seen to “do the right thing.”

When ethical consumption becomes a code for “clean” and “unclean,” it must be rejected. For one thing, it would require all those substitutes we’ve developed to guide ethical consumption to be “right” all the time (impossible), or else the whole exercise becomes futile. Moreover, the idea that in this mind-bogglingly complex global economy we could somehow achieve a status of being “pure” and no longer implicated in wrongs of the world is delusional.

The great spiritual danger of purity codes is that they can so easily become substitutes for or even barriers to faith.

But more seriously, as both Paul and Jesus understood, purity codes have the effect of creating division between people—of delineating those who are “in” and those who are “out,” and further, possibly leading those who are “in” to become judgmental of those who aren’t. That’s one thing that Jesus and Paul won’t countenance: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?” (Romans 14:4); and, “Do not judge not, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1).

In our household—and I state this merely as an example—we’ve made a decision not to buy any chocolate products by a certain company because of their woeful corporate record. But it would be rude and ungrateful to refuse to accept a box of this company’s chocolates that someone, acting out of kindness, wants to give us. The great spiritual danger of purity codes is that they can so easily become substitutes for or even barriers to faith—that small but huge word that Paul uses to describe the ongoing process by which humans struggle to be oriented to the God of love.

So a concern for purity—something that supposedly keeps us on the right side of God—is not a reason Paul would endorse for adopting ethical consumption. However, there are more substantive reasons to take up an ethical code in respect to your consumption that he would support.

As noted above, foundational to his instructions on eating are the relational implications of people’s decisions: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy” (Romans 14:17). In this quote Paul is drawing on the big Hebrew concepts of justice/righteousness and peace/shalom (right relationship) that fill his letters. It represents his conviction that through the coming of Jesus, God is undertaking the work of putting the world right—of establishing right relationships between people, between people and God, and between people and creation—and that those who are “in Christ” are called to participate in this great peacemaking purpose.

One of the great accomplishments of people such as those in the Ethical Consumer Group has been to lift the veil on the consumer economy and show how, through our acts of consumption, we are in relationships with people all over the world, and with the earth itself. And the reason this incredibly dense web of relationships is so ingeniously hidden from our view is that so much of it is exploitative and alienating, just the opposite of justice and peace. Through the frameworks of ethical consumption, however, we can, acting out of love and from our own free will, choose to restrict our own consumption and limit our own gratification in order to make the best choices that we can for the sake of our neighbour and for the sake of God’s good earth upon which we all depend. Surely, that’s an idea of which the apostle Paul would thoroughly approve.

Adapted, with permission, from Coming Back to Earth (Morning Star Publishing, 2016), by Jonathan Cornford.

Coming Back to Earth is available online from www.morningstarpublishing.net.au.

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