Maxim Monday: Gain Possessions Justly

Oh wow. Is this Maxim ever a knot to untangle.

Of course I agree. Everything we gain should be done justly. I’d like to think that I do so: I do not steal, I pay for what I purchase. I’m in the clear, right?

Argh, not so quickly. I think on the easiest level, the one over which I have most control, yes: I do gain possessions justly. But on a larger, macro level, so much of what we, in the Western world, possess is purchased at the expense of others, and if not our environment, then environments elsewhere. Those facts do not embrace what I believe is just. So what are we to do?

By Andrea Westmoreland. Bald Eagle at Tomoka Landfill, via Wikimedia Commons. The patriotism of waste.

My family reduces, reuses, recycles. We purchase much of our goods used, accept hand-me-downs, and try to limit our consumption. We do our best to shop the farmer’s market, support local businesses and farmers, and make what we can. I’m good at cooking, but can’t sew. I breast feed and cloth diaper, reducing the environmental impact and need for goods that come with having babies.

And yet, it’s never enough. There are no trophies for being 100% off the grid (nor is it completely possible) or for being the most fair-trade purchasing, minimalist consumer. I don’t think we can ever be completely, absolutely just in our gaining of things. The fuel I put in my used car is not just. The laptop on which I do my writing is not just. The packaging in which I find most of my organic food is not just. Most food is not just. It’s overwhelming to realize this.

I press on. I do what I can. Most of us could take more and greater steps towards deeper justice in our purchasing. But let us not be guilt-tripped by marketing that individual purchases will bring greater justice – whether it’s buying something pink for breast cancer research funding, fair-trade chocolate or coffee to support farmers in developing nations, or getting our clothes at Goodwill. Sure, these things are helpful, but by placing the onus on consumers (as if we can buy our way to justice at all) corporations and governments can pretend that offering one or two ‘more just’ products absolves them of the large scale contributions to vast injustice – environmental, civic, and human rights based.

On the surface this Maxim asks us to pay for what want, not to swindle others, and to think about justice in all of purchasing. Some us need shoes and don’t have the luxury of hunting down the most eco-friendly options. Some of us are hungry and don’t have the choice of organic, unionized farm-picked strawberries – or the option of strawberries at all. So press on in the ways that you can. Each of us can do our part to gain our possessions justly. And let us all advocate for the just attainment of possessions for all.

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  • dunesen

    The thing about not having consumers take full responsibility is one of those things that has always bugged me. You mentioned the breast cancer research funding; have you ever read the small print on the yogurt or whatever with the pink ribbon on it? Usually it’ll say something like ‘One cent of each purchase will go to Name of Charity, up to $100,000.’ or some small six figure amount that means nothing to the multi-million/multi-billion dollar corporations. There’s the appearance of caring, the appearance of the corporation acting morally, but it’s really a sham.

    Not to be a downer, not to be a complete pessimist, but the idea of letting your conscience guide your purchasing decisions has been co-opted by mega-corporations in a lot of ways, working to their advantage now, and Buying Justly is even harder than many people think/realize.

    • I could not agree more about the breast cancer sham. There are several books written about this, which I intend to read one day. I do not buy “X for the cure” things for anything, ever.

      You are not being a pessimistic downer! I think you’re just reiterating what I said above. I do not think we can buy our way to social justice. Yes, some products and companies are better than others, and yes, supporting them over the others is a good idea. But that alone is not justice. Or providing us with goods gained justly. Plus, it is SO important that we recognize just how privileged is the idea that we can buy justice anyway! Many people are too busy trying to feed and clothe themselves and their family that organic, locally sourced, fair-trade, etc etc is not an option.

  • YES. There are a few aescetics who need next to nothing. The rest of us can either make mindful and responsible compromises, or we can frustrate ourselves with unattainable ideas of ethical purity and end up sleepwalking back into consumerland.

    I especially like your thoughts on individual vs institutional responsibility.