Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.
When I first saw my iPad, it was sealed in plastic and encased in a sturdy white box. Inside, the warranty and manual were neatly placed in a little white box and USB cable was carefully wrapped with clear plastic. The screen was covered with a clear plastic sheet to protect it from any harm. It was sterile, like a hospital. It gave the impression that no human hands had ever touched my iPad. It was created ex nihilo, by some form of magic. Or perhaps meticulously crafted in some perfectly sterile environnent by an army of well-orchestrated machines. (Also see: Citizenship Confusion: Keeping Up With the Joneses)
In any event, I had no real sense that this product had been built by anyone, except perhaps some vague entity called APPLE. And I certainly had no conception of the many natural resources which were gathered to create the device.
And what’s strange is that this feeling of the unearthliness and uncreated-ness of my iPad is not unique. I feel this way about most products. It is hard for me to visualize anyone making my soap, binding my books, making my coffee cups.
What I have just described is an ugly reality of our globalized, technology-driven, capitalist market: workers are alienated from the products they make and the people who buy those products. And, likewise, the consumer is alienated from the product and the those who created it. Here is one place where Christian should be able to find some basic agreement with Marxism. Although Marx got a great deal wrong (litotes), and his solutions were flawed, many of his critiques of society were accurate, and this is one example (See Marx’s theory of Alienation).
I believe that our contemporary market can create a number of problems for Christians. Primarily, it alienates the worker and the consumer. For consumers, this means that it gives us a false understanding of the value of products, a value based entirely on how much we paid for it and how much we enjoy it. The efforts of those who created the product tend to be irrelevant. And likewise, workers often fail to feel related to their works or those who purchase them.
Practically, this alienation can lead to all sorts of problems: ingratitude, ambivalence to oppression, a casualness towards things we buy, and a general attitude of consumerism–where were expect our products to be disposable.
Although I do feel that this experience of alienation does have serious consequences, I do not for a moment believe that the solution is simple or easy. Nor do I believe this is a “sin” issue for Christians, at least not for most of us. However, just because it is not a “sin” to buy into a market system which powerfully encourages alienation between our neighbors and ourselves does not mean that we should not be discerning about our shopping practices. This is an issue of wisdom, an area in our lives where we can make choices which will encourage the flourishing of our neighbors and healthier relationships in our communities, or we can choose to adopt practices which could be harmful to our culture. There are, however, a number of companies who work in at least small ways to break down this alienation.
Threadless.com specializes in user-designed tee-shirts. Users submit their designs, others vote on them, and ten shirts are selected each week for a limited printing. The artist receives $2000 cash, a $500 Threadless gift card, and an additional $500 for subsequent reprintings. Threadless prints the title of the shirt and the name of the artist on the tag of each shirt and they have profiles and blogs for the artists on their site, like this one for my friend, Joshua Kemble. The voting process, the artists’s promotion of his or her shirt, the profiles, the payments, the tags: all of these things help stress the created-ness of these shirts.
Faith Newport wrote a few weeks ago on how Ravelry and Etsy allow clothing designers to reshape the way we conceive of modeling and the ideal female body (See: The Female Gaze: Etsy, Ravelry and the Chance for Real Representation). What I would add is that they also promote a direct connection between the designers and crafters and the shopper. At Etsy, you can find all kinds of unique handmade items, everything from clothes, to lingerie (what a great way to usurp the lingerie industry’s monopoly on how we visualize intimate clothing!), paintings, curtains, cups, all kinds of well-made works. Again, this allows you to support specific craftspeople, form a better understanding of your relationship to them and their work, and still purchase products that are well-made and beautiful.
Trades of Hope is an interesting company which works to create sustainable, fair trade businesses with women in poverty by selling their handmade products in the US through the home-party business model. As with the other two companies, Trades of Hope is a for-profit business which discourages alienation of the worker and the consumer by design. In addition, this company works against poverty through income-creation, rather than charity (which also has its place). I have not heard too much about this company, but from what I’ve read, they seem to be people approaching the very serious problem of global poverty (particularly among women) in a thoughtful way. For more, check out my friend Jaimie Stepro’s Trades of Hope Facebook Page.
These are just three examples out of many, many companies which nurture a more meaningful relationship between workers, their creations, and consumers. Again, I want to caution against a legalistic spirit which demands that we only buy Fair Trade, Handmade, Organic, products. However, our practices, even the way we visualize the people who make our iPads, do affect the way we love our neighbors.