I started bringing my own grocery bags to the store in the early 1990s. For many years, mine was a lonely habit. Although grocery stores in liberal Washington, D.C., stocked reusable bags for purchase, very few people used them. So when I got to the checkout line, the cashiers and baggers were often flummoxed, and sometimes obviously annoyed, by my bringing my own bags. They would ask, “What are these for?” If I had three bags’ worth of groceries and only brought two bags, they would say, “But we can’t fit all your stuff in these bags!” I would patiently explain that they could put the remaining items in a regular paper bag. Sometimes, as I left my apartment to go shopping, I would leave my reusable bags behind, not willing to deal with the hassle at check-out.
Today, of course, even elderly, set-in-their-ways shoppers bring their own bags to the store. Washington, D.C., now has laws whereby stores do not provide bags unless you pay for them. The culture has changed. What was once a lonely experience of bucking conventional wisdom and norms is now a routine part of grocery shopping that everyone accepts—shoppers, cashiers, baggers.
We can see a similar arc in the trend toward natural, organic, local foods. A decade ago, someone wanting to eat organic and local likely had to drive long distances to find a farmer’s market or organic groceries. Today, my town has two Whole Foods, and even the regular grocery stores stock organic produce and ground flax. There is a farmer’s market three times a week in my town center. Many people have summer vegetable gardens. As Mark Bittman reported in a recent New York Times article, even fast food chains are springing up to offer ethically sourced, healthier foods.
It seems that significant lifestyle changes (or even small changes, such as bringing one’s own bags to the store) for the good of our earth and its inhabitants become sustainable and adoptable by a large population only when communal values change enough that healthier, more humane practices become the norm. Big lifestyle changes for ethical reasons become most effective when done in community.
I was considering this phenomenon in light of my last post, on the helplessness I feel, knowing that my families’ clothing is likely sewn by underpaid workers in unsafe conditions, and also knowing that sewing my families’ clothes myself is not a tenable option.
What if, a decade from now, overseas workers are protected by some kind of certification process ensuring that clothing is made under fair, humane conditions, so that I can purchase “fairly manufactured” clothing in the same way that I purchase “certified organic” apples and “fair trade” coffee?
What if, two decades from now, we have returned to an economy whereby much of our clothing and shoes are made locally, to fit specific people’s bodies and feet, and made to last for a number of years?
Over the two thousand years of Christian history, some Christians have chosen to live outside of mainstream culture. Some still do. In such apart-from-the-culture groups, expecting everyone to wear hand-sewn, look-alike cotton shirts, pants, and dresses is the norm. It is a communal value.
But most of us live as part of our cultures. While some Christians argue that we do so at our peril, I believe that we as Christians are called to help transform our world by living fully within it. It is impossible to spread the good news of Jesus Christ if our entire life is spent in community only with other people who already know and live by the good news of Jesus Christ.
Living fully within our communities and culture means that making big lifestyle changes for the good of the world and its inhabitants can be hard and lonely work. Such changes might require traveling long distances to find ethically sound goods and services, or having to repeatedly explain to perplexed people why we do things differently than most people (as I had to explain my reusable bags those years ago). Even attending church every week as a family must sometimes be explained to perplexed neighbors wondering why we “give up” our Sunday mornings so readily.
If anything good comes out of the tragic factory disasters in Bangladesh, perhaps it will be the first tiny steps toward a more sustainable, ethical, fair culture around fashion and culture—continued growth of “thrift shop” theology (and practice), a few enterprising folk with sewing machines making and selling locally made clothes that are also fashion-conscious, consumer pressure leading favorite brands to sign onto agreements to ensure garment worker safety.
Perhaps this is how the kingdom of God comes—one lonely effort after another to care for our earth and its inhabitants a little better, joining over time with other lonely efforts, until we are no longer lonely because we are working together, in community. As exciting as it can be to dream of grand gestures and sweeping revolutions, the fact remains that most significant change (for better or worse) happens incrementally, slowly, one small step at a time. That’s how we got here, to an uber-consumerist culture of citizens craving larger closets and renting storage units to store all of our ready-made, discount-purchased stuff. And that’s how we’re going to get to someplace different, and better—one tiny, seemingly inconsequential step at a time, taken in lonely, frustrating isolation, until we look up one day to realize we have made change happen, and we are no longer alone.