Is Ethical Buying the New Legalism? part 1

A couple of weeks ago I purchased a book called, “The Better World Shopping Guide” and the corresponding “Better World Shopper iPhone App.”  It is an invaluable resource for anyone who cares about ethical buying.  Tools like this remind us that what we purchase at the grocery store, fast food restaurant, car dealership, coffee shop, pharmacy, department store, clothing store, etc can have an impact on planet, communities, families, and individuals.  Business is not simply competitive, but can become a form of social Darwinism that oppresses people.

I’ve been on quite the personal journey in the area of ethical buying (fair trade) over the past few years.  The first time that I ever realized that my purchases are connected to people across the globe, and that they can have ill effects on the environment, was when I read the life changing book “Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire” by Walsh and Keesmaat.  I then got online and determined that everything that I would purchase from then on would be ethical; I would not be part of the system of injustice!  I was ready to subvert the imperial machine! But, the more I searched the more difficult it became to make this a practical lifestyle.  Perhaps that is the problem, but maybe not everyone is ready to become a vegan who never goes to restaurants and makes his or her own clothes out of organic fabric. (I truly do admire the radical monastic’s that live this way, but this isn’t that simple for everyone).  Eventually, the fire died down and I began living with an awareness of the global issues involved in purchasing, but suffered from postmodern glocal paralysis… too many problems to make a difference, so I am stuck!

Later, the fire was reignited to begin making ethical choices regarding food when I watched a video called: “Eating Mercifully” (featuring Greg Boyd) which exposes the cruel ways in which many farms produce the food we eat.  Upon this, my wife and I made the decision to do all our grocery shopping at Whole Foods.  This was great until we moved to a city that doesn’t have one.  Fortunately, our local grocery chain has a whole line of organic products… unfortunately, not meat products.  So, what is one to do?  Well, my wife and I decided that we didn’t want to be paralyzed into inaction, so we made the following personal policy.  Whenever there is an ethical alternative available, whether food or clothing or other purchase, we will buy that product instead of the “mainstream” brand; and we will support companies that seem to be moving in an ethical direction. This has been liberating because we are able to make a difference by purchasing the ethical options and communicating to stores that these are the types of products that we want more of, but it hasn’t meant having to cut ourselves off from the ‘real world.’  And with this new resource, “Better World Shopping Guide,” we can make better-informed decisions about which mainstream brands to support, and which ones to ‘boycott.’ 🙂

Now here is the struggle that I want to pose to you today.  There are many times I am at the store with my iPhone app and it becomes easy to make judgments about others who make purchases blindly.  Also, when there is not an alternative, it becomes easy to live in guilt for having to purchase this or that product.  There have been times when I clearly have slipped into legalism, when the Christian life is all about freedom.  Do you think that ethical buying is the new legalism?  If so, why?  If not, what are your suggestions for avoiding such?


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  • Tucker

    Kurt- very thoughtful post as always. And I am not surprised to learn that we have again been drinking from the same wells in our chosen books. In one sense, this whole question of buying ethically is a difficult one from a Scriptural standpoint. The global economy is just so vastly different from that of the New Testament that I think many of our contemporary questions would be quite foreign to Jesus or Paul. Particularly when you look more deeply into the actual practices of companies who market things as “organic” or “fair trade”. Those terms can be unfortunately deceptive. But I do think that books like Colossians Remixed and others do a good job of rooting our economic ethic in a biblically informed worldview.

    I have also experienced that cycle of intense passion followed by angst and then paralysis. The conclusion I have reached has been more or less similar to yours- I try to be as informed as I can be and always choose the more ethical thing when I can. As you know, I have personally felt convicted to adopt a vegan lifestyle for a combination of social justice and environmental reasons, but I do recognize that this can not be expected of everyone.

    As for the idea of ethical buying as the new legalism, I dont know that I would go so far as to say this. I think legalism is a moral disposition that can infect any number of ethical questions- which includes but is not limited to this one. We all face the prospect of unconsciously slipping into bounded-set and rule-based approaches to morality that favor our own moral strengths and legitimate our exclusion of others. You and I will tend to project this onto ethical buying. Others will tend to project it onto a range of sexual issues. Still others onto precise doctrinal correctness with regard to a host of issues (e.g.- atonement). And one could go on. So rather than speaking of any single New Legalism- I think it would be more helpful to talk about the New Legalisms. Which are, really, the old legalisms.

  • Eric Helgesen

    I’m not condoning it either way, but here is a question. If people weren’t working in the factories for pennies, then what would they be doing? When I was in Ukraine, the value of money was a lot higher than here in the US. You could take a taxi for a dollar and you were considered a high roller. My Ukrainian buddies would take the 20 cent bus because it was cheaper. I am not sure that the whole story is always protrayed when production out of other countries is shown in documentaries.

    On the food, I do choose to eat the better stuff more for health reasons than ‘ethical’ reasons. I know that the deer meat that I eat is going to be pretty much organic as well as the beef I get from the ranch. The main switch to this decision is because of the book Skinny Bitch that my wife read. If you can get past the title (secular author) and see what it says about commercial foods, you’d want to throw most everything out of your home that isn’t organic.

    In my opinion, legalism can arise from any choice where you take the “higher ground” to be better than others and be seen by them. If you genuinely feel sorry for how the product was made, then it probably isn’t legalism in that sense.

  • Hey, this was a great post. Thanks also for your comment about Obama – I can totally relate. 🙂 I get really frustrated with books (like skinny Bitch, which I did read) that paint a broad and very negative picture of the food industry, and I often think they are deceiving. Some of what they say is true, but not all, and generally the research they quote is very biased.

    I grew up in Indonesia, where EVERYTHING was organic. And look, we felt lucky to get back to the US. Yes, we have fast food and crappy food, but we also have great food readily available. The book skinny bitch said something in a side comment about how we don’t really need protein anyways. Oh really? I grew up in villages where the entire population was malnorished because of lack of protein.

    Also, factories overseas are painted with a very negative light. Sometimes I’m sure there are awful factories with a negative effect, but say we were to revert completely to locally grown food. This would take away the much needed factories and economic support that we provide in many poor countries. The factories in the community I grew up in provided GOOD jobs that allowed communities to grow economically. Yes, they’re paid a tiny amount when you convert it to US dollars, but that’s a GOOD wage in Indonesia.

  • Tucker

    I think that Eric and Kacie are hitting on an important nuance of the Fair Trade movement. It would be simplistic to say that we should never buy something produced in the 2/3 world. We must look carefully at the conditions of production and ask whether the workers involved were paid a fair, living wage. And fairness is determined by the country’s own standards, not by ours. A sweatshop or an unethical purchase would be one that failed to pay a fair wage and/or subjects employees to inhumane working conditions. Hence the name, Fair Trade (not No Trade).

    I have not read the book Skinny Bitch specifically, so I am not sure what it says exactly. But responding from a vegan perspective, I do think that most North Americans grossly overestimate the amount of protein they need to be healthy. As Kacie described, a diagnosable protein deficiency is found only in instances of overall malnutrition and borderline starvation. I think it is perverse that a nation with a bona fide epidemic of obesity (caused largely by overconsumption of animal foods) lists as one of its top nutritional concerns something which only occurs in populations that are substantially malnourished. So a responsible vegan source will acknowledge that of course the body needs protein, just not nearly as much as the average American supposes. And that one can have perfectly sufficient protein from a plant based diet. For example, calorie for calorie, broccoli has more protein than steak.

  • I really enjoyed your thoughts.

    Here is my struggle – there is always one more thing we can choose into and we still end up picking and choosing how far we want to take this.

    I heard that the copper or nickel wars that are taking place in Africa are because of our high demand for cell phones. It might be zinc. What it is doesn’t matter as what it now presents. Am I supporting the war by having my cell phone. Am I furthering the injustice there by not only owning a cell phone but choosing to upgrade my still very usable cell phone every 2 years?

    It’s always easier when we don’t know.

  • Hey Kurt, thanks for your honest thoughts and desire to live and have your money, reflect the stewardship standards that God set in place.

    To answer your questions, i’m not really sure if it’s the new legalism, since we all buy things that are not fair trade/organic/free range. Our culture is probably not inclined to think of it this way yet. But i’m almost ok with legalism in this way…i typically hate legalism but if we ingrain it in ourselves to make sure God’s ethics are lived out, maybe that wouldn’t be as bad (kinda like murder).

    This food ethic dilemma is one i’ve had for a while and I’m still wrestling with it. The other day i went to the store to pick up some items to make breakfast. One of the items I needed cost $1.99 for regular and $5.99 for organic (probably wasn’t fair trade though). Should I really spend $4 more for it? It seems as though a lot of the organic business’s are getting rich off of this movement and it kinda ticks me off-is production really that much more expensive? It seems to me like it’d be less.

    When we buy we vote, so we must vote for good and ethical things to be put in our stores, but I think the key is to demand more of our business leaders. In the case of fair trade; Eric is correct (by the way: what’s up Helgesen!) 3rd world countries need our business, I think the fundamental problem is that our business leaders are ok with paying people so little and/or charging the American public more, while they take home lots of cash. If these leaders began to see people as humans and not commodities they will pay them more and improve their quality of life (maybe even to that of middle class America); and if they believe in what they are doing and see it as a calling they will charge the USA less for it so we will buy it and everybody begins to be treated fairly.

    The same is true of organic, if business leaders in the organic world believed in the movement because it would benefit humanity it seems as though they would drop the price so we could all afford it.

    We need leaders to take us through this time of transition into a more healthy and ethical world and I believe it starts with those involved in the movements.

  • I appreciate the question, Kurt, and the responses as well. I think, though, as Jeff intimated, we need to be careful of the local economic costs of the various ethical buying movements which, in my observation, consist largely of choices only the economically-privileged are free to make. I detest Wal-Mart as much as the next guy, but I know people for whom, if there were no Wal-Mart or equivalent (it was K-Mart when I was growing up and my family WAS those people), it would be just that much harder to make ends meet at all. Simply, until those with a passion for “fair trade” choose to put some energy behind making such trade accessible, much of it will only be the province of the upper-middle-class and wealthy liberals. So what responsibility do those with a fair trade conscience have, to make such choices accessible to the less-privileged, but no-less-conscientious, buyer?

    As for the nutrition question, we went round and round on that one when I attended Loma Linda University in the late eighties. As you may know, Loma Linda is Seventh-Day Adventist, and SDAs are doctrinally vegetarian, but my nutrition prof. taught us that, while a vegan diet is perfectly healthy for already-healthy (or overweight) adults, it’s awfully hard to provide the appropriate amino acid complements necessary for child development without SOME animal proteins such as eggs, milk products, etc. Vegetarianism of the lacto-ovo sort is workable for kids; veganism is risky and requires some incredibly careful planning, if it can be done safely at all, for children.

    This is not to excuse American excess. The SDAs did not convert me to vegetarianism of any sort–I like meat too much and dislike a great deal (not all) vegetarian cooking nearly as intensely–but there is still a great deal to be learned in a diet of moderation and good sense. Here, again, however, a lot needs to be done by those with the means and the knowledge, to develop strategies that are actually workable for those of more modest means.

    In other words, perhaps my real question is whether the legalism that Kurt has described (with some justification, I feel), may not be a legalism that to some extent sets those with the means to “do good” apart from those who can’t afford it. . .even in our own nation.

  • Daniel

    I resonate with many of the previous comments, (like the one that makes the point that any instance of taking the “higher ground” can veer into legalism…) but there is one question that doesn’t seem to have come up yet, so I’ll take a quick stab.

    While I wouldn’t call it “legalism”, maybe the subtle danger I see with much of the “ethical buying movement”, particularly as it relates to followers of Jesus, is that we can get so caught up in trying to avoid oppressive companies and products, that over time, we can almost subconsciously start to buy into the idea that we can change the nature of the human heart through our patterns of consumption.

    It’s easy to look at things like child labor, sweat shops, inequality, shoddy or unhealthy products, etc. as the real problems, when in reality, they are only symptoms of the deeper problem. The true culprit is the fallen condition of the men and women who cumulatively make up all these global scenarios. It’s easy to think of issues as “isms” or causes, instead the aggregated effects of individual decisions made by people who are striving to propel their own interests on this earth.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t buy organic (cuz otherwise who knows what you’re actually eating…) or make decisions to support companies that aren’t blatantly doing wrong. But like you already explained, at some point, it’s easy to reach this stage where you are agonizing over every decision, every purchase, every thing you do in the modernized world, as if those decisions were the only thing that can make a difference. This of course is how the World thinks, because it does not believe in the fallen nature of human beings. In the world’s eyes, everything really is a matter of systematic failure, which must have some sort of systematic solution. It stands in stark contrast to the perspective of the gospel, which points a finger at the human heart first, calling men and women to repent, to forsake their earthly ambitions altogether, and seek a citizenship and inheritance that comes from above, which cannot be attained through any type of social action, or supported by any of the choices we find on the supermarket shelves…

  • Daniel, your point about the human condition is well-taken, but as with most things this too can be taken too far. It is true that, sans redemption, we can’t expect redeemed behavior. On the other hand, however, it is all too frequent that even those who claim redemption fail to grasp how the new life of Jesus should be lived out. In this balance, perhaps the Jesus-inspired subset of the free- and fair-trade movements ought to direct its message largely at the churches.

    Of course, here in America where the churches are often conservative politics’ biggest cheerleaders, this message has unquestionable political overtones. . .not because we should somehow reform the behavior of the secular world, but precisely because we are embedded in, and even at times apologists for, that world.

  • Kurt Willems

    I am quite impressed with the thoughtful responses I see here, thus far. I welcome more dialogue!!!!

    Rather than post a comment here, I will probably use my next post as a ‘response’ / pondering…

  • Fascinating post. I was a Sociology major in college and I felt like we were constantly talking about the big bad evil companies that turn oppression into profit. Yet, what to do? Can I really manage only purchasing items that are produced ethically?

    As I prayed about the how to live and purchase ethically, I felt the tugging of the Lord to keep my mind focused on the position of my heart. Is my heart moved toward justice enough to affect my actions? Or am I just talking the talk?

    I don’t think a black and white analysis of where my money goes matters as much as an honest look at the position of my heart. I think this is true in regards to ethical spending as well as every other way we can borderline on legalism. Legalism is the result of looking only at the tangible things, the results, and not the process or the position of the heart.

    I want my heart to be transformed so I can honestly say “I care about justice” and really mean it, to the point that my actions fall into line with my words. I want to not get so caught up in the many problems in the world that I believe I can’t make a difference. I want to be changed so that living justly and ethically is like breathing, not just a hurdle I am trying to overcome.

    I am not there yet, but at I am trying.

  • churchedunchurched

    Hey Kurt! Thanks for the invite, bro. I really like your challenge, and I think it’s got a good heart behind it. It’s true that whenever we make a “standard” of ethical behavior, that it can become a true hindrance to loving God or our neighbor.

    What I would pose, just as I’m thinking about it, is that ethical standards are there for benefit of all, not for judgment of any.

    For example, if I find myself judging people for shopping at WalMart, I need to consider how they would know otherwise and whether I’m making people aware of it in some way. It’s important to me, so I need to do something about it, not spend my energy keeping people from doing it too, energy that I could spend positively instead. And if you’re limited (like store options), how could you do any better?

    Beyond individual limits, there are also other areas of involvement. We’re talking about political involvement, community work, conservation, etc. And that can be a lot, or too much, or the only other options.

    But if I don’t find myself evaluating how I behave, so that I could be harming people and not caring about that harm, then I have traversed to the reverse, and my resources are not benefiting anyone but me. Selfishness should never be an excuse to avoid legalism.

    My point is, I guess: We don’t have to do everything, but there’s always some amount we can do without feeling a burden. We aren’t perfect, and people were made to work together. There is always something to contribute, and there’s always a chance to love your neighbor.

    Most times I think process is more foundational than product. Good challenge!

  • Moriah

    I’m sure a load of self-serving capitalism-worshipping morons would love for us to view ethical consumerism as the “new legalism” so that we would give up on making responsible choices and join the rest of the piggies at the slop trough snuffling and snorting up resources without a care as to what we are actually supporting. Bottom line: anything can be turned into an occasion for self-glorifying comparisons and passing judgments on others, but it is the acts of comparing and passing judgments and pride which are the sin there, not the good things we do which we might be tempted to misuse that way. To state that ethical consumerism is the new legalism and therefore we ought to just forget about trying to make conscious and responsible consumer choices is like saying actually prosecuting rapists as criminals is being legalistic and prideful, therefore we should all become rapists ourselves instead.

  • Amy

    I couldn’t get through all of the comments…too many. My first reaction to the overall topic is this: I don’t think God cares what kind of food we are buying fair trade/organic/free range or shopping at Walmart. He is always…ALWAYS looking at the heart. If God has brought conviction on you, and the way you shop, then obey him. It is evident that this is an area he is working on specifically in you. However, your salvation and his love for you are not contingent upon where you buy your food.

    I think we spend way too much time trying to work out our salvation in our own human endeavors. Rather, we should be seeking God always, allowing his Holy Spirit to work in our lives, and then obey. It is so simple…and yet so hard.

    Do I think what you are doing is wrong? Absolutely not. It is a very good and noble thing. However, it’s not going to make God love you more, or move you higher up the ladder of Christian success.

    Humble obedience and trust is all God asks of us.

    • Amy, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I think that I might have one rebuttal:

      If God always looks at the heart… where does sin come in? In other words, just because I think that smoking pot is ok because my heart is in love with Jesus, does that make it right or good? Scripture seems to lend itself to the belief that anything that takes over your mind or self control is wrong. The bible also teaches that anything we can do to treat others with the love of Christ, we ought to do as well.

      The bible is flooded with examples of economic practices that oppress the poor. Check out this passage in the book of Amos 8…

      4 Listen to this, you who rob the poor
      and trample down the needy!
      5 You can’t wait for the Sabbath day to be over
      and the religious festivals to end
      so you can get back to cheating the helpless.
      You measure out grain with dishonest measures
      and cheat the buyer with dishonest scales.
      6 And you mix the grain you sell
      with chaff swept from the floor.
      Then you enslave poor people
      for one piece of silver or a pair of sandals. Amos 8.4-6

      If what you buy is aiding in the oppression of the poor, is this not a sin issue that transcends the heart in some ways? Now, this is not to say that we can ever fully escape such tensions (between living in an unjust society and having to make a purchase), but to simply point out that sin issues (whatever they may be) are not always about my individual heart… they are also about how my actions affect another person or group of people. God hates oppression so if what we do causes this, I think we ought realign our heart and our actions to honor God. Does this make any sense to ya?

      Please don’t read this as a defense or an angry critique (its not!) but simply a push to dig a bit deeper on these issues. Any thoughts?