Is Ethical Purchasing a New Form of Legalism?

*This is a blog I originally posted at the end of February in 2010.  It is a post that I consider to be the beginning of my consistent pattern of blogging (more than just randomly posting stuff once in a great while).  I repost it here again in light of the Christmas season.  As we purchase gifts for family and friends, something to think about is the social ethic of the purchases we make.  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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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  • Yshekster

    Whether it is a new form of legalism? I think it depends how much judgment goes into it. If in your heart you are judging, then probably yes. If you are not judgmental of others’ choices, then it probably is not. Just my take. Has to do with our own hearts.

  • Anonymous

    My husband worked at giant retail store.  Since he left, I will not shop there, because the way they treated their employees and because many of their products were manufactured by persons not receiving a living wage.  On the other hand, there’s also something to be said about affordability.  For those who can’t afford fair trade, whole foods, or who live in food deserts, they have limited options.

  • I know that for a while I felt like I had to do penance every time I bought non-fair-trade-certified coffee.  I think it depends on your attitude towards ethical purchasing.  If you feel like it’s something you HAVE to do or else you’re a horrible Christian, then you’re doing it wrong.  If, however, you decide that ethical purchasing is a good way that you can love justice and show mercy, then it’s okay.

  • Rosanna Mast

    It’s a process that starts with learning about the issue. Yes, it is easy to feel guilty about not being able to buy EVERYTHING ethically, either because it’s not available where we are, or because we honestly can’t afford to. BUT, I also don’t want to turn a blind eye to the issue just because it overwhelms me. So, I look at it like this: I am aware of my own struggles to buy/not buy products with the knowledge I have. I am also aware that I don’t know everything about everything. I also know that I can’t afford to live life exactly like I would like to, ethically speaking. So, I apply this knowledge to others in this journey, who either aren’t yet aware, who are aware, but overwhelmed, and who are aware and feel they can’t make a big difference at this moment. Even the smallest act of purchasing with awareness creates an environment to continue moving in the right direction. Lots of small steps can go a long way. And educating ourselves, often leads to educating others, and hopefully the next generation will be more aware of the issue than I have been.

  • Unfortunately, the sad truth is that sometimes people purchase what they can afford. A lot of the “organic” foods cost more and aren’t always a viable option for a vast population both in the US and in Canada (where I am). Issues like this, tend to take a back seat to feeding your own family, when times are tough and the mouths to feed are many.  People who find it financially hard to make ethical purchases, turn a blind eye to the problem or face a deteriorating self opinion day in and day out, as they continue to buy what is affordable over what is ethical.
    While I think it’s great to get awareness out there, for people to purchase ethically when possible and to even have the option to purchase ethically, more has to be targeted at the companies who continue to abuse the human race for financial gains. When a company discovers how to produce food for retail that is equal or less in cost to the consumer, AND produce that in an ethical, fair and moral fashion, they will find a population able to proudly state that they purchase ethically AND still feed their families.

    Excellent article 🙂

  • Clayton Gladish

    Kurt, I affirm your choices and also understand the struggle it presents.  For myself, I try not impose my convictions upon others as judgments or a sort of universal “right”.  As Roxsey said, feeding your family must happen.  In my mind, the companies and industries of this world are to blame for their not having a choice.
    On a side note, if you’re looking for good ethical meat choices, here’s an option in our area:  We bought a 1/4 of a cow from there and have been loving it.  Best beef I’ve eaten in a long time.  They have chickens too, and are working on getting pork on the menu.

  • Legalism seems to stem from misplaced faith. We are familiar with religious rituals becoming paths toward the absolution of guilt where only God can do the real work of forgiveness and redemption. Rituals aren’t magic, they don’t produce the “guilt assuaging god.”

    So that being said, the true legalism of Fair Trade is the belief that Fair Trade is enough (that it is THE solution). Sure, in our economic landscape it’s a good option among options, but I don’t see it as the way forward toward the vision of redemption and equity painted in scripture. Actually, Fair trade can become (and may be) nothing more than a “release valve” that empowers the very system its trying to reform: globalized consumer capitalism.

    Ultimately it is through God’s work that we participate in that will bring about redemption, meaning that there is grace for the journey. There is grace for those who can’t afford or don’t know or understand the implications of buying fair trade/organic/local/artisan crafted, etc. There is also grace for those of us who do, but still live in the a system that doesn’t always present those options. I do affirm and try to purchase ethically but I don’t place my faith in it. That doesn’t exempt me from the legalism that creeps in; but as experience has taught me as a recovering fundamental baptist, legalism is useless for genuine life in the gospel.

  • Erin

    Legalism can/will be found everywhere and anywhere. Should we choose to make the issue the stand, rather than our choices worship to God, then yes… it can be legalistic.

    As I began to learn about Fair Trade (and crossing fingers Better World Shoppers Guide comes out with a CDN edition!) and making ethical choices, I was reminded of how interconnected we all are. As such, there is not an either/or answer to our consumption. In our learning, we must be extremely diligent to lead by example the options of all that ethical buying entails. Your previous post about oil is a great comparison: yes, it is true we are addicted to oil and I agree oil company practice/policy is often corrupt, BUT… what are the viable alternatives? This is the piece of the whole that we often fall short of including.

    So… not everyone can afford to buy organic/Fair Trade. What can we do? 

    – community gardens/urban gardens
    – community kitchens teaching canning/preserving techniques for those of us living in long-winter-month environments
    – community aviaries (bee keeping… trust me, this one is crucial & will be more so in days to come)
    – support local farmer’s markets
    – begin a small farmer’s/gardner’s market if your neighbourhood doesn’t have one
    – cut coffee/tea consumption down to 1 cup/day
    – when attending meetings, gatherings… make the food or don’t have food/beverages at all (or all the time). How many meetings have we been too where they serve those pastries with coffee and well… we really don’t need them?
    – begin an organic/Fair Trade food pool… apply for grants, get personal donations (cash or in-kind), where anyone regardless of income can come and find food staples that are Fair Trade/organic in exchange for volunteer hours

    When we’re not in communities that have ethical brands. What can we do?

    – buy thrift. I’m working with some of my youth who struggle with vanity here: they GIVE to the thrift stores, but NEVER would buy from them because it’s gross. There’s a teaching moment here. Plus, I’d rather my dollar go to the Salvation Army (or whatever community organization is running it) than a chain store

    – if you’re really super dedicated to the brand, go online or get friends closer to an outlet to make your purchases for you

    – make your own clothes (I know Kurt addressed this already, but I add for those sewers out there dedicated to their craft… yes, I live in a small town!)

    – make your own soap, laundry detergent, and other household cleaners

    – find ways to make gifts/cards, instead of buying from chain stores

    – don’t buy… 

    This last one, I think, speaks more to the undercurrent of the ethical purchasing movement than anything else. Organic/fair trade IS more expensive, but perhaps that’s part of the point: we don’t NEED nearly as much as we consume. Yes, it’s a good thing people producing our consumer products get paid a fair wage and are treated decently, but if we’re still consuming as much as we were before we began our ethical stint, what’s really changed? The demand is still high, our lives are still filled with stuff, and the pressure to pay everyone fair wages gets higher and higher. There’s got to be a breaking point.

    Instead of guilt being our motivator, we need to create viable alternatives knowing we are NOT going to be perfect! But there are many, many ways to express ethical purchasing for people from all walks of life.

  • Erin

    Sorry… “aviary” was meant to be “apiary”. Big difference! Honey doesn’t come from birds… 🙂

  • AmyS

    I have tried lots of different things to make our household purchases more ethically sound. Having lived in a very low income bracket for many years, I know that affordability factors in here in a big way. In those days, we were just happy to keep the lights on and food in our kids bellies. We couldn’t buy “ethically” produced anything, but we did pretty well on that front anyway. We cleaned with simple household supplies like vinegar and baking soda. We ate very little meat (not even once a week) and dairy (milk for the kids), in favor of daily legumes and grains. We rarely ate sweets or drank coffee. We washed cloth diapers, made our own toys, games, holiday gifts, and clothes. We borrowed books from the public library rather than purchasing. We only had one car, so car trips around town were well planned. We couldn’t afford cable so corporate America had fewer opportunities to get into our heads. We usually looked for secondhand goods before going for new. We shopped at cheap stores without any regard for whether or not they were ethically run. Now, our household income is more generous, so I habitually choose organic dairy, eggs, and coffee (trusting that the fair-trade/fairly traded/ethically traded labels mean something real, but understanding that they don’t always), and I don’t shop as an entertainment (thereby reducing impulse purchases and excess consumption). I try to buy only what I need. But I certainly contribute more to the problems of corporate greed now that I have more options to shop “ethically.” In other words, I can afford to get the grass fed organic locally raised lamb if I want to, but maybe it would be better just to skip it all together and eat the non-organically grown lentils that used to be more than adequate (and when I was feeling flush, I would splurge on a tub of totally unethical chicken livers, saute a few with some onion, chop it all up, add to lentils and brown rice with a little dab of tomato paste. So good. Why does that terrible “poor food” bring back out nostalgic feelings?).

    • @58757ba8ba47d7e22c9fe13375191e5a:disqus … this is an excellent comment.  Being ethical can mean we change the way we purchase not just *What* we purchase.  This is an excellent point… thanks!

    • AmyS

      As to the question of legalism: Legalism, it seems to me, comes out of a need to cover up our shame with false righteousness. We want other people to know that we are doing all the right things. If we “do the right thing” because we want others to see us (see Mat 6), we have missed the whole point. While it isn’t BAD to do the right thing for the wrong reason (at least some good is done), we don’t really do anything to undermine the forces of evil and move toward systemic change. We are just playing games. 

      Legalism is a trap. 

      If I buy Toms, but I can’t really afford them and end up paying interest to my BofA MasterCard, have I done anything good? Maybe it would be better to buy a pair at Wal-Mart that I can pay cash for, and also send $5. to MCC or World Vision (and yes, we donated a higher percentage of our income when we were poor). Of course, then people will think that I don’t care about ethical buying. 

      • Erin

        Sometimes it really seems like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. That’s why I chose (feebly some days it seems) to see even my purchases as worship. Keeping all of life sacred offers me a perspective I would normally not consider.

        TOMS is another issue for me altogether (another post, lol!), but having been taken into some sweat shops of North America, I get the same sinking feeling when I walk into Wal-Mart. Sure, I’ll have a bit more cash to give to charity, but I know these corporations aren’t just abusing people overseas for our needs and wants. It’s happening here. I saw it. I smelled it. I breathed in the fabric particles of it. It was hell.

        Like you, however, I grew up in a lower income/working class family. What are parents supposed to do with children… buy all Fair Trade? Hardly! Yet what are parents in those sweat shops supposed to do? This is where I get stuck between a rock and a hard place. I see both sides, but I don’t want to be put in a place where I have to choose between the lesser of 2 evils, as it were. I don’t want to be choosing evil at all!

        So I’m always grateful for ideas, input and insights from people of all socio-economic groups because there are so many incredibly inventive and creative ways we can “ethically buy”, and still know God has protected our integrity.

        I don’t know if you or anyone else knows of the Centre for Environmental Transformation in Camden, NJ. If not, check out

        I’m Canadian, but I’ve been in Camden and told about its history and current state as one of the poorest cities in the US. Yet here… the local people have taken steps to ensure organic produce is available to local families. Not only that, but Andrea Ferich makes is a beautifully spiritual experience for local kids who have never had the privilege of digging around the in dirt… AND getting food back from it. 

        If we truly see our entire lives as worship before the Living God, then even our purchases are made sacred. 

  • Maybe it is a form of legalism. But is that a problem? I know legalism is an Evangelical boogie man and we’re supposed to be all free all the time. But what does that mean? That we should be free from feeling bad? Or feeling compelled? And why should we not feel bad sometimes? And compelled? Why must everything we do be done happily and “authentically”? Why must we be sincere and heart-felt all the time? If a thing is right to do, it’s right to do it regardless of one’s feelings about it. Right? I get your point, especially the one about judging people. But creating good habits that go deep seems integral to the ethical life. Going deep, I think, means feeling bound and compelled by those habits, and having a bad conscience when those habits are broken. I wouldn’t call that legalism, but if someone insists, then I’d say that legalism isn’t necessarily bad.

    • AmyS

      Arni, you ask a really good question. I agree with you that as we mature in discipleship, we become more willingly bound to following Jesus–which means, in part, that our lived ethics are increasingly aligned with the purposes of God, regardless of our transient emotions.

      I’m curious about what other people think. Are we working with the same definition of legalism? 

    • Ian

      I don’t think you have the right definition of legalism. If someone is being legalistic they are believing that they are more righteous because of their good works, which of course implies that they loose their righteousness when they stop doing those good works. 
      But what you said is definitely true. When need to allow ourselves to be compelled by Jesus to do good because, well, it’s good.

      • Ah. So legalism would be something like prideful (perceived) self-salvation? Interesting.

        • Ian

          I wouldn’t say self-salvation, its more that they think that they have to earn salvation.

  • Don’t worry, bro. I’m silently judging you right now for shopping at Whole Foods and having a smart phone (don’t tell me it’s an iPhone, iPharisee).

  • Cwhite017

    I am moved by your blog and have had this experience many times.  I want to boycott items that are made in sweat shops exploiting other countries, but I wonder how much effect does it have on the industry.  It amazes me that this form of production is legal because of how unethical it is.  I think about how religions send mercenaries to save the very people we are exploiting.  I read the book Ethics in Human Communication which addresses the different approaches, religious, utilitarian, and legalistic.  The government has made this type of trade legal, and as American’s turn their heads, and enjoy the “savings”, it appears to be ethical, but is it?  I believe that if we used religious standards, much like J. Vernon Jensen mentions in the above book, all Americans would avoid these purchases.  J. Vernon Jensen believes that the six ethical standards of communication follow much like we all know religion to be:  tell the truth, no slander, no blaspheme, avoid demeaning someone, aim to be trustworthy, and show an excellence in humanity( p. 86).  Do you believe if everyone followed these “golden rules” would we purchase the items that exploit the other nations? 


     Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K. S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2008). Ethics in communication. (6th ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.Cheryl WhiteCommunications Graduate StudentDrury