6 ways to be a conscientious Catholic consumer

Tom Beaudoin looks at our "branded" economy and says it's time to integrate who we are with what we buy.

Lite jazz, then “Mail room, this is Jimmy.”
“Um,” I stalled, conjuring his face from the Midwestern twang of his greeting. He had a mullet and cranked the Allman Brothers and was one of the few people on earth to whom you would unreservedly loan money or confess besetting sins.
“Hello,” he semi-drawled, radio in the background.
“OK,” I continued. “I bought a belt from your company a while back, and I’m just trying to find out where it was made, who made it, that kind of stuff. Somehow I got transferred from a vice president to you in the mail room.”
“Can’t help you with that one. Sorry,” he said, and I wondered if he wondered how normal this conversation was.

This was phone call number six out of an eventual 43 calls to the headquarters of major corporations. The interrogation became like the ritual in Monty Python’s Holy Grail: “What is your name?” “What is your quest?”

I often tried to mumble something about being concerned, as a person of faith, about human dignity. But having been out-pioused by conservatives and out-justiced by liberals too many times in my life, I gave even that meager statement with hesitant self-consciousness. Many young adults like me live with the feeling that someone somewhere may be suffering because of the way that their coffee, shoes, clothes, or computers are produced, but many are too busy, tired, or already have enough of their own issues to even begin doing anything about it. I was one of them.

Much of the problem lies in the fact that corporate branding—those labels, insignias, and logos of which we are so conscious—influences young adult self-identity to such a deep degree.

So many of us identify so strongly with the brands of products we like that it almost seems natural for us to do so.

By focusing on branding, companies hope to make their logos into a personality—that is, a lifestyle, an image, an identity, or a set of values. Brands should, in the words of one business report, “emote a distinctive persona.” This persona, it is hoped, will be taken on with verve by young consumers—whose collective disposable income stretches into the tens of millions of dollars, averaging more than $100 a week per 16-year-old. And growing into adulthood under corporate branding means that, to a remarkable degree, young adults come to know themselves and are known by peers in and through relationships to brands.

Because I am concerned with how faith communities can sponsor attention to branding, I will suggest some practical ways forward, ways that also may be used and adapted by people with no explicit religious affiliation.

There are two routes to a maturing economic spirituality: the direct and the indirect. Directly addressing economic spirituality in ministry seems to have both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, direct approaches can emulate the prophets by confronting people with a faith-based imperative to change our economic ways. On the other hand, without concrete, alternative ways of buying products, and sometimes even with them, the direct approach can lapse into a moralizing and self-righteous pseudo-prophetic preaching. Which is why I advocate an indirect approach alongside the direct. This approach aims not to deal with the end result of economics in everyday life but with the patterns of life that occur many steps before any purchases are made and to create the conditions of mind and heart that make such purchases seem necessary. Let’s start with the indirect approaches:

1. People can be encouraged to accept the mysterious depth of their human identity, the irreplaceable uniqueness of their own dignity. But human “dignity” and “mystery” can easily ossify into buzzwords. We must continually find evocative ways of describing dignity and mystery. I propose that we ask ourselves what is that undomesticatable region of ourselves that cannot be bought, cannot be branded? What about us cannot be traded away, drugged up, or dieted off? What about ourselves cannot be sold, sweated away, or co-opted by an advertiser? How would you describe that dimension of yourself, and what might it mean to live from that place in your economic life?

2. Christians in particular can be vigilant about the economic implications of the church’s own spiritual practices. We can question the idea that grace is one person’s private property. We can doubt the notion that there are purely “Christian” practices that have escaped influencing and being influenced by the economy.

Most prophetically, we can protest the equating of divine blessing with material wealth, with sales of Christian books, or with big attendance figures in ministry. When St. Ignatius began a ministry of Christian education for children, his own brother strongly objected, saying that no one would come. Ignatius said that “one would be enough.” His example reminds us not to reduce the justification for ministry to a quantitative measure, subject inordinately to consumer norms.

We can also question how the church imitates the labor-exploiting tendencies of our economy when we underpay and exploit church workers when we have the resources to do otherwise.

We can question the source of some donations to the church. Most Christian churches and organizations practice a “don’t ask, don’t tell” donation system, without questioning how that money was acquired. Was it earned as a result of exploited labor, of morally questionable investments, of tax evasion, or of cheating an employer?

Finally, we can question where ministry resources are produced or manufactured. For example, is the coffee in the ubiquitous church coffee pot grown and harvested according to fair-trade standards?

The goal of ministry here should be to get itself into a position where it can credibly criticize economic practices in the larger economy.

3. We can undertake media fasts. This requires supporting each other in giving up television, the Internet, or some other media technology for a specific amount of time. This aids us spiritually by encouraging a critical distance from them and the brands they advertise, allowing us to check their influence on our imaginations.

Jesus himself often fasted from the media of his day. He did this through moving back and forth regularly between the active and the contemplative life. In scripture, Jesus is often being called out of prayer to take on the world, a rhythm of solitude and solicitude, retreat and return, reflection and re-engagement.

4. The church can reclaim its role as sponsor of the arts. It can complement the consumption of branded products by providing resources to encourage young people to create and interpret their own cultural products.

I know of one church that constructed a recording studio to be used by any young musician in the city. These young people are not required to take any orthodoxy test, they are simply welcome to create their own forms of culture under the aegis of the church. It is a marvelous example of the church at the service of the world.

Now the direct approaches:

5. We can draw up declarations of spiritual freedom for our culture, for individuals, families, or communities. The following 10 commitments for such declarations can be used to orient retreats, worship, religious education, or prayer.

Dignity. We will embody the dignity of all life as our most basic value by nurturing and protecting human life at all stages and honoring the created goodness of animals and nature.

Stewardship. We will live stewardship of life as our fundamental spiritual practice by regularly taking an honest measure of our life resources, offering a portion to the church or the world.

Solidarity. We will allow the impact of our spending on the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society to influence strongly our purchasing habits. We will inquire into the labor practices of companies we patronize and let businesses know, through our words and deeds, that just wages and working conditions for all laborers are nonnegotiable matters to people of faith and good will.

Community. We will share in co-responsibility for our lives and the lives of others by being accountable to at least one community or family for whom we will be actively present.

Balance. We will craft our schedules by striving for a balanced life, moving between the active and contemplative modes of solitude, community, recreation, and work.

Play. Because all good recreation immerses us in the goodness of creation, we will make play a priority, both in the form of playful activities and in our taste for the comic dimension of everyday life.

Literacy. We will prepare ourselves to transform responsibly our cultures and communities by gaining literacy in our traditions and fluency in our histories.

Local culture. We will be creators as well as consumers of culture, supporting local and indigenous popular culture and interpreting all forms of culture through lenses of faith. Discernment. We will practice ways of being attentive to the presence of God in the world, alive to the absolute uniqueness of our own gifts, and careful to make moral judgments through an informed conscience.

Disattachment. Knowing that there is no lasting spiritual growth without disattachment from material goods, we strive to avoid getting entangled in material goods by avoiding the extremes of overvaluing them and hating them. We will regularly reassess our relationship to our material goods.

6. We can practice discernment about our economic decisions. This discernment begins with asking ourselves, “How am I using my economic resources?” The hard work of answering such a question may only come through taking up a fashion inventory, investigating where each article of clothing you are wearing was manufactured. At each stage, ask: Who did the work? Were living wages paid? Were safe working conditions present? Were unions allowed?

Overall, what supports or threats to human dignity were part of the production of your goods? And once you know, what steps will you take to honor your deepened economic spirituality?

There is an authentic spiritual impulse at the heart of our branding economy. We use brands to do identity work for us, out of a desire to be recognized by others, by a power greater than ourselves; and the desire to recognize and know others, to commune with others under a power greater than ourselves. And in this recognizing and being recognized, we experience that greater power that draws us inward and outward.

And so our brand economy discloses a task for spiritual maturity: knowing and being known by ourselves and others, without being governed by what we buy.

We can’t do without “stuff.” There is nothing wrong with buying, nothing wrong with the existence of brands. But in order to turn the spiritual corner before us we need to integrate who we are with what we buy.

We live out our relation to our ultimate meaning through what and how we buy. Let the integration of faith and economy be the mark of the true spiritual seeker today, a consuming faith.?

By Tom Beaudoin, visiting assistant professor of theology at Boston College. This text is an excerpt from his book Consuming Faith (Sheed & Ward, 2004). Reprinted with permission from Sheed & Ward, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group. This article appeared in the May 2004 (Volume 69, Number 5) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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