Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Save Money, Live Better

A little while ago, I took a group of students to Wal-Mart, because that's where they wanted to go. It's not my first choice of store, and I have heard many things about their unethical practices. While I was there I bought a pair of pants, and I'm sitting here and wearing them and feeling very guilty.

Wal-Mart's new logo and theme right now, found in all of its advertising, is this:

Ouch. What they are really saying is, live better by making other people live worse. Or, let's make the gap between the rich and poor even greater. My guilt is not simply about my decision to support a bad, bad company. It is on a much broader scale, and it is likely that you share my sin:
    Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. - James 5
Wal-Mart's new logo flaunts the sin of our two nations. We save money so that we can live in greater luxury and self-indulgence. How do we do that? By finding ways of producing goods more cheaply. How do Wal-Mart and many other retailers manage that? The cost of materials doesn't usually go down, so they reduce the cost of making the products. That is, the workers make less money. They live worse so we can live better.

Here's how it works: Wal-Mart finds vendors willing to negotiate a lower price to produce their brand. But their "clear policy" is that the price must decrease year after year, so the vendor has to find ways of producing it cheaper every year, or Wal-Mart drops them like a hot potato. That usually first means moving production to a third world country, where labour is less expensive. But then it means finding workers willing to earn less and less, in worse and worse conditions. It is like what Pharoah did to the Israelites when he forced them to produce the same number of bricks without supplying any more straw. In Canada, Wal-Mart has actually closed stores whose workers tried to unionize for fairer pay and more reasonable working conditions.

We're fattening ourselves for a day of slaughter.

Think of that next time you see a price roll-back.

So, what am I saying?

In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul provides some basic financial principles that cut across the grain of Western capitalism. He wants the church to understand the importance of giving to the fund he is collecting to help the church in Judea through a famine. His principles are the kind of thing that would make a socialist smile and the typical American nervous:
    Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: "He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little."
Would he say the same thing to us? Maybe, but I know for sure that Wal-Mart's new logo would make him puke. His principle is pretty clear: Work toward economic equality and fairness.

It is sad that the church seems so far behind in the practice of fair trade (like we were with recycling, conservation and respect for copyright). Fair Trade should have been our campaign, because it is surely a vehicle for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Stores like Mountain Equipment Co-op - which is as secular as you can get - have been doing this for thirty years, while many Jesus-followers still have never considered why the deals are so good at their favorite stores.

The tough thing is knowing what to do about inequality and injustice in our world. It is so huge, and though perhaps some of you may one day do something huge in response to the problem, what the average individual might do can seem so insignificant. Kinda like voting in a federal (or provincial) election. Who is there to vote for? What difference will it make? Our difficulty is that none of the parties are so very bad, or so very good, to motivate us to vote. But what if there were just two parties, one clearly corrupt, and one just and fair. Would that motivate us to vote?

Every time we shop, we vote.

Every time we shop with a company that has corrupt principles, we "vote" for corrupt practices. Really, we probably could pay a little more and shop with a company that demonstrates greater integrity and fairness, and it would not take that much extra effort. By doing so, we would "vote" for fairer trade and support movements toward equality.

I am such a newbie when it comes to knowing where to shop ethically, and thus where to vote. I welcome all suggestions - provided that you can back up your claim with credible (not Wikipedia) references. And as always, I welcome your comments and helpful criticism.

What do you think about spending more money and letting someone else live better?

PS - For an interesting take on this issue, check out The Story of Stuff With Annie Leonard.