Power and the Purse: A Jewish Approach to Ethical Consumerism

February 1, 2012
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Jason Kimelman-Block

The ripple effects of American consumerism are felt far and wide. As consumers, we live as the primary beneficiaries of a system of trade and production that has no parallel in human history. Like it or not, these arrangements are transforming our communities, our country, our planet, and people across the globe. Some changes, such as the establishment of communities that collectively support local farms and treat workers and the earth well, are good for people and the earth. Other consumer changes are not. For example, victims of child trafficking are forced into indentured servitude on American soil to make T-shirts in illegal sweatshops.1

Rarely do we pause to consider how many hands have helped make, transport, market, and sell each item that we buy — Shabbat candles, a pound of potatoes, or our cell phone service. Like it or not, my purchases — what I consume — are an investment in the practices of companies that impact the quality of life in small-town America, the working conditions from here to China, and the environmental quality in my backyard and across the globe. For each purchase we make, we endorse workplace policies, production standards, worker safety and equality, and so much more.

While we sometimes put these thoughts to the back of our minds in the rush of daily life, we know that our small choices add up — creating a bottom line for some and a bottom rung for others. How we conduct ourselves as consumers has an enormous influence on the world around us. If we buy products from companies that mistreat or underpay their workers, we should recognize that in doing so, we compromise our own ability to “do good” in the world. If we intentionally support companies and sellers that treat their employees well and promote a healthy planet, then we’re not supporting that type of degradation. We can shift the impact of our consumption.

As inheritors of a tradition which teaches that Jewish practices and values should permeate every aspect of our lives, we can seek out Jewish ways to navigate the ethical implications of being consumers.

<>Judgment and Compassion

These are treacherous waters to navigate, since it’s so easy to get stuck on either end of two extremes, becoming so appalled that we’re paralyzed and feel we shouldn’t buy anything, or becoming overwhelmed and opting not to think about these bigger issues at all. How can we hold ourselves accountable for the choices we make, while being gentle enough with ourselves to understand that we can only do so much? The traditional model of the balance between din (judgment) and chesed (compassion) is helpful here. We need din to evaluate the ethical implications of our economic activity. At the same time, we should treat ourselves with enough chesed to recognize that the globalized systems of manufacturing were built over time; changing them requires much time and effort, and in the meantime, there are small but significant ways we can make our choices meaningful.

Investing in Bedikah (Transparency)

One of the biggest challenges is amassing the requisite information to be educated consumers who make informed decisions. When I see several products on a shelf, how do I know the standards of the manufacturers, and how do I assess the validity of the claims? How do I know if a shirt I want was made with sweatshop labor and if the store treats its workers humanely? Independent certification, like a label designating food to be kosher, ensures that the product you’re about to purchase was produced according to certain guidelines. In his book Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything, Daniel Goleman describes efforts to develop social and ecological impact scores for thousands of products in the marketplace. And the “Good Guide” application for iPhones and Droids can scan products on the shelf and give you a rating in real time. In recent years, a number of Jewish organizations have developed ethical certifications or guidelines, including Uri L’Tzedek’s Tav HaYosher (Ethical Seal); the Conservative movement’s Magen Tzedek (Seal of Justice); and the Green and Just Guide produced by the Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice and by Jews United for Justice.

Individual Piety vs. Collective Impact

As ethical consumers, too many of us get caught up in what feels like the consumer version of one-upmanship. Individual consumer choices may provide a temporary feeling of having done something good, but when made in isolation, they don’t have a broader impact. Individual actions are necessary, but not sufficient. True impact comes when large numbers of people take action, and when they utilize a variety of strategies, including shareholder advocacy, legislation, and public pressure. The Jewish analogue would be this: While we each take individual responsibility for our ethical and religious lives, our lives are made holy through relationships and communities. The concept of minyan says that even our relationship with God is incomplete outside of the communal context. Therefore, an approach to ethical consumption should focus on strategic change with global impact rather than individual purity.

Shabbat — a Break from “Consumer Identity”

I’m a Jew, a father, a citizen, a synagogue member, and many other things — but I rarely call myself a consumer, even though I make purchases. I reject the pervasive message in advertising that what we buy defines us. When overconsumption is the trademark of the status quo, trying to consume less can actually be the best and most ethical choice, especially if we make fewer, better purchases.

The practice of Shabbat enables me to regularly step out of the modes of buying and producing. Our identities as producers and consumers are de-emphasized. The two primary themes of Shabbat, as recited in the Friday night kiddushzicharon l’ma’asei vereishit, a remembrance of creation, and zecher litziyat mitzrayim, a reminder of the exodus from Egypt — remind us that we are creatures of God’s world. This reminder enables us to luxuriate in a Shabbat away from consumption and return 25 hours later to production and consumption with a moral compass oriented toward honoring creation as well as human freedom and dignity.

Maximize the Good and Minimize Harm

Some decisions we make as ethical consumers reduce the harmful effects of production. Other consumer decisions can actually support positive changes in the world, such as buying food grown with sustainable agricultural practices, purchasing fair trade products where the producers are able to support themselves and their communities, or choosing to support local businesses that help our communities.

It’s also important to recognize that we “buy” products that aren’t found on any market shelf. The money we put into banking institutions, insurance companies, and other financial products can be used to support the world we want to create. When we make decisions on which institutions to trust with our money, we have a variety of options. The Occupy Wall Street movement has brought increasing attention to the financial sector and the role that questionable and unethical practices of financial institutions played in the current economic crisis. And it has begun to bring attention to the Sustainable and Responsible Investing (SRI) movement, which for decades has sought to create venues for ethical consumers of financial products out of a desire to reduce harm. The original SRI investors tended to be religious investors who sought to avoid companies involved in tobacco, alcohol, and gambling. Today, the SRI movement also provides capital for businesses and industries such as renewable energy. Other financial products go even further. Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) invest in underserved communities in order to enable their economic development and vibrancy. They provide affordable capital to support affordable housing, small businesses, and community facilities. This approach clearly resonates with classic Jewish strategies of alleviating poverty though fostering economic independence. Community investing also supports our other identities: neighbor, fellow citizen, and community member.

Whatever the strategy, as participants and often beneficiaries of a complex economic system that can make our lives exponentially better or worse, we have an individual and collective responsibility to work toward creating a system that values and contributes toward the common good.

1 www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osdfs/factsheet.html

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