Young people everywhere are attracted to the idea of doing good as they consume products and services. Tom’s Shoes appear on the feet of students all over my campus. The shoes come with a promise that a pair will be distributed in the underdeveloped world each time a pair is purchased. The same is true of Warby Parker glasses. I own a pair, though I bought them for affordability and quality rather than because I wanted to see a pair distributed. Young people are also busy buying “fair trade” coffee, t-shirts, and other goods. The idea is that through our buying habits, we can achieve a greater good than the one that comes from a straightforward exchange of money for products and services.
This concern for those who are less well-off or who live at a disadvantage to ourselves is, of course, nothing new. Certainly, the desire to aid the poor, the widow, and the orphan is a core element of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In my own generation (and really a generation or two before me), Francis Schaeffer criticized Americans (comfortable Christians included) for their addiction to “personal peace and affluence” and their “noncompassionate use of wealth.”
The buying practices I have mentioned are aimed at curbing the tendency of well-off westerners to consume too casually and perhaps too enthusiastically. There is an attempt to encourage thoughtfulness about the way one acquires consumer items. Buy the shoe that results in a pair being delivered to a poor person in Africa at the same time. Purchase the goods that have been produced in a more humane fashion than the ones that belch forth from a sweatshop. Good ideas.
However, I would suggest another consideration in the way we consume. Instead of merely thinking more carefully about things like the production ethics of things we purchase, maybe we should reconsider our list of things we buy. At any given time, we may have items such as tablet computer, smartphone, new car, bigger flatscreen television, new pair of shoes that accomodates each toe separately, new earphones, new trendy jacket, etc. on our list of wants. What if we reconceived our list to include such things as helping someone pay for their car to be repaired, paying money into a scholarship fund for needy families at a local private school or college, giving a Target or Walmart gift card to a young single mother whom you know is having trouble with her bills, assisting a family with the costs of an adoption, and giving a used car to someone who could really use it instead of trading the car in? The list could be as long as one’s imagination, but the point is really to be sensitive to the opportunities as they occur.
The picture I am trying to paint here is one of a new model for consuming. Rather than thinking about the things we would like to buy (even the ones that will be replicated through a buy one, give one model), why not expand the list to include buying things that other people need? In the same way that one saves up money to purchase an iPod, it would be possible to save up a couple hundred dollars and then to ask the Lord to show you what to do with it. I think that this way of living, call it a new Christian consumerism, would go far in building up the church, the spiritual strength of the people in it, and the bonds of friendship between people.