This post, however, is not a book review. HA! Gotcha. But maybe you recognized that when you realized that the title of this post does not begin with the obligatory "Book review:" that has been so popularized on this blog :-)
The book I plan to discuss is pictured at right--The Rough Guide to Shopping with a Conscience by Duncan Clark and Richie Unterberger. I want to discuss it and not write a review about it because, quite frankly, I have not read it. Or all of it anyway. We went to the library yesterday (my first time in public library since February and I was elated!) and I of course went in there with a list of books. I got distracted by others and did not leave with a single book on my list but I did have an armful of other books I had enthusiastically balanced while weaving amongst the stacks. (If my upper-body strength was greater or I had extra arms, most of the home decorating and household section would be empty as well). This book caught my eye because it's something I have dabbled in but with which I have had difficulty: shopping the right products of the right brands in the right stores.
Those who know me well know that there are certain areas in life where I very much enjoy straight-forward thinking. I think it's one of the things I always enjoyed about surgical patients. If you knew the surgery and the general recovery period well you could just check things off of a list and your little surgical patient was not unlike a a 2-3 day recipe you shared with a couple of other nurses in rotating 12-hour shifts. And so I had hoped to find a guide to conscientious consumerism that would tell me in relative terms who or what was "bad" and who or what was "good" (if not exactly give me two lists, at least one of those grading systems you sometimes see).
This book has been overwhelming to me and I don't believe I will finish it. The print is super-duper tiny and the knowledge of international policy and business concepts is way beyond me and my interest. However, with the little I have read I have already learned a lot.
One thing I began to understand better is that there are a few approaches (the book highlights five). And it is extremely difficult to practice all of the approaches simultaneously because at some point you will contradict your efforts. (You can certainly practice two or three at the same time, just not all of them all of the time.) The five approaches:
1. Going green
2. Fair trade
4. Selective shopping
5. Buy local
Buying local and going green often work very well together and boycotts, selective shopping, and fair trade can sometimes fit in there. Trying to support foreign fair trade can be difficult though because you're not exactly shopping locally then and therefore might not be as green. See what I'm saying?
The book points out that there are a lot of grey areas and trying to be ethical in our consumerism is a tricky task. I'm inclined to go mostly with the "green" philosophy since I think its foundational rule of "buy as little as possible" is probably what most Americans need to follow. (Then again, I'm a crazy person with minimalist tendencies!)
One topic I found very intriguing was that not buying from a brand or company because they have questionable practices (sweatshops or other human rights abuses) may not always be the best way to protest.
"If workers are being treated badly, we should demand better treatment for them, but if we actually boycott their employer, we'll reduce demand for the good they're producing, putting their jobs at risk--hurting the very people we're trying to help." (emphasis from Clark & Unterberger)
(All of the Fair-trade talk got me thinking about this post from Rage Against the Mini-van regarding chocolate during Halloween.)
The book also points out that if we employ selective shopping it only does any good when we let the store or brand know that we are avoiding them and why. A suggestion is Responsible Shopper, a site with loads of information about companies' questionable practices and the contact information to let them know how you feel.
While it is a little out of date (first edition published 2007--there may be an updated version available for purchase, just not at my library) and there appears to be a bias (but really--what do you expect from a book on this topic?), I do think it presents a lot of thought-provoking information from all angles. The complexity of the issue is captured and helps to create a broader understanding of the issue for a reader. I'd recommend it to be read in its entirety for a reader with some stamina and as a "selective interest" read for someone more like me :-)
So I'd like to ask you, dear readers:
What do you do to support ethical consumerism?
Did you do anything special this Christmas, like trying to buy 80% of your presents as made in the USA or Fair-trade certified?
What businesses or brands do you avoid? Have you contacted them to let them know?
Do you have any other recommendations of books, websites, or even apps to help me and other readers?
I really hope to hear back from readers on this one, even if you don't have much advice. This is an important topic as Christians and as human beings.