The ethics of shopping

December 22, 2008

Carmen and I spent some time in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong a few weeks ago essentially on New College alumni business. On the Saturday before we left Hong Kong for home we did what many people do when they travel to Asian cities, we went shopping for a bargain in one of the well-known markets. We were mainly looking for Christmas presents for our grandchildren, but as we wandered up and down the rows of merchants there was one very consistent cry:

"Copy watch, you want copy watch sir?"

Typically this was a question asked of me and it occurred at just about every second stand. It was sometimes followed with statements like "We've got Rolex, copy Rolex out the back, you want one, very cheap".

I had no trouble resisting the pleas of the many sales people. For a start, I wouldn't want my friends and the residents of New College to see me wearing a watch that looked like it was worth $5,000 (even though it was only worth $20); I'm not one for bling! But I'm also strongly against people ripping off the trademarks and intellectual property of other individuals and companies. I'd thought this through as a Christian long before I started receiving 6-10 SPAM emails daily offering me similarly wonderful 'replica watches' as the spammers call them. This decision seems like an easy ethical dilemma to resolve. But this made me think, what other ethical shopping dilemmas will I face this Christmas season. And which ones am I not even aware that I'm facing? What does it mean to shop ethically? What guidance does the Bible give us?

The problem of selectivity

Part of the problem with thinking ethically about shopping is that we tend to focus on one area of concern. For example, I know people who act (quite rightly) as campaigners for Fair Trade. Their concern is driven primarily by their desire to see justice for workers and suppliers (fair pay for products as well as the labour that produced them). Others campaign to ensure that we don't encourage the sale of wooden products that destroy the environment. It's easy to pick some issues that you can quickly make an ethical decision about while missing other areas of perhaps equal ethical concern. I suspect that we face ethical decisions as shoppers every day. Here are a few examples:
  • You are given too much change by the shop assistant - should you give it back?
  • You wear a piece of clothing but decide you don't like it - you are tempted to take it back for exchange after wearing it (just once), but should you?
  • You have to answer questions about your driving record when seeking a new insurance policy which will affect the premium you're charged - do you tell them the full story?
  • You see products that have most likely been manufactured by workers who have not been treated justly, (often clothing, but also household items in wood or cane). The workers might have been poorly paid, child family members could have been forced to work long hours and may have been denied education (especially girls), slave labourers may have been used, staff within family sweat shops may have produced the clothing and so on. How do you assess this and should you buy the products?
  • You have the chance to buy something that will tempt you or the recipient of the gift to break the law or act unethically themselves - e.g. police scanners that allow people to listen in on the police broadcasts, machines for multi-copying of DVDs and CDs, devices for detecting speed cameras so that you can speed in 'safety'. Should you buy such a device?
  • You see a book, CD, video or clothing item that is obviously a copy of a well-known brand (like my 'copy watch'). Do you purchase it?
  • You know that the seller is desperate for a sale (often this can occur in Asian countries) and you think you can drive the price even lower to the point that it is costing you almost nothing. Should you? I can well remember bargaining for a painting in a village in Indonesia about 5 years before I became a Christian and getting it for a ridiculous price. I recall later realising that it cost me 14 cents and feeling very guilty, as it was hardly a fair price.
This might all seem a bit much, you might think I'm going over the top! But am I? If you're a Christian reading this blog then like me you need to consider what the Bible has to say about ethical shopping.

What the Bible has to say that can help us?

The easy part is that if your action or choice is going to lead you or others to break the law then you shouldn't do it. While we are to be obedient to Christ first, we are to be obedient to the laws of the land that are set by authorities appointed ultimately by God. So, a 'copy watch' is out, as is an illegal video, copied music etc. Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1 and 1 Peter 2:13 are helpful here, especially Rom 13: 1,2 & 7:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment....Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honour is owed.

But the Bible teaches more than simply obedience to the laws of the land; we are called to pay attention even to the 'spirit of the law' not just the 'letter of the law'. Jesus teaches about this in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-20) when he says:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus is suggesting to the Scribes and Pharisees that the righteousness that he expects is nothing less than complete conformity to God’s law. Jesus is teaching that it is the heart not just the outward deed is that is ultimately most important. This is God-given righteousness; hearts transformed by the saving grace of Christ, not a righteousness of outward compliance. Jesus demands more than just an outward pretence of honesty while all the time acting unethically and unjustly by seeking some level of right action, to keep up appearances, but quietly pushing the boundaries of what is right in one area while trying in another.

I’m challenged by Jesus’ words for I know that in my heart I’m tempted constantly to ‘cut corners’ so to speak, hiding behind a façade of ethical action a heart that while viewed as free of guilt because of the righteousness of Christ, is still engaged in a daily war against the flesh. Jesus teaching is hard teaching here. What is expected of us? Mere token observance of the laws of the land? No much more than this. As Christians we must not relax “one of the least of these commandments” and what’s more I must flee the false righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees that fails to satisfy the heart and the mind, that seeks to glorify self in our actions, that is self made, not reflective of a repentant and obedient heart.

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