In a college theology classroom, I ask 25 freshmen to get out their laptops, find the website for a favorite brand of clothing, and look up an advertised product. I invite them to name the sorts of product information there. They call out categories: colors and sizes, materials, how it feels, special features, how soon it can ship, a link to related items, and, of course, the price. What, I ask them, does all this information share in common?
After some discussion, someone ventures that these categories all point to how the product will benefit the consumer. What is missing in this list, I ask? What else might someone want to know about this product, especially a person of faith who cares about the love and justice of God?
Eventually, someone suggests, “Who made it?” Someone else asks, “Were the workers who made it paid fairly?” They’re on a roll now: Was child labor involved? What were the environmental impacts of production and shipping? How long will this garment last, and will it leach toxins into the soil when it is discarded? And hardest of all: do you really need another one of these? Finally, I ask, why isn’t that information there?
Globalization of the economy has resulted in millions of jobs in poor places and an influx of affordable consumer goods to affluent places. There have been real benefits. But, as most of us are at least vaguely aware, this system has a dark underbelly. Much of the stuff we buy in the affluent West is made under sweatshop conditions we’d rather not consider, using a quantity of resources we can hardly imagine, with effects we do not wish to contemplate.
The fast fashion industry, for example, which delivers weekly waves of clothes at dirt-cheap prices to American stores, is notorious for exploitation of poor workers, mostly women and sometimes children, and is implicated in the 2013 deadly collapse of the Bangladeshi garment factory Rana Plaza. The fast manufacture of clothes also pollutes major waterways and soil and sucks up water for the processing of fabrics at astonishing rates: it takes more than 600 gallons of water to create a single t-shirt (Watercalcuator.org). The problems exceed the manufacturing side: landfills are piled high with cheap clothes whose slow decomposition releases greenhouse gases into the air and toxins into the soil. Neither is donation a simple answer: most of our donated clothes end up in used-clothing markets in developing countries, displacing ancient patterns of dress and decimating local sewing industry.
The point is, the stuff we buy and discard has hidden costs, costs that are not reflected in the price we pay, but that someone and some place must and does pay: the garment worker forced to work overtime, the child laborer, the polluted river. These are real costs, which means those cheap shoes I just found on sale are not in fact cheap. They’re just cheap to me.
In the mid-twentieth century, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer lamented in his The Cost of Discipleship that Christians were treating the grace of God as though it were cheap, blithely dismissing the idea of a divine demand on their lives. God’s forgiveness is given so freely we may easily take it for granted. But just because you didn’t pay for it, Bonhoeffer cautioned, doesn’t mean it’s cheap. Grace is terribly costly; it cost Jesus Christ his life. It cost the Father a broken heart. The cross, Bonhoeffer insisted, is the reminder that grace may come free to us, but it’s not cheap.
We could use a similar reminder today about the stuff we so easily buy in consumer society. It may be cheap to us, but it’s costing someone. Remembering this is hard, because we’re trained not to ask certain questions. Through an ongoing, subtle “education” of the consumer, we’re taught not to even to wonder about true costs. The exercise I described at the beginning of this essay points to one way such “education” happens: when product information only addresses the consumer’s desires and comfort, that forms our imagination. It teaches us that the only pertinent questions are those that deal with ourselves and our desires. It treats information about how others are affected—whether people or planet—as irrelevant, as unreal. Over time, we start to feel that people far away and rivers we don’t see really are irrelevant or unreal. A challenge thus lies before educators and youth ministers today: in the face of this ongoing education of young consumers, how do we help them resist? How do we help them (and ourselves) consider true costs, in light of God’s love and justice?
The Judeo-Christian tradition, and the biblical tradition in particular, already has a response to this challenge: it’s the theological and biblical pattern of asking where everything came from and where it will all end up. It’s the pattern of telling a story about the world that tries to think about the whole picture in time.
Where did everything come from? This is the question of Genesis, the question of God and creation. It’s also the question of engineering, manufacture, human labor, and shipping.
Where will it all end up? This is the question of Revelation and Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings, the question of eschatology. It’s also the question of waste management, environmental damage, and cultural impact.
The temptation is to think that the Christian story is only about God and our souls. But our bodies and the stuff we consume are just as real as the life of our spirit. In a global economy, a truly Christian education will push us to tell the story of our stuff. Such storytelling becomes apocalyptic—that is, revelatory. Through it, the Spirit sheds light on what has been hidden, so that we, and our youth, notice what questions aren’t even being asked.