Shopping: yet another way to give

October 24, 2012 | Young Voices
Elise Epp | Special to Canadian Mennonite
Toronto, Ont.

I bought 1kg of sugar for $7. It is Camino golden cane sugar. As it says on the back of the packaging, it is grown at “the first farmer co-operative in Paraguay to produce and export organic sugar.” I feel pleased with myself for supporting such a project.

Until my second-guessing begins. I spent $7 on sugar! How frivolous! I feel guilty partly because I have only recently emerged from student-hood, in which money is never plentiful. But I am also very aware of the virtue of frugality—the less money spent the better. In buying the more expensive sugar I participated more than necessary in the commercial world.

And yet, with my $7 purchase, I supported “sustainable agricultural practices, local community development, and manufacturing by producer co-operatives.” I spent more, because I was actually paying the people who made the product, instead of supporting an environmentally unstable and economically unbalanced structure.

Perhaps with the exception of fair trade coffee, we don’t often talk about how spending money itself can be an act of stewardship, but every time we part with our money we are giving it to someone. When we are giving to charities, we expect nothing in return but a level of accountability. Yet a heavy shopping bag doesn’t have to mean a heavy conscience. There is a reason Ten Thousand Villages, a store dedicated to selling fair trade products, grew out of Mennonite Central Committee—because giving and shopping don’t have to be separate; one can be a consumer in a way that supports communities.

The “Share, Save, Spend” financial model (where you keep three separate accounts with money designated for each category), has been discussed in previous issues of Canadian Mennonite. However, sharing and spending can work towards a common goal.

Spending can mean supporting a craftsperson in a career about which he or she is passionate. Conversely, by trying to avoid commercialism and always looking for the cheapest price, we may actually buy more harmful items, counteracting what we are trying to achieve through charitable giving to organizations that promote community development.

So I bought my $7 bag of sugar. A few stores down the road, I found a pair of beautiful $124 shorts. (Before you start hyperventilating, I will let you know I did not buy them.) They were at a store which redesigns reclaimed fabrics into new clothes. In doing so, they incorporate environmental sustainability with creative design and skilled construction, all of which I value. But all of these things cost money.

If I value sustainability and creativity, I feel I should tell them so by supporting them in a way that will keep them in business. I wince; $124 for shorts seems like a steep cost, but it also makes me wonder why some shorts are $20. For the $104 difference, who isn’t getting paid? How is somebody else impacted by my “steal of a deal?”

To write anything on this subject is to recognize one’s own inconsistencies. However, when I shop I consider four things: 1) environmental impact, 2) creativity, 3) local community/small business, and 4) the producers/manufacturers. Though I rarely get top marks in all four categories, I try to take into account the impact of each.

The point is not that spending more money on items is in itself virtuous; rather, it is about incorporating our beliefs not just into our giving but also our spending—going beyond fair trade coffee to other food, clothing, and all other purchases.

If we are against a company’s labour practices, we should give our money to—i.e. purchase items from—companies whose policies we do support. If we don’t like money pooling at the top of the corporate ladder, we should support smaller businesses. If we are concerned about the environment, we should purchase items that are recycled, repurposed or sustainable. If we are concerned about peace, we should make sure people can earn a living wage doing peaceful work.

The choices we make with our money all have an effect on our world. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians gave $10.6 billion to charities in 2010, yet as consumers we regularly support the very system that keeps people in poverty. Our purchases can be yet another way to give. Next time you’re shopping think of it this way: if you weren’t getting anything in return, would you still want to give that company money?

Elise Epp is a musician living in Toronto. She is a member of Toronto United Mennonite Church.

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