Covid-19 has revealed weaknesses in our existing systems, and panic-buying in particular has revealed that we do not think about how our consumer choices affect others. Although there is plenty of toilet paper to go around, we now have an unequal distribution because with heightened anxiety, a handful of buyers have first considered their own needs above the needs of society as a whole. I don’t blame them.
Over the last 500 years of Western thought, we have seen a gradual trend towards placing value on the individual above the relational ties between individuals. We consider ourselves to be autonomous units that are self-contained, rather than relational creatures who are designed to love.
The rise of consumerism over the past 100 years has been somewhat unprecedented. If we evaluate our cultural values based on our collective actions and habits, we can easily assert that our culture believes that more stuff will make us happy. Put simply, the end goal of human flourishing is to have lots of stuff. Indeed, there has been pushback with the minimalist movement. Their claim is that more stuff clearly doesn’t make us happy, so we should try and have less stuff instead. The problem is that stuff is still at the centre of their philosophy.
To understand the problems with our collective buying habits, we actually need to dig deeper. Typically, we think, ‘will this thing (or will throwing away this thing) make me happy?’ What we need to think is, ‘how does this thing impact the people it connects me with?’
Consumerism as we know it is based on the flawed cultural assumption that our spending has no impact on other people. And yet consumption is not amoral. We know this because there is a supply chain, which links the stuff we consume to a lot of other people all over the planet.
Other cultures know that consumption is relational because when they go to market, they have to look the merchant in the eye. When they haggle or bargain on the value of a product, they have to do so face to face with the person who is selling it to feed their family. But for us in the West, this process is out of sight and out of mind. If I buy a new phone, I do not have to think about how the materials that made it were mined from the earth’s resources, nor do I have to think of the people who worked in the factory where it was made.
So, if we want to save our planet and consider how others are impacted by our consumption, we need to completely reimagine our cultural values.
Every consumer choice that you make will impact another person. In fact, it will impact hundreds of people plus the planet that 7.8 billion people live on. There is not one purchase that has not had an impact on another human. But, if we bring back the value of relationship into our society, then can we learn how to make consistently ethical choices in our everyday spending habits. When we buy, we need to ask, ‘who does this affect?’ and ‘how will this empower or disempower the people whom I share this planet with?’
This is not a case of throwing away the value of the individual, rather it is a case of understanding that there are other individuals on this earth too. We need to remember to value the relationships between these individuals, not just ourselves as self-contained units.
To summarise, nothing you buy is amoral. It’s just a question of what sort of impact you want to have on other people, and what sort of world you want to build for future generations.
So, how do we begin to reshape our cultural values? As a first century Rabbi once stated, ‘you should love your neighbour as yourself.’ I think this is a good place to start.
Sarah Coppin is a theologian and artist based in Cambridge.