We all know that responsibility is a huge tenet of the Bible. In Galatians 6:5, Paul reminds us "for each one should carry their own load." We are even warned the cost of not taking responsibility in the things we do, especially the wrong things we do, in Proverbs 28:13: "Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy." On and on the bible goes and as Christians we understand, our actions and words hold weight in how we represent the Kingdom and effectively how we exercise our faith in God. Does that mean, however, that this responsibility to live and act like Jesus extends to what we buy and consume as well? Does God really care where the things we buy come from as long as we aren't buying something that is pagan or sinful?
"Do not profit by the blood of your neighbor…you shall not hate your kinsman in your heart. Reprove your neighbor but incur no guilt because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself." – Leviticus 19:16b-18
Ethical and unethical production are large areas of contest around the world. One side argues that everything we consume affects a multitude of lives around the world, many of which are negatively affected due to the use of sweatshops to produce cheap product to mass distribute globally; while the other argues that it is better for the consumer to pay smaller prices and that the effects of unethical production conditions are a minimal cost to pay for consumer happiness. This brings to the forefront, however, the idea of happiness of one superseding the importance of happiness for another; making one life much more valuable. Likewise, minimizing the cost of one's life makes it seem as though, to the casual consumer, that the harm is simply something such as lower wages for such work than that of someone in a wealthier or more developed nation, such as the United States. The truth, however, is much gravier than it might seem on the surface.
In the retail industry specifically which produces items such as textiles, homeware, furniture, cosmetics, and even electronics, the United States Department of Labor states the epidemic use of sweatshops (a manufacturing facilities that two or more labor laws) is globally widespread, especially with businesses where outsourcing is prevalent. Sweatshops often have poor working conditions, unfair wages, unreasonable hours, child labor, and a lack of benefits for workers. DoSomething.org states, "In developing countries, an estimated 168 million children ages 5 to 14 are forced to work." The website goes on to say, "Because women make up 85 to 90% of sweatshop workers, some employers force them to take birth control and routine pregnancy tests to avoid supporting maternity leave or providing appropriate health benefits."
The labor violations are not only found in factories that manufacture retail items such as clothing and televisions, however. Child labor is especially common in agriculture (98 million, or 59% of child laborers work in agriculture), followed by services (54 million) and industry (12 million). The International Labor Organization estimates, "At any given time in 2016, an estimated 40.3 million people are in modern slavery, including 24.9 million in forced labour" driven by the demands of consumers around the world. Moreover, the diamond industry has seen its share of human rights atrocities due to the rise of conflict diamonds (also known as blood diamonds) first highlighted during the 1990s during brutal diamond trades in Sierra Leone. Though much of the conflict has ended, "many diamonds are still stained by severe human rights abuses such as forced labor, beatings, torture, and murder." Still today, approximately one million diamond miners on the African continent are paid less than $1 a day, promoting and sustaining widespread poverty and conflict throughout the region.
So, it is clear that unethical production practices do not positively impact or even neutrally impact the individuals producing the goods that are being mass consumed globally, but why as Christians should we care? What does the Bible have to say beyond are general call of goodwill to all and our Christian character to love one another?
Leviticus 25:35 says, “Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor and his means with regard to you falter, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or a sojourner that he may live with you” (NASB). If we are allowing for workers to live in poverty due to our consumption choices, we are effectively leading them into despair and hopelessness. God's plans for all people are for their GOOD and not for despair, hopelessness, and poverty. In this verse, He makes clear that if we see someone in such a state, whether friend or stranger, we are to help and sustain them and show them God's love.
Furthermore, Psalms 113: 7 states, "He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap” (NASB). If we are to be the hands and feet of the Lord, the salt of the earth, or the light of the world that we are called to be through Jesus, we must also do as God does and lift up the needy; not send them into much more desperate need due to our own selfish desires.
Finally, the Bible says in Proverbs 14:31, "Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but helping the poor honors him." We can either live to insult God, or to honor Him and it is in the choices (even the simple choice of paying more for an item that you know upholds fair-trade and ethically sourced standards) we make that establish what we are willing to do. So next time, when you are in the grocery store or mall, make sure you are honoring God with what is inside your cart or basket.