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When a good deal is NOT a good deal

I like a deal. I’m a bargain hunter. I wait for sales, I comparison shop, I buy from second-hand or used- shops. Some call me frugal, some call me ‘fiscally prudent,’ some call me cheap.

As much as I like a good deal, I try to make sure that my purchases are ethical. A $10 t-shirt may seem like a great deal, but what is the real price of that shirt? Is it worth it?

This morning the world learned of yet another garment-factory fire in Bangladesh; in the past 2 months almost 120 people have died and countless have been injured; over 600 people have been killed in fires since 2005. We learn of horrific working conditions: cramped spaces, long hours, buildings with only one or two exits that are literally locked once the workers are inside. The human rights issues are scary, and abundant.

And we are learning of the brands that are contracting (or sub-contracting) to these factories – often these are not inexpensive for us, on sale or not. So we know there’s someone getting rich off of this modern-day slavery.

Yet, our society continues to support this structure – by buying these things, we’re telling the market that we want them to make more; that we’ll continue to pay for more; that they should continue to find ways of making more – no matter what.

So how should we respond? How are we, as Christians, to engage this reality in a meaningful way?

I think we need to examine our baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human person. If we mean that, then we simply cannot support a system of inexpensive goods that is based on unethical means. We have a responsibility to learn where our goods come from, how they were made (there are MANY stages and loopholes in tracking garment production), and who is profiting from them.

Sure, it’s easier to claim ignorance and enjoy a seeming good deal. But we know better. We know the system is flawed. We know that our ‘good deal’ shirt may have been made last month by a person who died this morning; that our purchasing this shirt is supporting the system where these tragedies continue to occur.

As Christians, we have to live out that respect for our brothers and sisters. We can choose to pay a little more money and buy brands where the workers are receiving fair wages in safe(r) working conditions. True, we may not have as many shirts sitting in our cupboard, but the ones we have do not burden us with guilt. When we make ethical purchases, we are acting in solidarity with the workers. We are proclaiming that we care – even though we may never meet them. And we are showing the world that we believe we can make a difference, by staying with those things that really are Good Deals.

Have the recent garment fires in Bangladesh influenced your purchasing decisions? Are you willing to pay more for ethically made clothes? Do you think this is a Christian issue?

About Laura Marie Piotrowicz

I’m a high-energy priest, now serving in the Diocese of Niagara, catching glimpses of the kingdom in daily life. I consider church to be a verb, and I’m passionate about prayer, eco-theology, and social justice. I love travel, reading, canoeing, camping, gardening and cooking, playing with my dogs, and drinking good coffee.

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0 Responses to When a good deal is NOT a good deal

  1. I agree that we should pay attention to our own purchasing practices, but I don’t believe that will actually get to the heart of the problem. The issue is with the people who have the major purchasing power, namely the corporations that buy the goods from Bangladesh. The system won’t change until or unless North American retailers change their purchasing policies. That will take grass-roots pressure from their customers, and from groups such as the Church. In the meantime, one of the unfortunate realities is that the people of Bangladesh depend on these jobs — and on our purchasing power in Canada and the US. Yes, this is a Christian issue, but it’s a spider-web of an issue. Tug on one strand, and it affects the whole system, sometimes with unforeseen and unwelcome results.

  2. Indeed, Robin, the system is complex, and in my opinion flawed. And yes, folks depend on these jobs – but there are alternatives – there are brands using factories that are part of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, who have as part of their mission “BGMEA is committed to ensure all legitimate rights and privileges of the garment workers.” (http://www.bgmea.com.bd/home/pages/AboutBGMEAT) If we as consumers demand more ethical options, the producers will respond.

    In the meantime, I’m really feeling feisty about my clothing purchases. The more I’m researching, the more feisty I’m becoming – there have been *18* garment factory fires since November. For me, that’s too high a price to pay. I wouldn’t accept that happening here (though there are horrific garment industry realities here in Canada, let’s not pretend otherwise), I shouldn’t accept it happening there. I also know that when I’m next in Bangladesh I want to be able to look people in the eyes and know I’m not supporting their suffering.


    Read BEING CONSUMED  or come to Huron College at Univerity of Western Ontario on Jan 31 to hear the author William T Cavanaugh speak about replacing consumer spirituality with Christian spirituality. The book is short, readable, scholarly, insightful.

    Stop shopping for fun and for a good feeling: go to church, help a neighour, cook food, DO anything with a focus on meeting God in that activity.  Shift purchases to FAIR TRADE organizations. Train your kids in the love of Fair Trade, shopping for second hand clothes  Get your school to break the back of clothes competition —- we had kids assaulted on the way home from school by other kids stealing their GAP and JUICY branded clothing. The principal sent home a note asking parents to send the kids to school in non-brand name clothing – and the more worn the better because at school learning is busy and messy. Convince your school to have optional uniforms: and if you’re rich, put your kids in those uniforms. Have parents resell well worn uniforms to other parents in the gym every Sept —- schools have as much if not more influence on fashion and the empty spirituality of shopping as the home. In our church, all Sunday school teachers wear blue jeans or casual clothes and parents are begged at the front of the church regularly to send their kids in old clothes to church so that we can get busy and get messy getting to know and love the Lord. Sponsor a family (not just a child) in one of those slums where moms make clothing…with a development oriented charity like PLAN.

    Shopping is a spiritually formative system or process. You can shop in such a way as to form loving connections between buyers, sellers and makers, or you can shop the consumer way, which is ALL THE TIME, and foster detachment, oppression of the poor, oppressive vanity of the rich purchasers here.   What you can’t do is be neutral.  If your church is favouring the fashionable and using false marketing techniques to raise funds, you have to name it and work in a group to redirect the church to fostering Christian purchasing practices. Buy local – we bought locally raised BOAR (no hormones, no middleman) from a local farmer for our Thanksgiving community dinner.

    The problem with the Dean’s comment for me was that it wasn’t committed to the adult tweeters who read this tweet area. A point about a bigger picture needs to do more than look knowledgable – it becomes just a one upmanship, regardless of the author’s intent.  YES BUT. Adult learners want to hear where there is information about that wider view the Dean is mentioning; they’re spending valuable time to sign on and read here. Authors here, if they’re loving God by doing this, need to accept that the adult reader of these tweets as acting on a God given desire to know Him better in this way of investigatinghow consumerism gets between us and God and one another. Tweet authors need to return the readers consideration with concrete information that will help them in their pursuit..

    Marketers are not lazy. They’re working hard to undermine Christian consciousness and practice and to redirect our desire into unconscious discontent. We can’t be lazy either.

    IF Jesus had said….Yes, but there is so much more to this issue of stoning women caught in adulatery. There’s the centuries of……      The woman would have been stoned to death before anyone figured out what he was on about.

    I say, get in there. Focus on finding God in your use and purchase of objects. Love your shirt makers as you  love youself Just do it.We are not commanded to change the WORLD or dont bother.  We are commanded to feed Christ’s sheep with the food of life and to do that in our Christian communities. And while we are at it, let us start treating every person working in a fast food joint or in a clothing shop like a whole person; engage them, thank them, give them positive feedback, give them negative feedback in a productive and loving way.  The retail working poor here are poor because they’re tied into this abusive economic system.

    Adults who are out here working in business and other arenas don’t come to Church. We need to give them the goods on their adult spiritual formation – they studied, and their kids are studying consumerism in school. They know that marketing fosters discontent. But they might just think — yeah so what? They may not know that they have a built in desire that makes them long for something that isn’t shopping and prestige- God and their neighbour. They might not know that steering their desire away from shopping into christian celebrations, praying and mediating and bible studies and serving to the active love of a neighbour does give peace and love and trust and sometimes better community lives. More intellectually awake teenagers. Less overburdened parents at the end of every month with more energy to pay attention to their kids. Charge card bills kill people. Canadians households owe $164  for every $100 dollars they make. Shopping. Canadian shopping is a harmful spiritual practice. There is no free trade. What do we have to offer instead?  What do we offer the person who signs on to Tweets here?

    BEING CONSUMED : Economics and Christian Desire.  Erdmans publishers. 2008 paperback.

  4. Yeah. I’ve spent a lot of days fired up about this issue (just as some of you know I have about certain computer manufacturers). And I’m completely onboard (ok, mostly onboard) with everything @LauraMarie and @Catherine-uffen are saying. When it comes to the reality that “some people depend on this for employment,” I think what we risk is slipping back into the colonialist model of mission.

    I love Catherine’s local outlook–treating those in our local fast-food restaurants as people. So. What does it look like if we’re thinking globally and acting locally? Let’s use that situation as an example, because relates very directly to the topic at hand. How do we continue to love and support our local fast-foodie, with the full knowledge that at the same time, we’re supporting a multi-national consumer industry? Because whether we’re talking about McWhatever or Anything-Mart, the blessings and curses are multi-faceted (this from one who has consumed KFC in South Africa and a McFalafel in Tel Aviv).

  5. Another thing to consider when it comes to clothes prices is that many people with low income, on disability, minimal pensions etc cannot afford to purchase new clothes anywhere other than the stores that provide the inexpensive clothes produced in the sorts of factories mentioned.  Places like Value Village and Goodwill are an option, one can find good items at a good cost and it keeps used clothing and other items from ending up in landfills.

    The negative is that if one is not of ‘average’ size finding clothes anywhere is a challenge and finding clothes one can afford on low income is even more of a challenge.  One has to visit the second hand stores regularly, not always possible when working long hours to make ends meet.

  6. This is a great message LauraMarie and the replies are all very interesting as well.  I agree wholeheartedly with the main point of LauraMarie’s message.  To add another layer to this question, I’ll throw in consideration of when you’re buying that $10.00 t-shirt, is it made of organic cotton or regular cotton?  Growing regular cotton is very destructive to the world’s environment.  Figures that I have seen indicate that cotton growing takes up something like 1-2% of agricultural land world wide but uses 25% of the pesticides used in agriculture in the world every year.  We should all therefore be looking to try to buy clothing with an organic cotton label if possible.

  7. All good points, and this conversation is great. Talia – yes, I agree completely – I started sewing when I stopped being ‘normal’ sizes – finding something off the rack just doesn’t always work. Plus, I’m not rich, so putting together my own wardrobe is cheaper too. I’ve found that it can be good in many ways though – I get together with friends for knitting times where we can share time, laughter, and skills. John – ABSOLUTELY. My inner environmentalist kept wanting to put that into the original blog – but is sticking just to the human rights issues for this one. Maybe next week… 🙂

  8. info from BEING CONSUMED

    shop at  700 businesses that divide their profit 1/3 in direct aid  to the poor, 1/3 educational projects that overtly further a cukture of communion, 1/3  for the development of the business


    shop for products of Mondragon Corporation   sales of 3 billion a year   The highest paid employee can make no more than 6 times what the lowest paid employee makes.   all subsidiaries are worker owned cooperatives – one share only per worker    they operate a credit union


    see also article by Matthews,  http://cog.kent.edu/Author/Author.htm


    Start a business along these lines?  why not


    To the point about what supporting your local Wal-Mart employee looks like, in Quebec, Wal-Mart employees unionized at one store. WalMart closed the store. Get your church to form a committee to help them find jobs. GIve them space and a computer line. Help them network while at church and at other times. Fix their resumes.  Help them unionize. Picket with them. Makw sure they have a ride to and from the foodbank. Keep their kids in their swimming classes with a donation.  etc.  whatever you can.   Mennonites know how to do this – invite them in to learn from them.


  9. A United Church in Montreal opened a Fair Trade store in a local mall. The Church signed the lease, provides volunteers. When it makes enough money, it can pay employees or funnel profits into Church projects. In the meantime, the Church meets people while they are shopping, in the mall where due to Quebec winters, most people of all ages hang out. They instill a spiritual formation practice right into the act of shopping at the mall. First they tried to sell their Church and lovely lawn, but …. no buyers. So they kept the Church and  started a store.  Rev. Ian Fraser,

    http://www.stcolumba.ca  Presbyterian   Call him;he’s interesting and he’s been doing it for 20 years this mall and fair trade thing.


    PS  some Jewish congregations in the GTA have sold their too small buildings and bought empty movie theatres in malls – they make great churches. The mall provides unlimited parking for attendees. Altho unintended, it’s a great witness to the shopping community.  Malls also provide with some restrictions space for  art and other presentations. And everything is already wheelchair accessible with elevators and ramps and accessible bathrooms.  Why are we increasing our footprint and mowing lawns. Why are we paying for three separate Anglican church buildings in Stratford? And refitting them !!!!!    The people aren’t there and the people aren’t joining us in paying millions to keep them up. They have their own mortgages to worry about.  Moving into an existing mall makes good sense, if you know why  you’re there.

  10. Folks, thanks for all the input here – this is clearly a hot topic with more than just me!I’m a social justice junky, and ADORE that so many others are fired up with me about so many issues.

    I think it might be best if we try to avoid using names and specific situations in the discussion though, and ideally reign in our chat here to just the clothing issue – for now – seeing how much energy there is around other social justice issues and desire for participation, I may start shifting more of my blogs in that direction for continuing our conversation in other specific areas.

    So – clothing – I just got a compliment on the shirt I’m wearing today – and I was absolutely delighted to tell the person that the logo on the front is the wordcloud for the PWRDF’syouth initiative, justgeneration.ca, and that it was ethically made… and the person asked if I’d heard about the fire in Bangladesh… full circle.


  11. I take your point about not mentioning names: be assured that any names and projects I have mentioned here are public knowledge and on the internet. I thought your article was about the process of shopping as a process of spiritual formation and transformation and as a process of relationship between the purchaser, the maker of the clothing, the distributors and sellers. And that what you are encouraging us to do, is to get to know the makers especially as they are furthest away and the most oppressed by the system.  I thought that you were choosing the purchase of clothing as a way of starting this process of spiritual transformation and relationship home to us.

    Many people don’t share a love of clothes, but really do like to shop for tools or for batteries or for computer gadgets and phones. When you take the time to see what happens to recycled computer parts in China, to see the pics of people who make a living picking out recycleable and resellable pieces of copper from amongst highly toxic materials in old phone and computer parts, it’s possible to ask whether you really need to upgrade your cellphone or your home computer to the newest model to get a fancier screen or the ability to do things that you will never use.

    Whether it is clothing workers dying in fires in Bangladesh or computer workers getting cancer from toxic parts, we can learn about their situations and reform our shopping practices, but  I don’t see how we can change the situation of those workers without other kinds of advocacy —  so shopping, if you’re going to buy stuff made overseas in nations with little respect for workers, has to be seen as non-neutral process that includes advocacy.  Is it enough, or is it ethical in a Christian sense,  to use the Bangladesh fire tragedies as an emotional example, just to get people to take a personal look at their personal shopping practices if we don’t intend to find ways to advocate for those workers from here? Can we just talk about clothes?

    I’m not a social justice junkie. I think that that kind of language, while it seems friendly and inviting, actually undermines the seriousness of the plight of the poor. Also, junkies are addicts. And we’re not about addiction. We’re about freedom in Christ – freedom from addiction, including shopping addiction and freedom for, freedom to love the Bangladeshi seamstress who made my shirt. Addicts only see the drug they want – they are oblivious to the parents they steal from to buy the drugs. There’s a disconnectedness about addiction that is contrary to loving one’s neighbour as yourself.  So I think that the words we use when talking about this clothing issue are really important too. Opting out of the slang is part of the process of  transformation.

    I think that we’re just wanting to help our seamstress work in a safe place and earn a fair wage that will pay for housing, food and for her kids  to go to school, and that will pay for their medical care….we want her to have a fair wage and safety  when she makes  clothes for us.

    If you’re not talking about shopping, then what else is there about clothing that you want to talk about? I personally have a hard time with clothes that have logos like THUG NATION. Thug life, the life of pimps and drugs and violence and grass, is being sort of transmogrified – transformed into  just a style – a look without a meaning.   Or what about the Playboy logo that I saw on pink children’s t’shirts last fall at Zellers? I think there were bedsheets too!  Why would we want to put that logo on our little girls and boys? Can we in our fashion choices ignore the very depraved realities behind the Playboy life style and the drug/thug life?


  12. Laura Marie, Thank you so much for the message. I only want to add one short line. I recently discovered a website from the UK where I could order Fair Trade clergy shirts. Reasonably priced as well. http://www.fairtradeclergyshirts.co.uk/ Blessings, Marian Lucas-Jefferies



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