CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 20 May 2017

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Bottom up consumer revolution begins with an educated conscience

The Christmas season is over and the Chinese New Year is just around the corner. For people living in a society like Hong Kong, which places a big emphasis on consumerism, these festivals can almost become like being invited into a time of retail therapy to help us forget about our everyday worries.

Advertising propaganda encourages us to spend as much as we can on gifts and personal effects, all in the festive spirit. 

However, our celebration of the birth of Christ once again reminds us that God continually places himself primarily with the poorer members of our society. 

His life shows us that the people who are at the lower end of the esteem of society really are the ones who are worthy of respect, while the rich and powerful, who demonstrate an uncurbed greed and selfishness in their lives, are shown up as spiteful. In the gospel according to St. Luke (1:51-53), we read, “He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones, but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.”

But who are the hungry and the lowly in our modern society? With the widening gap between rich and the poor, the dividing line between them can become so blurred it is difficult to distinguish who is hungry or poor from who is not.

When resources are monopolised by the rich and our daily consumer needs are sourced under the banner of the property tycoons, we experience a steady lowering of our quality of life.

The mom and pop shops, or corner stores of yesteryear are disappearing daily and workers at the bottom of the salary heap are becoming more and more exploited. 

This begs the question of who is behind the basic dynamic that is running our economy and our lives.

It is also worth asking if this phenomenon is the same type of thing that Pope Pius XI was referring to 80 years ago in his encyclical, In the Fortieth Year (Quadragesimo Anno), when he said, “May economic life be again subjected to and governed by a true and effective directing principle.

“This function is one that the economic dictatorship, which has recently displaced free competition, can still less perform, since it is a headstrong power and a violent energy that, to benefit people, needs to be strongly curbed and wisely ruled. But it cannot curb and rule itself. Loftier and nobler principles—social justice and social charity—must, therefore, be sought, whereby this dictatorship may be governed firmly and fully” (88).

To change the function of economic life, apart from taking to the streets to protest, or occupying the Central District or offices of the financial conglomerates and supermarkets, we can change our life-style, modify our consumer behaviour and reconsider the value judgments we make.

Consumer behaviour can change the dynamics of a capitalistic world, but it requires a change in behaviour patterns, as well as the consequent awareness of our consumer conscience.

Buying certain goods, products or services can unwittingly see us conspiring with unethical behaviour and consequently violating some of the basic moral principles of fair trade.

Where we know goods or products are produced or sold unethically, we should minimise our purchases of them, or stop buying them altogether. In the long run, this is where the power of the consumer to make a difference lies.

In the 33 years that Jesus lived in this world, he always stood side by side with the poor and the lowly, while steadfastly chastising the corruption of authority and the powers-that-be.

He shook up the imbalance between the ruling class and the ruled, but, while the good tidings he brought were addressed to all, it was the poor and the lowly that welcomed and embraced them.

A question we can ask ourselves at this time of festivities is, when faced with economic dictatorship, can we follow Jesus’ example and stand on the side of the poor?

In the true spirit of Christmas and our saviour, whose birthday we celebrate at Christmas, we can stop buying from chain stores and shopping in the giant malls operating under the banner huge financial conglomerates.

We do have options. We can still look around the corners, and into the nooks and crannies of the city for the mom and pop shops where, 30 years ago, we were so accustomed to doing our shopping.

We do have the power to support the social enterprises that benefit those who are struggling and we also have online shopping where we can buy consumer conscience products.

If we buy gifts at Christmas that are meaningful and chosen with a bit of thought, the people we give them to will appreciate our good wishes and treasure our gifts all the more.

If more people join this bottom up consumer revolution, more will start thinking about justice in the marketplace. However, if we simply follow the herd and keep buying from the tycoons or from the financial conglomerates, we continue to foster injustice and help the growth of economic dictatorships.

By standing our ground and keeping clear of the international designer brand names when buying running shoes or intelligent mobile phones, and avoiding the fast food chains when we want a quick bite, we can change both the manufacture and retail systems.

If consumer conscience grows into a critical mass, it will put pressure on the suppliers and conglomerates, as they must respond to changed buying patterns.

Pope Benedict XVI points out in Love in Truth (Caritas in Veritate), “Purchasing is always a moral—and not simply economic—act. Hence the consumer has a specific social responsibility, which goes hand-in-hand with the social responsibility of the enterprise.

“Consumers should be continually educated regarding their daily role, which can be exercised with respect for moral principles, without diminishing the intrinsic economic rationality of the act of purchasing” (66).

 

Justice & Peace Commission