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Reflections: Spending

Informed consumers
By Niala Boodhoo

As Christians, we struggle with what Jesus meant by instructing us to be socially responsible. At minimum, we feel a generic obligation at least to support and promote companies that are good citizens, both in the way they treat their workers and in the way they interact with other businesses and communities.

But the question of how we define the rest is open. Most of the time, as consumers, we tend to focus on the lowest price and best quality, instead of on social responsibility. But what other issues matter to you? I’m primarily interested in how companies treat their workers, whether they are in the United States or elsewhere.

The business publications we would turn to as traditional sources of information also have vague notions of what constitutes being socially responsible. Fortune magazine, famous for its lists of the world’s best companies, uses the term “Most Admired”—and gets opinions about who should be included in that category from other business leaders, not customers. (When looking at these lists, it’s always helpful to look into the criteria the publications used to make their decisions.) Still, there are some more enlightening places to look: The magazine Fast Company now champions what they call “etho-nomics,” a catch-all term for businesses that value doing good for others as much as for themselves and their bottom line, whether that means practicing sustainable agriculture, contributing to urban revitalization or operating in an environmentally friendly manner.

What’s most important, however, is that you decide what socially responsible means to you and your family and how that definition translates to your daily life. Does it mean, for example, buying groceries from businesses you consider to be good corporate citizens? Being an informed consumer begins with knowing what you want and clarifying how that influences your purchases. After all, it’s not enough to say that social responsibility is good. It’s just as important to know what it means for you.

Questions for reflection:

  • Write one to three sentences about the most important values to you as a consumer. For example: “I value companies that pay their full-time workers …”  Pay attention to when your values come into conflict with the practices of a company you are doing business with.
  • How much of a responsibility do Christians have to reward/patronize socially responsible companies? For example, is it necessary for this to be reflected in everyday purchases, or just big-ticket items?
  • What will it take for you to become a knowledgeable consumer?

—Niala Boodhoo, Class of 1996, Journalist, Chicago Public Radio

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