Consumer Responsibility on Black Friday

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, traditionally a day to give thanks, as the name implies, and to spend time with family and loved ones away from the hustle and bustle of our busy lives.  Some folks throw watching the parade or football into the mix.  All of us eat too much of treasured family recipes and sleep inducing turkey.  All in all, it's a great holiday in my book.

Except that increasingly, bit by bit over the years, it has become a day not to give thanks for what we already have, but to plan how to get what we want.  Yes, I'm talking about the advent of "Black Friday," infamous for "door buster" sales which now not only begin at midnight, but in some cases begin on Thanksgiving Day itself.

We all have to make our own choices.  Some may find that the only way they can afford to give their children the new clothing and shoes they need, and the toys and electronics equipment they really want, is by shopping strategically during the Thanksgiving Holiday.  I get that.  But I also highly doubt that the hordes of folks who will be pounding the shopping mall pavement in the next 36 hours really need everything that will fill their shopping carts.  Granted, part of my cynicism may come from having worked as a cashier at K-Mart for five Christmases.  It's not pretty from the other side of that cashier counter, with the never ending loop of Christmas music blaring and folks fighting over the last box of this year's "it"  toy.

Yet my caution and concern also comes from what I know about the reality of child and forced labor in our supply chain, on the one hand, and the forces of supply and demand on the other.  The two, sadly, are connected.  We demand cheap products in quantities well beyond the scope of our needs or even our moderate wishes.  Manufacturers and retailers give us those products at relatively little costs to us, but we might pause and wonder whether the workers making the products received a living wage, or what conditions they worked under.  We might pause to think of the children of the cashier left at home while their mother or father works on Thanksgiving Day, earning minimum wage, so that you can get your door buster prices ahead of the pack.

For those who want to pause and ponder before they purchase, I'd like to point you to some wise words from a source that might surprise you ... Pope Benedict XVI.  His 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), has some thought provoking words for the consumers among us, which would of course be all of us.

It is good for people to realize that 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. In the retail industry, particularly at times like the present when purchasing power has diminished and people must live more frugally, it is necessary to explore other paths: for example, forms of cooperative purchasing like the consumer cooperatives that have been in operation since the nineteenth century, partly through the initiative of Catholics. In addition, it can be helpful to promote new ways of marketing products from deprived areas of the world, so as to guarantee their producers a decent return. (Caritas in Veritate #66)

So, before you embark on your holiday shopping spree, stop and reflect on his words.  Do you think of your purchases as a moral act? Do you consider the hands that have touched that product, bringing it to the shelves of your local discount store?  How might you be creative in supporting fair trade and just wages?  Are there ways that you can be a more conscious consumer, buy less, reduce or recycle?  Have you considered alternative giving options, like a donation to a local charity or a micro-loan through kiva.org?

As you prepare to celebrate this holiday season, I invite you to spend some time reflecting on how your consumer choices can help contribute to the life and well-being of your global neighbors, even as you meet the needs and some of the wants of your loved ones.

Peace and a very Happy Thanksgiving!

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