Thursday, October 11, 2007

Consumers with Scruples

“If you pray until your backs become bent and fast until you become [thin] like strings, God will only accept this if done with a safeguarding scrupulousness.”
-Abdallah ibn Umar (son of Umar ibn al-Khattab)

In Arabic, the key word above is wara’, a “safeguarding scrupulousness.” The Prophet PBUH and his companions were quite scrupulous about what they ate and what they wore, no doubt. But sometimes I find myself thinking that must have been so simple to do that back then. People were only separated by two or three degrees, if that, from the source of their food or clothes.

Does it matter that our world is much more globalized and complicated now, leaving us that much more separated from the origins of items like our food or clothing? Or is it a matter of principle that we know where such items came from?

In this day and age, we’d call that being an informed consumer: someone who knows something about the life history, so to speak, of the goods they consume. More specifically, how “factors of production” like the earth, plants, animals and people were treated in the production process.

Virtually anything we buy or use can embody the injustice of mistreating any of the factors involved in its production and distribution. This applies as equally to vegetables and clothes (to say nothing of the myriad of other modern consumer goods) as it does to a pound of beef of uncertain origin.

Imam Abdallah ibn Alawi al-Haddad – whose chapter on scrupulousness from The Book of Assistance I’ve based this post on – outlines a simple yet elegant framework with which to deal with people (and remember corporations are, legally, also people) according to 3 categories:
  1. People you know to be just or good: so deal with them without inquiring.
  2. People you know nothing about: so inquire gently, but desist if this would cause harm.
  3. People you know to be unjust: so it is best not to deal with them at all, but if you must then inquire greatly and continue to be careful even if you find nothing wrong.
Most of our dealings as consumers in the mainstream probably fall into the second or third categories. For the second category, we should inquire into the history of the product and the integrity of its producers with gentleness and tact.

If such inquires reveal these producers or their products to be questionable (think the modern meat industry and sweatshop clothing) then we have two choices. The first is to choose to buy nothing (see Sanjana’s Freegans post for inspiration) and the second is to choose to be scrupulous and ever vigilant (more on ethical consumers and businesses).

Thanks to Sanjana and Anila for the links!

4 comments:

Mohamad A. Chakaki said...

Note: I realize that more than half of the websites I linked to on this post are, themselves, selling a product (e.g. a book, a movie, a magazine). SORRY!

If you're on the Comapct, perhaps you can borrow these items from a friend (I'm happy to lend you my copy of the book or movie)... or buy them as eid gifts when the Compact is up.

Or just don't buy them! There is a lot free content on most of the websites.

salaam :)
Mohamad!

Sanjana said...

that's how i felt about the DC green festival - i went through the bazaar when i got there and it seemed like 79% of the stalls were selling (pretty expensive) stuff - bamboo fiber clothing, organic coffee, bags made out of recycled sail cloth, etc. i know it's a good opportunity for these retailers to sell/market their products but it seemed to somewhat reinforce the notion of greenness as a elite consumer movement. i really expected them to have more "solution" based stalls (so did two other people whose conversation i overheard on the escalator).

on the other hand, the programs and speakers were really good and picked up some of the "what can i do" slack. they also had these "recycle/compost/trash" bins set up almost everywhere. i think we can easily implement this at some of the large muslim conferences. isna, watch out, you're about to get greened! :)

Mohamad A. Chakaki said...

i agree on both accounts sanjana...

1. it often feels like all we're replacing is one type of consumerism with another. with still too many degrees of separation (and thus opacity) b/w production and consumption.

2. i can just see the separate "waste" bins at an event like ISNA... that would be quite a logistical effort b/c each station needs to be staffed all the time. certainly worth the effort. i'm in!

anilamuhammad said...

Yes, I agree that when we consume for the sake of consuming it is not good. Yet I do not believe that consumerism is necessarily a negative thing. When we consume with an awareness of where the product came from, the cycle of energy used in its creation, and if it benefits us and our environment simultaneously, then the pattern of consumption changes.

For example, I have been looking at purchasing a tote for my laptop and daily belongings. Initially I was going to purchase a new one from Target. Since I am involved in this current experiment I decided to see if I could do better. I came across the following bag at worldofgood.org. The tote is made of garbage hence reducing environmental stress at a local level. As well, it is a fair trade product.

Should I buy it? Still have not committed to it. But I do think that my money spent here would be well worth it. In this sense I see my role as a consumer as having a positive influence on people, communities, and in reducing garbage. In this situation I see consumerism as a good thing. Of course taking this route has meant I delay my ability to get what I want as opposed to having instant gratification. Can I live with it…well, today I can.

Personally I don’t want to stop buying stuff. I do want to make purchases that come from a place of conscious choice.

Consumerism can be both beneficial and have a dark side...it all depends on the context.