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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Options to Excess
distributed 8/29/03 - ©2003

Every fall here in Denver, the Parade of Homes showcases the hottest new ideas in construction, decor and amenities. Similar events are held in cities across the country.

Every August, our local newspapers put out large spreads with lots of color pictures to hype the event. And every time I read through those effusive descriptions, I am disgusted by the excess in the design and furnishing of those showplace homes.

This year's write-up in the Denver Post lifted up the home tour as a source of creative ideas for those who are into home decorating -- "the equal opportunity hobby of the decade."

The Wall Street Journal was quoted in explaining this new decorating craze: "thanks to low interest rates and an industry that keeps coming up with new looks for once-permanent fixtures, more homeowners are ripping out kitchens, redesigning bathrooms, and making 're-renovating' the latest trend."

The Post story spoke of "a crop of leading retailers that market appliances as fashion statements rather than necessities."

Replacing a 20 year old refrigerator with a new, high-efficiency model is an environmentally wise choice. Dumping the 'fridge from 8 years ago because it is the wrong color is environmentally absurd.

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Businesses exist to make money for their owners. In the process, they employ workers. All well and good. Many businesses make their money by selling products. That, too, is perfectly legitimate. At its best, capitalism can be flexible and creative in recognizing and meeting needs. Competitive marketing can keep prices low and quality high. The system can do very good things.

But in our affluent society, most of us have our basic needs very well covered. (And those whose lives are marginal are not a rich source of profit.) There's not much money to be made in selling us the stuff that we really need, because we already have it. So businesses work very hard to sell us what we don't need.

Advertising and social pressures lead us to believe that fashion and style are critically important. We're encouraged to replace what we already have -- clothes, cars, appliances, even homes -- because they're not in tune with the latest trends.

"Once-permanent fixtures" -- the durable goods that we can assume will last 20 years or more -- are now commonly junked when they are still working perfectly well. It is environmentally foolish, economically destructive for most families -- and essential to the survival of many businesses.

If sinks, stoves and dishwashers can be sold as "fashion statements rather than necessities," that is a bonanza for a company which has exhausted its primary market.

In our churches, our response to this perpetual marketing has generally been to call upon our people to claim the virtuous values of sustainability and sufficiency. We urge them to claim "simple living" and to resist the enticements of cultural trends.

We have a firm basis for doing so. The Bible says: "Blessed is anyone who endures temptation." (James 1:12 -- That passage is an important preface to one of this Sunday's lectionary texts. Resisting temptation is essential to generous giving and being "doers of the word"!)

But it is hardly realistic, or very pastoral, to tell our folk to reject the temptations that are dangled in front of us without also challenging those who are doing the tempting.

What can be done if we're going to live in a society that is shaped and driven by a profit motive? Some of the people who have pondered those questions deeply have valuable suggestions for us. They propose two ways of tweaking the capitalistic system so that it serves us, and our environment, better.

  1. We can insist that businesses seek not only financial profit, but the "triple bottom line" of profit, social equity, and environmental care. Financial gain is a strong motivator, but it should always be held in balance with the other two goals. Think how your newspaper's business pages would be different if they expected such a mix from responsible corporations.

  2. We can encourage a shift from the marketing of goods to the selling of services. A company that sells TV sets will want us to buy the newest and fanciest set as frequently as possible. A firm that sells us "media services" through equipment that they own will make more money if they update components infrequently, while leaving the basic equipment intact. So, too, with computers, carpeting, cars or refrigeration.
Both of these are entirely reasonable and possible adjustments to a capitalistic system. Admittedly, they are challenging for both businesses and purchasers. But the advantages in making those changes are substantial.

In our churches and our communities, let us continue to call folk to simple living, and urge strong resistance to temptation. And let us also be leaders in exploring new options that reduce the incentives for businesses to dangle temptation in the first place.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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