Consumerist Compassion

Our commitment to social justice sometimes bleeds into our want to consume products. Is that okay?

People everywhere are waking up to the new (old) idea of justice and compassion. This is not news to you. Our continued global connectivity has led to a new sort of global awareness that is in some part affecting not only what we do, but how we do it. Need is becoming known (even if it’s not fully understood). People want to get “involved” more and more. Compassion-based organizations are popping up at an accelerated rate. It’s as though it’s officially cool to care. As a friend of mine often says, “Kids don’t start bands anymore, they start 501C3’s.”

While cynics sit in the corner, throwing their over-informed, under-exposed rocks, I find myself standing up and putting my rally cap on. I can’t help but think more people becoming more “involved” is only a good thing, and has the potential to lead to something truly great for the world we serve and for the individuals serving it.

The aspect of this new awareness that’s most interesting to me, however, is the way that Compassion 2.0 is mashing up with Consumerism 1.0. As more and more young people get their not-for-profits off the ground, the more smart, savvy and saturated they are with the power and magnetism of marketing and consumerism.

I believe we are stumbling into a new age of activism. We’ll call it: “Compassionism.” It’s the way we’ve created of doing good while still consuming goods. It’s a brilliant and subtle strategy (whether conscious or otherwise) to get people to do what they want to do, but are for whatever reason not doing. In other words, if you want people to give … give them something. Compassionism in its current form is the absolute encapsulation of the best and worst of globalization.

In this era of compassionism, it’s the organizations that have the best design and the coolest products that draw the most attention and rally the most followers … and have some of the greatest potential to do the most good.

We can see this already through the first physical manifestation of the Age of Compassionism—“aWEARness.” Let’s be honest, compassion has typically lacked a certain sense of fashion. Those late-night commercials with b-list celebrities from the ‘80s just aren’t cool enough to hook you. You have always known that poverty, hunger, slavery and oppression are wrong, but it didn’t catch your sense of coolness or your longing to belong until Brad said it, or Chris wrote it on his hand, or Gap put it on a red hoodie.

We are learning now what they already knew, that the causes with the coolest stuff are the ones “we” will be most interested in. If “I” see that “we” are all wearing this shirt, I will get one, not because I am interested in that cause, but because I am interested in fitting in. Suddenly (quite simultaneously), your acceptance is connected to your awareness and your awareness is connected to your acceptance.

In other words, you buy the shoes to get “in,” then once you’re “in” you are connected to a small group of people who actually care about the cause behind the consumerism. Your exposure to them may in turn lead to greater exposure to whatever cause or issue your product is originally connected to. Because someone gave you something for giving something, you may actually give more down the road.

Sound a little shallow? Maybe. But maybe not. Because at least now people are getting exposure to issues they previously had little to no exposure to or interest in. The cause becomes that much closer than it was before. The cause is now a reminder in your room, on your floor, on your car. The longer it’s around you, the greater potential it has of getting “in” you—aWEARness may eventually lead to awareness, which may in time actually lead to action. If that process does in fact happen, then it would most definitely make that $20 T-shirt worth every penny.

In this age of compassionism, there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to belong, to fit in—that’s human nature. There’s nothing inherently wrong with shirts, shoes and bags. There is nothing inherently wrong with good deeds having good design. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that … there’s just more.

What if, instead of settling for and perpetuating a culture of aWEARness and compassionism, we raise the stakes a little bit? How can we raise the stakes for what it means to wear one of these shirts, shoes or bags?

What would it look like to have to “earn it” instead of simply buying it? Is there something we can learn from the market principle of scarcity? How can we help the millions of people who own the shirt, shoe or bag begin to own the cause it represents?

I would like to offer a few thoughts and opportunities on how we can help compassion get beyond simply fashion:

• What if we only gave away shirts to people who go to or get involved with wherever or whatever it is the shirt is supposed to represent. Seriously. Have the best designers in the world make a limited run of 100 shirts, or hats, or fanny packs that you get for free when you actually go. Whether it means walking the dusty desolate streets of El Salvador, or feeding displaced families in northern Uganda or volunteering every Saturday night at a suicide prevention center. Turn a $15 shirt into 15 hours or, even better, 15 days and that shirt will mean a whole world of difference more to me.

• To get one of those beautiful bags, pair of earrings or bracelets made by women and children rescued out of human trafficking, you have to actually go and spend a week making them. Go and give that recently rescued sex slave a day off and you make the conflict-free jewelry that day. Go and be with her, hear her story, make her dinner, watch her children for one day. Then you would really have a story! “Merry Christmas, Mom. I worked for four days with former sex slaves to make your necklace. Enjoy!” Priceless.

• Make micro-lending sexy. Make it hip. Something that all the kids are into. Kiva has been killing it here. They’ve raised more money than almost any other “established” nonprofit last year without spending any significant money on traditional marketing, advertising or fund raising. Heifer International is an incredible organization that has been plugging away for years at this. But my hunch is you probably don’t have a Heifer T-shirt. (I’m pretty sure Heifer doesn’t make T-shirts. But if they did, they would be made out of the finest most breathable yak hair available.)

• To get a pair of shoes, ask us to give a pair of our own (at least one pair ... and not your crappy old Pumas). Double and triple my return on investment by giving me the opportunity to give more than I get. In so doing, I am becoming more personally invested and connected to the work God is doing on their feet … and in my heart.

These are just a few thoughts on how we can move through our current culture of aWEARness and compassionism. These are not cynical naysayings, but a sincere and heartfelt desire to see my own compassion transcend my consumerism. To join with what God is actually already doing in the world beyond my closet.

Jarrett Stevens co-pastors Soul.City.Church, a transformational church in Chicago, with his wife Jeanne Stevens. He is the author of The Deity Formerly Known as God as well as the upcoming title, Four Small Words. This article originally appeared in Neue.

27 Comments

jeff Medders

15

jeff Medders commented…

Boo to all the critics. I have been in the compassion business for many years and compassion costs money. There are some problems in the world that the youth group can't fix in a week. If someone gets something from giving something it is OK. The critics get a sense of righteousness from giving and getting nothing and they sure do wear it....There are three kinds of pleasure. 1) when I get pleasure from pleasuring myself (like eating ice cream). 2) when I get pleasure from giving pleasure (like giving away an ice cream) 3) when I get pleasure to avoid pain (like when your mom make you share your ice cream). #2 is like compassionism. There is NO selfless act so don't be a pig #1. And don't be bitter #3. Tom is just plain shrewd. Jesus likes shrewd. look it up.

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JD commented…

so long as we continue to function under the burden of depravity, we'll never act with pure, altruistic motions. who we manage those hidden desires -- in this case, through modified/improved consumerism -- IS the question that needs to be asked. thank you for beginning the discussion.

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leilah commented…

just wanna say that the RED shirts gap makes donates a very very very very small percentage of its profits to the RED company. very small amount of money donated with this company..

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GRACE commented…

There is no "Illusion of Consumerism" Consumerism (purchasing, consuming) is consumerism!! You have missed the point!! "I think it's only an illusion of consumerism. If people feel strongly enough about a cause to purchase a product that brings awareness to the unaware and physical help to those it serves, what's the problem? "
They purchase it because of consumerism- it's now trendy to be apart of a cause (thanks to celebrities- Jolie, Pitt, Chris Martin, so many more). They don't buy it because of the cause- they buy it because it's 'cool'. Goodness you really didn't listen to any of this did you? lol. I can't believe 5 people liked your reply to Senoy, it hardly even made any sense other than churning out idealogical rubbish - which -exactly like Senoy said- covers it up with a new coat of paint. People like you who always go "Oh it's ok, positivity! lalala" and that's why poverty INCREASES every year. To put it briefly, third world countries get into debt because they owe countries back money from whatever the corporations sell them- they return it in resources. It only increases poverty and nobody has any idea what is happening because they push the real problem under the rug, convince themselves they have helped by purchasing a product- and are sucked into the genius advertising- just like you and the 5 people who agreed with you. You are an example of everything this article stated.
Another christian who buys their way into feeling good about themselves whilst doing essentially nothing.

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Anonymous commented…

I feel as though "Compassionism" is not such a bad thing as long as it remains supplementary to other forms of Compassion. Sure, "one for one" and "part of the profits go to ____" are great ideas, but they will never compare with reaching out to the needy on a personal basis. I just fear that the "Compassionism" benefits will become more akin to government-handled aid--that is, impersonal.

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