What came to mind when you spotted the words "contemplative" and "consumer" juxtaposed?
At first glance, they don't appear to belong together.
Ideas in Tension
The word consumer often calls to mind the idea of consumerism, which gets a pretty bad rap. Consumerism can lead to unbridled consumption, with its complete disregard for environmental depletion and the impact on anyone who dares to stand in its way.
Consumption is often about feeding humanity's greed for more, More, MORE.
To be human is to consume. And yet, as we become increasingly aware of the innumerable negative repercussions of humanity's skyrocketing consumption, this truism is something we're becoming increasingly uncomfortable with.
In sharp contrast, we don't very often hear or use the word contemplative these days - never mind in conjunction with a word we have such mixed feelings about. It's a calm, warm word, and there's nothing intrinsically off-putting about contemplation. For many, it even has spiritual connotations, conjuring up images of religious devotees deep in meditation and thoughtful reflection.
If we're honest, though, while contemplation sounds like a pretty good idea, it doesn't seem all that relevant to life in the 21st century. In fact, it appears much better suited to a bygone era when the pace of life was slower and shopping options were more limited.
Isn't contemplation for people who have too much time on their hands? Or perhaps for those who wish to withdraw from the world and live life on a different plane? It doesn't immediately fit our conception of someone who engages rigorously in discussion and pragmatic action, in order to confront one of the biggest challenges of our time.
What does a contemplative approach to consumption look like?
In this context, contemplation is about slowing down, ruminating on all the options, and making the choice that's best - in every sense, considered from every angle. (In other words, it's not just about the lowest price.)
Shopping contemplatively is the antithesis of today's typical shopping experience, which is all about easier, faster, cheaper - where everything vying for our limited attention is designed to trigger impulse purchases of things we probably don't need. And when we're honest with ourselves, and we pause long enough to truly consider the entire story behind a product, we're often faced with suffering and injustice.
Think about deforestation and pollution caused by companies that come in, take what they need, and then leave the mess behind.
Think about families split apart when people have no choice but to migrate to find employment, because there's no work in their local area.
Think about the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, where more than 1,100 people were killed because of a multitude of systemic problems in the apparel supply chain.
Think about child labour and other forced labour situations.
If our common humanity binds us together, and we believe that everyone has the same basic rights to opportunity and safety, it's hard to be satisfied with the current state of affairs.
Alas, we're a long way from achieving a level of transparency in our global supply chains that would make it easy for Contemplative Consumers to determine how much suffering is embedded in the products they purchase.
But, it's not impossible to dig into these issues. You can do your own research, talk to company representatives to learn more, start discussions on social media.
You can ask questions.
Transparency was what I was longing to find when I first became enamoured with Ten Thousand Villages more than a decade ago. By cutting out the complexity and distance that exists in conventional supply chains, and instead working directly with producers, Ten Thousand Villages and other fair trade companies have discovered the benefits of working directly with producers whenever possible.
Direct, long-term, equitable relationships with artisans and farmers eliminate the huge power imbalance that exists in most trading arrangements. These partnerships ensure producers have a fair shot at building sustainable, successful businesses for themselves, rather than being dependent on the whims of massive corporations thousands of miles away.
This year, when you're feeling swallowed up by the hustle and bustle of the holiday shopping season, two words: Slow Down.
Think about the full story behind that product in your hand:
• Where was it made?
• Who made it?
• How were all the individual human beings in the supply chain treated?
• If you were in their shoes, would you be satisfied? Happy?
• Through their hard work, were they afforded the kind of opportunities you expect from your own work? Fair pay? Financial stability and the opportunity to plan for your future? Safe working conditions?
Then allow these few moments of contemplation to transform your decisions and your actions.
Buying fair trade is one alternative to consider when you're thinking about the impact of your purchases. There aren't ethical options for every product on your shopping list (yet), but it's surprising how much you can find that has been produced under fair, safe, sustainable conditions.
Time for Change
Companies know consumers have access to more information than ever. And they know they'll be expected to meet higher demands in the future. But boardroom decisions are based primarily on their short-term impact on the bottom line.
If there's demand for more fairness and equity in supply chains, companies will clean them up. If consumers stand together and fight for the best interests of everyone who is linked in an item's journey from raw material to final product, they will respond.
They will respond if they must. They will respond when the health of their bottom lines depends on it.
The world desperately needs a movement of Contemplative Consumers. Are you in?
Ryan D. Jacobs
CEO, Ten Thousand Villages Canada
To shop or find out more about Ten Thousand Villages' unique approach to business, visit tenthousandvillages.ca in Canada.