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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Economic Spirituality: Integrating Who You Are With What You Buy

Event Recap

On April 21st, Tom Beaudoin, Professor of Theology at Boston College spoke on the topic of his newest book, Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are With What We Buy (Sheed and Ward, 2003). He spoke of becoming interested in the topic in graduate school when, over his usual Vanilla Latte from Starbucks, he began to wonder who grew the beans the coffee was made from, whether they had health benefits, and whether they earned a living wage. His attempts to find answers to this question were actively discouraged by corporate spokespersons leading him to pull the clothes out of his closet and ask the same question of his favorite brands of clothes including Levis, Converse, Wilson, and Ralph Lauren. He eventually discovered that most of his clothes were made by women, between the ages of 18-30, who worked without health benefits, and none of whom were paid a living wage. The one exception in his ensemble was the Ralph Lauren jacket which he wore to the talk, made in Toronto by union workers.

The foray into his closet lead Beaudoin to read avidly in the business literature on brand marketing and come to the realization that the twin goals of brand managers were to create lifestyle images for relatively undistinguished products, like jeans or coffee, in a way that appealed to the desires and aspirations of consumers; and to prevent consumers from wondering where those products came from. In his book, Beaudoin inspires his readers to ask these questions and question their patterns of consumption. He also explores the theological dimension by posing the question, “As a Christian, why should I care?” His response is that the gospels of Jesus spend a great deal of time focusing on the question of resources. There is an emphasis on the cultivation and stewardship of resources and a questioning of how one’s relationship to one’s resources constitutes an expression of faith. This is a particularly relevant question for today’s young adults who, according to the book No Logo by Naomi Klein, whom Beaudoin cites, come to a sense of identity through the brands they buy and wear, and actively use brands to mediate a self-understanding and awareness of who they are and what groups they belong to.

In the lively discussion that followed his presentation, a number of issues came up, including the increasingly heard criticism from spokespersons in the developing world that although working conditions in the developing world are criminal by American standards, they provide a necessary and welcome form of support for families who might otherwise be far worse off. Beaudoin replied that these kinds of responses suggest a bifurcated way of thinking that we either exploit the developing world or abandon it. He prefers not to get into such dualistic modes of thinking, preferring the image of communal responsibility as an alternative, and the perspective that we are all responsible for one another.