Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What Kyle has taught us about the power of consumers

I didn't really pay much attention when I heard that Kyle Sandilands had made some disparaging comments about a journalist. It's not the first time he's said something stupid. I'm sure it won't be the last. I don't like Kyle Sandilands anyway. I didn't think anything he has said would change my opinion about him. And I'm not the kind of person who goes, ooh, someone's said something really terrible so I have to go and find out what it is, just to make sure I don't miss out on any terrible comments he made.

When I did start to pay attention though was when news started coming in about all the companies that had pulled their sponsorship from Kyle and Jackie's radio show. In fact, it was the Blackmores page on Facebook that really caught my attention. If you're interested, take a look here: Not only does this page show that Blackmore's have pulled their sponsorship, but it's quite obvious that it was a response to the feedback they were getting from their customers. Furthermore, this page shows that some customers at least felt they could not continue to buy from Blackmores if they continued supporting the show. It also shows that Blackmores took notice of what their customers were telling them.

It's so easy to believe that we have no power. We are tiny little consumers swimming in a sea of very big corporations that have the power to change the water anyway they please. And I admit that when I've boycotted certain goods, at the back of my mind I can't help thinking, is this really making any difference?

Maybe it's not. In all honestly, it's probably not. While I'm quite good at writing to politicians and telling them when I think they should be doing something, when I'm annoyed at a company I just stop buying their goods. No letter of explanation. And I'm sure the meagre amount I spend with their company isn't missed.

But the Kyle episode shows that when people get really annoyed about something and let their feelings be known to the companies involved, things can happen. Companies are willing to change things if the backlash is strong enough. Consumers can make a difference.

While I am encouraged by this, I also think there's a lot we simply accept in consumer world without even questioning. We don't complain. We don't withdraw our support. We simply accept that is the way businesses do business. Or at the very least, we quietly take our business elsewhere and fail to cause a ripple in the water.

Imagine a day when any bad environmental practices cause the kind of reaction that Kyle's comments did. While Kyle's comments were certainly awful (yes, I have read them now), why are we so willing to speak up when it comes to comments about a journalist and yet we fail to speak up when it comes to destruction of our earth? And yes, there are people constantly telling companies they need to change their bad environmental practices. And often it brings results. But it does seem like consumers are less willing to accept horrible comments about someone they've never met than they are to accept practices that hurt the world we live in.

In all honesty, I think capitalism needs to be changed. It's bad for humans and it's bad for the planet. But if it is to survive relatively unchanged, I would at least like to see companies having to toe the environmental line, knowing that if they participate in any practices that hurt the earth, the backlash would be terrible.

But in order for that to happen, we (the consumers) need to keep speaking out. We need to not just take our businesses elsewhere, but explain why we are taking it elsewhere. We may not feel like we have much power, but we do have a voice. And we need to use that voice not just to speak to companies, but to raise awareness amongst everyone, so that more and more voices are added to the mix.

The Old Testament prophets spent their time telling the rulers or the people where they had gone wrong. They didn't devote a lot of time criticising companies - but that's because there were none around. But I think anyone who has read some of those prophetic books in the bible would realise that a lot of their criticisms seem almost to be describing the big corporations of today. I'm sure that if the OT prophets had been alive now, they'd be talking to CEOs as well. And undoubtedly the CEOs would be dismissive of them. And the people would think they were mad.

But the prophets would keep making their voices heard anyway. Why? Because that's what prophets do. They speak up when they see things that don't align with God's will.

I believe Christians today also have a responsibility to speak up when people, rulers or companies are doing the wrong thing. And if enough people do speak up, companies will change things. They have to. They rely on consumers for their existence. If enough consumers care, the company will soon realise it has to care as well. However, it won't realise that people do care about what it's doing if people don't speak up.

We need to be informed. We need to care. But we also need to speak. And it can make a difference.

If you're interested in knowing more about the social and environmental record of different companies, check out:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Feeding on Good Pasture - Ezekiel 34:18-19

Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? (Ezekiel 34:18-19)

Whenever I read this bible passage, I think of pollution. I think of rivers that used to be fine to swim in, but now are not. I think of natural places that are so littered with rubbish, cigarette butts and plastic bags that their original beauty is almost completely lost. And I think of how our production methods often are destructive to the natural world.

And I think that all of us living in the western world are feeding on the good pasture. And I don't believe there is anything wrong with eating and living well - in and of itself. Where it becomes a problem though is when we not only take what is good for ourselves, but ruin what is left.

The 21st century equivalent of this passage would have to be a huge factory that doesn’t just produce good food, but that completely alters the land, produces more food than what is needed (much of it going into people's bins) and creates a lot of waste that ends up polluting our natural areas.

I think of land-grabbing in developing countries, where large areas of land are bought by corporations, while the people who relied on that land go hungry.

I think of places like Nigeria, where an oil spill covered forestry and farmland and ruined drinking water. One of the village leaders, Otuegwe, said: "This is where we fished and farmed. We have lost our forest." (

I think of companies like Monsanto, who patent their seeds and make it more and more difficult for farmers. An article in GRAIN said: "Corporations have used their power to expand monoculture crop production, undermine farmers’ seed systems and cut into local markets. They are making it much more difficult for small farmers to stay on the land and feed their families and communities." (

Now some people might say that passage in Ezekiel is metaphorical - and undoubtedly they would be right. But it seems to me that Christians who are the biggest advocates for a literal reading of the bible (especially when it comes to places like the creation story in Genesis) seem to forget all about literalism when it comes to passages like this.

I was having a conversation with someone recently about a God who wants to bless people. I said I find it hard to believe that God wants to bless me (and all other western Christians) by giving them good jobs and lots of money and possessions, while seeing others in the world starve. I was told that the most blessed countries in the world were predominately Christian countries - as though that made it all okay.

I think it makes it worse.

I'm used to hearing statements like, if everyone lived like Americans, we would need 4.5 earths. Although it's staggering, it doesn't even make me blink. Same too with statements that the world's wealthiest 16 per cent use 80 per cent of the world's resources. (

But it was a seemingly tame statement that made me really stop and think: Americans use more resources than they have in their country. I use Americans because that's the country that is used most in these kinds of statements. But I think all western countries need to bear some responsibility for the kind of attitude that says we western countries deserve more than our fair share of the world's resources.

If rich countries are predominately Christian, then we shouldn't just be thinking, well, we're blessed because we're Christian. We should be thinking seriously about what the bible has to say about our actions.

The tenth commandment says ' “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” (Exodus 20:17).

As I've heard many people say before, they're the ten commandments not the ten suggestions. But are they only commandments for individuals? Certainly this commandment seems to be discussing the actions of an individual. But if we are really to take them seriously, then shouldn't they apply to countries and corporations as well?

If I had a neighbour who decided that they wanted more land and my walnut tree looked pretty good, so paid the council to move his fence so that it took over half my backyard, I'd be understandably upset. Similarly, despite the good cherries on my neighbour's tree, I'm not allowed to move my fence so that that tree now belongs to me. According to the tenth commandment, I'm not even allowed to look at it and want it for myself.

So why is it that we can see so clearly that this is wrong when it comes to individuals, but not be greatly concerned when it's done by corporations or countries? If people want to call certain countries Christian countries, then the country itself should be acting Christian, not just the individuals within it - especially when those individuals benefit from a system that is acting in decidedly unchristian ways.

It would be nice to think that western countries are more blessed because they're Christian? But I'm afraid it simply isn't true.

I think we're blessed because so often we fail to take the bible seriously. We quote the tenth commandment when we think that those poorer than us may be eyeing off our possessions. We take a metaphorical approach to Ezekiel 34:18-19, because the alternative may ruin our lifestyle. But we're quite happy to ignore the bible when it suits our interests to do so.

If we really are a Christian nation, then let's stop benefitting from systems that aren't Christian at all. And if we actually started to behave like Christian countries, maybe we would find that the world's resources can be distributed far more justly after all. Maybe some other countries deserve to be blessed for a change.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Evacuate Christmas-decorated shopping centres

We have a new Christmas tradition in our family. It's called criticising shopping centres for putting their Christmas decorations up too early. I do it. My kids have started doing it. And I noticed the other day on Facebook that my mum is doing it. It's great to have an activity the whole family can participate in together at Christmastime.

But then today I thought why are the early Christmas decorations in shopping centres such a big deal that I feel the need to have a whinge about it every year? I mean, it's just one place. There are no Christmas decorations at school, or at church, or in the street, or in the park, or at the bus-stop, or in my neighbourhood or in my house. I could go on. The list of areas where there aren't Christmas decorations at the moment is far bigger than the places where there are Christmas decorations. Surely, I could put up with them for just that one place.

I suspect one of the reasons why they annoy me so much is because I see them as a sign of the commercialisation of Christmas. And that bothers me. It does. And when I see those Christmas decorations go up, I inwardly fume about the shopping centres attempt to (shock, horror) sell more goods.

And yes, I think that's a legitimate thing to complain about. We buy enough stuff as it is. We don't need a holiday that is meant to commemorate Jesus' birth turned into not only an excuse for buying things, but the trigger for a guilt trip because we're not buying enough.

But it's a shopping centre's purpose to sell as much stuff as they can. That's why they're there. They're not there to make Christmas a joyful, peaceful, faith-filled holiday. Well not unless they can find a way to make money out of it.

But maybe another reason why it annoys me so much is because I spend so much time in shopping centres. Truth be told, I spend more time in shopping centres than I do walking around the neighbourhood or enjoying the local park. So I see those Christmas decorations all the time.

But if I really objected to the commercialisation of Christmas and those early Christmas decorations, I could always avoid the shopping centres instead of whinging. I could spend more time in those places that don't have Christmas decorations up yet. I could sit and home and make my Christmas gifts instead of buying "love" at a Target counter.

Because if it's what those early Christmas decorations stand for than annoy me, then I have to look at my own participation in the commercialisation of Christmas. It's easy to whinge. But whinging doesn't change anything. The shopping centres are not going to start putting their decorations up in December, just because I complain about it. If I really want change, it's easier to change myself than it is to change an entity whose very purpose is to sell stuff. Shopping centres want Christmas commercialised. That way they make more money. If I don't want Christmas commercialised, then I need to look at my own actions.

Occupy is the buzzword of the moment. It seems everyone wants to use that word for their own purposes. The latest one I saw today was occupy roofs. It was trying to get people to put solar panels on their roofs. I'm supportive of the occupy movement but it does feel like the word is being used a little too often now.

So I'm not about to ask everyone to occupy shopping centres. That's just what the shopping centres want. Instead, how about we evacuate them. If the Christmas decorations and the Christmas selling and the commercialisation of Christmas annoy you (as they do me) then find somewhere else to go. There are plenty of places that aren't covered in Christmas decorations and that aren't trying to make money out of a religious holiday. Go there instead. Or stay home. There's no rule that says we have to constantly be surrounded by Christmas decorations in November. We only see them if we choose to be in places that have them up. 

And if we do choose to evacuate shopping centres in November, we buy less things - which is better on our pocket and better on the planet. And if the shopping centres lose money out of it, maybe they'll have less money to spend on Christmas decorations next year.