A Challenging Look at Waste and Instant Gratification in America
Today’s culture is one of to-go cups and T-shirts. We make cool T-shirts for every volunteer day, event, and mission trip that we go on or group that we are in. Stop the Violence campaign, National Honor Society, First Presbyterian Church, Methodist SWAG Day, Fill-in-the-Blank 5K Run, etc. We run to Starbucks to grab that latte, then trash the paper cup half an hour later. What's wrong with this story? you may ask.
Managing our Money
While T-shirts can be a great means of publicity, there is also a great deal of waste involved, financial and otherwise. First: think about all the money that goes into buying these shirts, largely for the same groups of people who received them last year, or maybe already have 25 T-shirts laying around in their closet at home. Couldn't that money go to support something bigger, a more valuable cause? Yet people will without a second thought write a check for $10 to get the official group T-shirt. It has become almost an unspoken expectation of every organization, college group, or community event in this country.
What to do with the leftovers?
Second: what about the material waste? And by that I mean, when the so-called event is over, where do all the extra T-shirts go? The organization, smart and prepared as it may be, has taken the initiative to order ahead and estimate the number of shirts that would be needed. No one would want to have to wait another week for that custom design. No one would be able to go without. No one could make do with the wrong size. No is just not an option here, in my society. Unfortunately, that “no one” means that organizations like mine, which are doing awesome work, have to spend extra money and prepare for those who we expect to serve with us. And when they don’t come…now, what do we do with all of these leftovers?
Undermining cultural values
Every year thousands of organizations are left with “extra” shirts that don't get used. Where do these shirts go? Of course it wouldn't be acceptable to make ourselves wear a shirt that was from last year (gasp!), so they either get thrown out, sent to Goodwill, or shipped to Africa. Kids in Rwanda may be wearing that tossed-out VBS shirt from 2010 that no one here wanted anymore. Do they care what the shirt says? Or even know? Probably not. But it gives me a weird, unsettled feeling. Like other people, who are worth less, are receiving our trash with eagerness. I can't count the number of times I saw people in Ecuador sporting U.S. Army hats, Chicago Bulls shirts, or New York sweatshirts. And they did not express shame or sadness for wearing these clothes. They were thankful to just have a shirt to wear, regardless of the lettering. Yet are we undermining the values of their culture by throwing our waste at them with a smile on our face? And it is really our role to define what needs a culture or community has? Here is a great article about how first-world charities with good intentions often do more harm than good.
Give it to me right now!
As for the coffee, we as a society have become obsessed with the idea of instant, to-go, or ready-made products. We just don’t have time to cook or prepare things ourselves. Now I’m talking about time, and how we often waste culture and relationships because we put work or other duties first. There is something special, in my mind, about sitting down to drink a cup of coffee in a real mug. Not only does it feel more genuine, but the fact that you took the time to brew that dark roast yourself, maybe with a friend, shows that you have taken a breather, time to reflect on life, if only for 20 minutes of your morning. So often we insist on having things right now. God’s timing doesn’t work that way last time I checked, and neither does the rest of the world.
Disposable things and people
And let’s not forget how many Styrofoam cups and plastic bags are already going into landfills daily in the U.S. alone. Every time I think about it, it scares me a little more. This summer, every youth group that came to Tuskegee on a mission trip used plastic ware all week. Why? They didn't want to wash all the dishes. We as a culture need to begin thinking long-term, permanent, renewable. It has become so easy to buy a product and throw it away when we are finished with it. This is also true in relationships. With many people moving across the country often for job opportunities and other reasons, friendships are hard to maintain. The divorce rate in our nation is now higher than ever: 53% of marriages now end in divorce. When did relationships become so disposable?
All of that being said, I do not think t-shirts are inherently a bad idea. At ARM, we save our extra shirts from every event to sell later in the year as an additional fundraiser for our ministry, which ultimately goes to help low-income families in Alabama. That intention in itself is a good thing. But we must be careful of allowing ourselves, especially as Christians, to be influenced by the general culture that rules our society. It may seem overwhelming trying to figure out how to take that small step in conserving resources, or taking the time to make things yourself, when they are so easily available elsewhere. Below I have compiled a few ideas to chew on, that I hope you will consider.
How can I become a more socially conscious consumer?
- If your organization frequently purchases T-shirts, try buying from a local company that makes their shirts here in the U.S., instead of possibly supporting child labor in China.
- Think of ways to decrease your annual clothing consumption. Maybe this means making do with a smaller wardrobe, or buying a few essential pieces instead of splurging on those hot new heels or cute headband (yes, I am guilty of this, too).
- Increase purchase of reusable items, and try not to buy one-time use items like paper cups or plastic silverware.
- Decide to be okay with having less. Owning more junk means more stress anyway!
How can I think about others when I make daily decisions?
- Read the book Everyday Justice by Julie Clawson. Understand your purchasing power. With great power comes great responsibility.
- Everything we consume is made and processed by someone, somewhere. We have become so distanced from the actual hands that created the product. Take a minute to pray for the person and the work that contributed to your enjoyment of that new pair of headphones.
For everyone who made it to the bottom of this post, thank you! I hope that amidst my ramblings, you were able to see the heart behind these seemingly radical ideas. As I continue to adjust to being back in the U.S., I am trying to challenge myself to enjoy some of the awesome privileges of living here, while at the same time not falling into complacency. I am trying my best to live a life of non-conformity and justice, and to think about how I can participate in bringing about God's kingdom for all people.