Pushing the “Tipping Point” on Ethical Purchasing

A worker sews a custom blanket at Opportunity Threads. Photo taken by Shannon Hanson @shannonhansonphotography.

Once you start delving into Catholic Social Teaching, you’re bound to be inspired before too long. Whether or not you are a believer in the faith, there is some good, good stuff in there. (I grew up in the faith of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and even I often feel envious of the ways Catholicism has managed to articulate a call to justice and peace.)

So, it’s not surprising that I chose the Catholic community as the focus of Ethix Merch‘s effort to move one community’s institutional purchasing past the “tipping point” on ethical purchasing.

Take a look at this quote from Pope Francis and tell me that the campaign doesn’t more or less write itself?

“Your universities, your businesses and your organizations are workshops of hope for creating new ways of understanding the economy and progress, for combating the culture of waste, for giving voice to those who have none and for proposing new styles of life.”

Pope Francis, 2019

And so with great enthusiasm and optimism, we began making friendly outbound sales calls to Catholic high schools and universities, offering their student spirit stores and bookstores the opportunity to enact Catholic Social Teaching by directing purchases to the inspired industry cooperative model innovated by The Industrial Commons.

A member of the Catholic community peruses Collection items while on a factory tour. Photo taken by Shannon Hanson @shannonhansonphotography.

And then we met Stan.

Although he probably doesn’t know it and would be horrified to hear it, Stan symbolizes the purchasing professionals who prevent divestment from CO2-spewing sweatshops and investment in sustainable and labor-friendly manufacturing centers like those supported by The Commons.

I call this archetypal stick-in-the-mud “Stan” because Stan (name changed to protect the muddy) was the name of the first of many purchasing professionals of this ilk that we encountered within the Catholic community. Stan made it well understood that introducing ethical standards into purchasing criteria at his school, while perhaps laudable, was not feasible given budget constraints. We went on to learn that almost every Catholic high school or university has a Stan. And even in cases when we have the support of high-level school faculty and administrators, most Stans won’t budge.

Now, Stans are great and upstanding men and women, doing their level best to protect their organizational budgets as they have no doubt been instructed to do for their entire careers. Nevertheless, they must be dealt with in order to achieve the result of justice for workers and, as the Catholics say, care for our common home.

The next and current step in our project involves understanding the paradigms at work that prevent the Social Teachings from having the impact you (and Pope Francis, apparently) would think they’d have on Stan.

Workers meet with Catholic purchasing partners and Ethix staff. Photo taken by Shannon Hanson @shannonhansonphotography.

The most obvious paradigm, already suggested, is the same one that’s made it’s way into the hearts and minds of almost every citizen of the world: one should always try to get the best deal one can, for the money. Under the norms of this paradigm, there is a general assumption that the goods and services on chooses have either a positive or a neutral impact on the world. If that assumption were to be challenged by information coming in unsolicited from the outside, one might switch to a different vendor. But by no means is it the responsibility of the purchaser to do the research to make sure.

Another, more surprising paradigm that we uncovered within the Catholic community, is an unstated but surprisingly rigid precept to mind one’s own business or, put another way, to not “step on anyone’s toes.” Repeatedly, we found that Stan’s colleagues and even supervisors who were – I am convinced – true believers in incorporating ethics into purchasing would only go as far as passing along the information to Stan or making an introduction. Somehow, those enlightened enough to see the need for alternative purchasing models got to espouse their progressive beliefs without, however, enforcing change within their organizations. And this, as we know, is one of the ways that wealth and privilege maintains its powerful grip in our economy.

But encountering these powerful paradigms is far from the end of the story. I still believe that the Catholic community is the right hornet’s nest to poke. Building relational power here – where enacting values rather than changing values is all that’s really needed – seems entirely possible with persistence and creativity.

Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is keeping trying; winning more and more converts to the cause, capitalizing on small victories, and gradually creating the conditions for a paradigm shift – even if you have to step on a few toes along the way. (Sorry, Stan. But you’ll live.)

To learn more about our work with Collection click here or contact us at [email protected]  Interested in learning more? View recent coverage on ethical purchasing in the National Catholic Reporter.

This blog was written by Ethix CEO, Daniel Cardozo.