Workshop: Consumerism The goal of this workshop

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Workshop: Consumerism
The goal of this workshop is to encourage attendees to become aware of their spending habits, their use of money, and the extent to which it affects others. The workshop is presented as a toolkit, giving you material and suggestions for running this with your own group. It can be as high- or low-tech as you want it to be or need it to be. If you've got OHPs, PowerPoint, or other resources, these can be helpful, but they're not necessary to run the workshop.
Setting up

Think about how many people you have coming to your workshop. If you've got more than twenty or so people coming, it's probably best to have your room set up informally, with chairs in little clusters rather than in rows. If you've only got a few people, you might want to just arrange your chairs in a circle, or dispense with chairs altogether – whatever works best for you.

If you've got a stereo handy, it can be nice to set an informal feel to the event by playing some music in the background as people come in. When you stop the music, makes it clear that it's time to begin. Here's some suggestions.

Money (That's What I Want) – Josie and the Pussycats

Favourite Things – Big Brovas

Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend – Marilyn Monroe (duh)

Money, Money, Money – Abba

Money – Pink Floyd (if you really must)
We've scattered various quotes throughout this workshop. You can read them out, or maybe project them on to a screen. One thing to bear in mind is that if you have the technology, there's a real temptation to use it all the time. Try and vary your presentation a bit – using a Powerpoint projector for everything can get repetitive. Read out some bits or get people helping you to read them out – you might, for example, have some of the quotes written on cards, and hand them out to some of the people there for them to read out to everyone else in the group at your signal. There's loads of ways to do this. Don't feel restricted. This is a toolkit to help you run your own workshops, not a script.

The quotes

You can use these however you wish. You don't have to use them at all, if you don't want to. You might want to project them up on a screen or read them out. You might want to use them to punctuate the different sections of the discussion, or keep them in reserve, should you feel that you need to jump-start discussion.

Quote'>Welcome and statement of intent

Duration: 2 minutes

Welcome everyone. Introduce yourself/selves and get across the purpose of this workshop.


‘Money is the sign of liberty. To curse money is to curse liberty - to curse life, which is nothing, if it be not free.’ – Remy de Gourmont, French poet, late 19th century.


‘If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.’ – Dorothy Parker, early 20th century.

You know it

Ice-breaker. Duration: 5 minutes

The idea here is to make people think about how much they know about brands, and how ubiquitous branding is.

You can run this a couple of ways. You might want to take two or three volunteers from the floor, and pit them against each other in a sort of head-to-head quiz, or you might want to simply ask for the answers from the floor.
What follows is a series of slogans for various brands. The idea is, you read out the slogan or display it on an OHP or flip-chart, and the person or people you're asking tells you what the brand is.
Feel free to add any other slogans you can think of to the list.
Because you're worth it. (L'Oreal)

Just Do It. (Nike)

I'm loving it. (McDonalds)

Because every little helps. (Sainsbury's)

I bet he drinks... (Carling Black Label)

Probably the best lager in the world. (Carlsberg)

Dare For More (Pepsi)

Once you pop, you can't stop. (Pringles. Incidentally, that's actually because they put crack in them. No, really, it is.)

If you decide to do it as a quiz, have a small prize ready for the winner. If it's a fair trade item, that'd be nice.
Most people should do quite well – and the point of this exercise is just that. Few of us in our culture have managed to get by without knowing brands. It's part of our world – from Starbucks to Sainsbury's, from Pringles to Pepsi, from Blockbuster to Barbie. Branding has even been adopted by charities and religious groups. Alpha is a brand, for example. So is Left Behind (with films, kids' versions and comic books as part of the growing franchise). Ironically, even the Fair Trade movement has a brand identity.
Discussion: Ask your group to think about what associations these brands hold for them. At what kind of person are they aimed? What kind of associations are these brands supposed to hold?
If they're savvy, they might pre-empt you and start talking about sweatshops and clustering and stuff, which is good, but only as long as everyone knows what they're talking about. If they bring these things up, make sure that everyone does have a vague idea of what they're getting at. Whatever you do, don't try to rail road the discussion. If they're already aware of the issues, it's pointless to try to be didactic.
Brands aren't about the product, they're about something more. Brands present themselves as a surrogate for identity and as a means of presenting an image to the world at large. The sad thing is, no matter how aspirational the image, no matter how memorable the slogan or hip the logo, brands exist in order to make money for those who hold them.
The goal of all business is to make money. Since the 80s, it's been the philosophy of most businesses that the only responsibility any business has is to its shareholders. The effect of this is that ethics and the responsibility of the individual to society at large is placed secondary to the simple pursuit of profit.
As Christians, we believe that in the same way that individuals hold a greater responsibility to society, so do businesses. But it's not the case.

‘Advertising is the new extreme sport.’ - Naomi Klein, No Logo, 2000

Business responsibility Banzai

Duration: 10-15 minutes
It's time for a didactic quiz session! Place your bets now... Again, you can present this any way you want. Each of the situations below should be read out, and your group given the opportunity to choose answers. You could do this by a show of hands, or you might want to get them up on their feet and designate one side of the room as A and the other as B (so that when you've asked the question, people can go over there if they think the answer is A, or over there if they think it's B. If you're really organised, you might even want to make big signs for the A and B sides of the room and stick them up on the walls before the workshop.
By about the second question, most groups should get the idea of which answer is going to be the right one. With more savvy groups, it's actually going to be pretty pointless making people traverse the room. If you think your group is more likely to know about this sort of thing anyway, simply pick someone off the floor to answer, and use each question as a foundation for discussion. The In the Real World section following each question gives some real instances of the practices brought up in the questions, and can be used as base data for you to get across to your group, or as foundation for more discussion.
The point is, of course, that as we've said above the only responsibility recognised by many businesses is their responsibility to their shareholders. We need to recognise that there is inevitbly a human cost, an environmental impact and a consolidation of power with those companies which are already powerful.
The relocation riddle

Imagine you're the Managing Director (or if you're American, the CEO) of a big multinational company which makes, for the sake of argument, sports clothes and shoes.

You have a factory in an industrial working-class town situated in a developed Western country. The factory is the prime provider of jobs for the area, and produces high-quality product. You employ about 2,000 workers in the town. Each earns at least minimum wage, and is protected by long-established labour laws. There's even a trade union. Closing this factory will put many people out of a job and will probably wreck the economy of the area in which it's situated.
You're offered the option of a factory plant in a developing country. There is no minimum wage, and your factories could employ twice as many people for a wage which could be as low as less than 1% of the workers in your Western factory. More savings are made, so you have heard, from ignoring health and safety rules. There are also no rules about how workers are treated. Although your contacts in this developing country deny it, you're aware that many of these places can force their workers to work up to 45 hours a week overtime, that children who are as young as nine can be employed, and that workers' wages are docked for toilet breaks, that female workers are often systematically raped and abused by factory staff, and that workers who set up trade unions get beaten and sometimes even killed.
Do you:

  1. Say thanks, but no thanks – you'll sleep better at night knowing you've still got some ethics?

  2. Say, ‘Hell yes!’ and work out that with the profit from all those extra shoes made so much more cheaply, you can probably afford to give everybody on the board a rise next year?

In the real world: The answer for several real companies has been ‘b’. Remember, the only responsibility companies claim is to their shareholders, and this means that in order for stock to rise, a profit has to be made. Quite simply, for a large company's executives, morality is not a concern. The cult of the individual means that it is not your business to interfere in your contractors' doings.
The classic example is Nike, which moved its operations in the late 80s from Oregon (devastating the local economy) to (among other places) Indonesia. In 2003, Nike's profits topped $210 billion. Meanwhile, workers in sweatshops in the developing world don't see enough of this to live, and yet, since they have no other industry, are Nike's practice in recent years – since the sweatshop scandals first broke in the mid-90s – has been to move operations without warning to other places (for example, Vietnam) when trouble from activists gets too much, thus taking away from your workers what little they have.
Other companies guilty of similar practices include Adidas, Puma, Reebok, and Gap. Sweatshop labour also now supplies Asda and the Disney Stores. Exploitation of people is not just limited to the clothing industry: coffee growers are also often exploited in this way, while the cocoa industry of the Ivory Coast, which in 2001 supplied some 46% (source: BBC) of Britain's chocolate is partly dependent on the labour of children sold into slavery.
The World Bank gives last year's Gross National Income of the UK (the mean average of annual income for every earning adult in the country) as $26,350 (about £14, 463). In India, on the other hand, the GNI for last year was $530 (about £290), which means that the average Indian worker – and that's the mean average (most workers earn less) – earns just over 2% of what the average Briton earns. The difference between the richest Western nations – the UK, the USA, North-Western Europe, Australia – and most countries in the developing world is roughly comparable.
Resource: No, we're not making this up. A good general source of information on Nike can be found at No Sweat's Nike Briefing –

The coffee conundrum

You own a large chain of coffee shops. You're hoping to set up franchises in a town where there are already about four other small privately-owned coffee shops. Do you:

  1. Set up one branch and join the competition, hoping that your good service will make a profit?

  2. Set up six branches in a small area, each of which sells its coffee so cheaply that the shop makes a loss which is large, but small enough for your large company to absorb, and then when, in a couple of years, the smaller shops are unable to compete and are forced to close down, close down all but one of the shops and hike the price of your lattes up when you're the only coffee place around?

In the real world: A no-brainer again. It's ‘b’. They call this ‘clustering’. Why engage in healthy competition – which, while not only fair, is good for business, since it encourages people to produce the best service – when you can simply eradicate any threats to your profit margin? The main offender for this is Starbucks, which originated the practice, although all the big coffee chains do it. Supermarkets and megastores like Toys 'R' Us and the American store Walmart (who now own Asda) have a similar practice, which is often called ‘big boxing’, which is where you just build a store about three times as big as your nearest competitor within easy reach of town, and sell everything cheaply enough that your smaller competitors are out of business or severely harmed.

The elderly oil rig enquiry

You're a large petrol multinational. You have a huge oil rig which is no longer viable, since it's leaky, inefficient and falling apart. You have no choice but to decommission it.

Do you:
a) tow it back to shore and dismantle it safely?

b) sink it into the sea where it is?

In the real world: It's b) again, obviously. While towing it back would reduce the environmental impact of this hunk of wreckage, just leaving it where it is and sinking it to the bottom of the sea is so. Much. Cheaper.

This actually happened in February 1995, when Shell tried to sink the Brent Spar rig (incidentally, with the full permission of the British government at the time). Greenpeace, however, brought the case to the attention of the media and thanks to the outcry, Shell had to make a U-turn and dispose of the rig safely.

Environmental impact often comes last in large businesses' thinking. Oil companies (and Shell and Esso, while not alone, have had by far the worst publicity) are obvious offenders, but environmental damage is also perpetrated by other companies, such as the fast food giants whose contractors are responsible for the destruction of huge swathes of rain forest to make way for beef pasture.
In the real world (a summary): This is what happens when the only responsibility a company thinks it has is to turn a profit for its shareholders. The three main costs of this are the human cost, through exploitation of workers or of disadvantaged people who might be targeted by the company's marketing tactics (Nestlé's baby-milk shenanigans of the 90s spring to mind), the cost to competition, as the larger companies force their smaller competitors out of business through unfair business practices and by stifling competition, and the cost to the environment, as companies ignore the long-term environmental impact of their making a fast buck.

Capital as such is not evil; it is its wrong use that is evil. Capital in some form or other will always be needed. - Gandhi

The Christian bit

Duration: 10 minutes or thereabouts

Hopefully, there should be a Bible handy.

Referring to various Bible principles, this bit is designed to encourage your group to think about why a Christian shouldn't be prepared to countenance this kind of thing. Again, you can present the Bible quotes any way you want. This might be a good time to get people from your group to read out bits, either from Bibles, or from cards you've prepared earlier.
Some Bible verses:

Christianity is political and it is important to see that Christ Himself was passionate about justice and equality, as much as he was about saving souls.

Isaiah 61: 1-2: Start with this passage. In the Gospel of Luke, this is the passage that Jesus reads out in the synagogue at the start of his ministry.
Spend a few minutes asking your group what that means; what it means then, and what it means for us.
Crib notes: Most theologians reckon that the Isaiah passage is about the practice of the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25), where, in early Jewish society, once every fifty years, all slaves should be freed, all debts cancelled and all land should be given back to its original owners and allowed to remain fallow. It was intended to put things back to the point when the Israelites first took Israel, when everyone was free, no one was living in poverty, and everyone had enough land. By declaring, as the story goes, that He was the new Jubilee, Jesus declared an intention to make His own kingdom of heaven a just kingdom where everyone was free and equal and everyone had a chance to work a prosperous bit of land.
If we are in any way followers of Jesus, we're bound to do our best to work towards the values of the kingdom, Jubilee values, where everyone gets an even break.
This is good news to the poor, and not particularly good news for the rich.
If someone presents the opinion that we're saved by grace alone and that this sounds suspiciously like a ‘Gospel of Works’, you want to point out that even if you have a theology in which you're saved by grace, you have to accept that we are commanded to behave in this way by Jesus Himself, and while it may not be the thing that saves us, we believe that it's a non-negotiable part of the Christian witness since it says so in that big book that some of us have, you know the one, we read it in church sometimes...
Acts 2: 42-47; 4:32-5:11: The model of Christian community is represented in the first of these two passages, with a dark flip-side in the second. Ask your group about what we can draw about our attitude to our possessions, and our ethics and intentions when using them.
Crib notes: The story of Ananias and Sapphira is not a popular one, with its old-fashioned ‘smite first, ask questions later’ attitude more suited to an Old Testament narrative. But ultimately, whether or not you believe in a God who kills people for lying, the point of the story is this: the Christian faith is no place for self-interest or duplicity. If we're to be a prophetic faith community, we, as Christians, must treat our possessions as a common treasury for all, and be plain and honest in all of our dealings.
One American televangelist, some years ago, apprently blamed the failure of the church in Jerusalem on their ‘failure to understand God's free-market principles’ (ie. they screwed up because they weren't capitalist). This view might come up, but frankly, if you've read more than about three chapters of the rest of the Bible, you should be able to treat this view with the contempt it deserves.

What do you do?

Brainstorm. Duration: 10 minutes or thereabouts
This is where you encourage people to talk about what this all means. If you've got a flip chart, or an OHP with pens, this might be a good time to use them, so you can write down suggestions.
Essentially, here's where you encourage your group to offer suggestions about what to do about what we've talked about before. Can we do anything?
Here's a few suggestions that might come up (or which, if your group is stumped, you can draw into the discussion).

We need to raise awareness of these issues among our church groups and our friends. We need to be active. It's probably best to pick a cause and stick with it... but there are plenty of causes out there.

Ethical consumerism

This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there's boycotting products made by the unethical, and on the other, there's shopping for ethical alternatives. You'll never be able to boycott everything, but over the last ten years, it's been proven that large companies do cave in to consumer pressure, while others follow suit. Like the campaigns: stick to one or two. Ethical alternatives are available for most things these days; it's just a question of knowing where to find them. Make an effort to find those fairly traded alternatives.


You know, defacing billboards and appropriating slogans. We don't recommend you do this, since it is very often illegal, although we do applaud the example of one Calvin Butts, a church minister who took it upon himself and his congregation to whitewash out billboards for alcoholic drinks and cigarettes which were targeted at the people of his own deprived area of Harlem, New York (Naomi Klein tells his story in her book No Logo).

Objections to ethical consumerism

Duration: 10 minutes
Finally, just so we're not completely one-sided, we have to recognise that there are several objections to the whole ethical consumer thing. So here's a short exercise to deal with them.
You might, if you've got more than about ten people, want to divide your group up into smaller groups. Place each of these questions on a placard, or an OHP slide, or on your Powerpoint presentation, or on cards, and ask people to talk about them and answer them. If you wish, if you're using cards, you can give different cards to different groups.
After about five minutes, ask for answers from the floor. I've included some points to bring out of discussion.

Fair trade stuff isn't as good quality as the name brands.

Some of it's pretty good. Some of it isn't. But what's more important: the quality of your stuff or someone else's quality of life?

Fair trade stuff costs too much.

But would you rather it cost you a few pennies more or someone else their quality of life?

You can't continue to live in our society and escape goods which aren't ‘ethical’ - it's impossible. So why bother?

Well, it's true that you can't escape it. But that's no excuse to make some kind of effort to be as informed and as ethical as you can be. And actually, you can get most things

Ethical consumerism? Pah! It's just middle-class white liberal conscience-salving. It's an excuse not to anything REALLY worthwhile.

Fair point. But then, the degree to which it really is just you massaging your conscience is up to you, isn't it? And you're still doing something. The very fact that in the last few years, every major supermarket has begun to carry Fair Trade stuff in its shops does at least mean that the Fair Trade movement is making some headway – the shops recognise that there's a market for it and are reacting accordingly.

Having an Ethical option doesn't change anything. It's just another option and a widening of the market.

Ethical consumerism is still consumerism, isn't it?

These are good points. Some bright spark might also bring up the point that fairly traded goods from the developing world still force developing world farmers to grow stuff for foreigners when they could be feeding their own families, and it still forces them to depend on the outside for their money. So. Should you be buying more Fair Trade stuff or should you be thinking about your buying habits? Do you really need all that stuff? Think about that. Having said that... if you felt you had to buy something, and you had the choice between something which was ethically produced and something which wasn't, then at least you can make an ethically informed choice, which is better than not having the choice at all.

Finishing up

Wrap up with the main points of the workshop and take questions. Offer copies of the resources sheets and book list (also available from the SCM site).

© Student Christian Movement 2004

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