I recently had a fascinating conversation with Elysa Hammond. Elysa is the Vice President of Clif Bar and their Director of Environmental Stewardship. Simplified, her job is to make sure Clif Bar uses the most delicious, healthy, organic, sustainable, earth friendly ingredients in their products – and then to make sure that those products are made and distributed in as earth friendly a fashion as possible. Her role is incredible, she is an industry leader and – in full disclosure – was the chair of the search committee that called me to Huguenot Memorial Church nine years ago.
Clif Bar is a leading global company when it comes to sustainability, winning awards, encouraging other companies to further their sustainability practices, and even helping schools create advanced degree programs in sustainability.[i] The way that Clif Bar is able to do these is by intentionally shifting their “business model” to incorporate these five traits:
- Economic Sustainability
- Brand Integrity
- Giving Back
- Employee Wellbeing
- Environmental Sustainability
Of course, the way that these things all can happen is if people keep buying their products.[ii] The more Clif Bars people purchase, the better able Clif Bar is at reaching their five goals.
After reading Georgetown University Professor Vincent Miller’s Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, I wonder if there aren’t ways the church can participate in these “consumerism for more than just the bottom line” models. Early in the text Miller explains, “this book explores how consumer culture changes our relationships with religious beliefs, narratives, and symbols”[iii] which is later defined as the “commodification of culture.”[iv] It is true, my colleague Paul and I have frequent discussions about how ‘transactional’ ministry has become . . . but there has to be some positives to this.
I think about Fair Trade Coffee and how programs like Equal Exchange have completely transformed the way many faith communities of faith purchase their goods. The Presbyterian Women of many Presbyterian Churches partnered with the Presbyterian Coffee Project and through intentional purchasing ended up serving fair trade and sustainably grown coffee at many of their gatherings.[v] The famous Abyssinian Baptist Church has created its own sustainable coffee program working with coffee growers in Ethiopia.[vi] Many faith communities are encouraging their members to make healthy and local decisions on how they purchase their produce and groceries through partnering with Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) programs.[vii] Anytime someone purchases a product that has been locally sourced (produce, dairy, clothing, furniture, beer, wine) in an effort to participate in a more sustainable economic model, and their purchase decision somehow ties into their faith, there has to be some “good news” in this commodification of culture conundrum.
Miller is right; the church is a part of the consumer culture. There is no going back. However, if Christians can gain an awareness of their place in that consumer culture, and then intentionally use their purchasing power in a healthy fashion, there is a lot of opportunity there. The opportunity is not just to encourage others to make sustainable financial choices, but to improve the common good as an act of faith. That sounds a lot like following Christ to me.
[i] “Our Sustainable Journey,” ClifBar, last modified February 19, 2019, https://www.clifbar.com/article/our-sustainability-journey
[ii] “Interview Director of Environmental Stewardship Elysa Hammond,” Triple Pundit, last modified February 19, 2019, https://www.triplepundit.com/story/2012/clif-bar-story-interview-director-environmental-stewardship-elysa-hammond/69301
[iii] Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum International, 2003), 3
[iv] Miller, Consuming Religion, 3
[v] “Presbyterian Coffee Project,” Presbyterian Mission Agency, last modified, February 19, 2019 https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/compassion-peace-justice/hunger/enough/presbyterian-coffee-project/
[vi] Trymaine Lee, “Harlem Helps Raise Coffee in Ethiopia,” New York Times, July 26, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/27/nyregion/27abyssinian.html
[vii] “Let’s Move Toolkit for Faith Communities,” White House Obama Archive, last modified, February 19, 2019, https://letsmove.obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/letsmove.gov/files/Lets-Move-Toolkit-Faith-Communities.pdf