Religion: a good starting point for ethical consumption?

Sensemaking / Religion: a good starting point for ethical consumption?

For those who already apply faith-based principles at the check-out, thinking about sustainability is perhaps a smaller step, says John Nyota.

27 Sep 2011

For those who already apply faith-based principles at the check-out, thinking about sustainability is perhaps a smaller step, says John Nyota.

In 1950, Hilda Porter, a missionary who had been based in China, returned to England to find that overseas students coming to universities were having trouble finding accommodation and suffering from exclusion and racism. She persuaded the Methodist Church to support her in setting up a hostel in Bayswater, to provide a safe and welcoming haven for young people from all over the world.

Today, it’s a hotel and conference centre managed to high environmental standards. It monitors its footprint, not just in terms of carbon, but also water and food. Wherever possible, ingredients are locally sourced, organic and fairly traded, and suppliers are asked to comply with ecological and animal welfare standards. Food waste is kept to a minimum through careful planning, and any leftovers are recycled or disposed in a way that is not harmful to the environment.

From a Christian perspective, these practices draw on a long tradition of hospitality which harks back to the book of Genesis. There’s the passage where Abraham is sitting near the great trees of Mamre sheltering from the heat, when he notices three men standing by. He hurries to meet them, saying, “Let me get you some water and something to eat, so that you can be refreshed…” And off he goes to choose a calf for them, asking his wife Sarah to bake some bread. Another well-known story of hospitality in the Christian tradition is when Jesus feeds 5,000 with just five loaves and two fish – a great lesson in resource management, fair distribution and minimal waste!

Making sure there’s enough to go round is one thing. But there’s also something about breaking bread and sharing a meal together that creates intimacy – even without the candles, sweet aromas and wine. Most major world religions bring families and communities together to share a ritual feast, whether it’s the Christian Communion or the Jewish Seder or the Muslim Iftar during Ramadan. It offers a moment to reflect on the natural resources on which we all depend, and on the processes that brought the food to our table. The rain – seen by many cultures and religions as a gift of God – falls on soil that we have a responsibility to nurture. The livestock must also be treated with dignity, as must those who harvest the food and bring it to the table.

As consumers, we have enormous potential to put faith-based values, such as compassion, justice and equity, into practice. “Eat of the good things we have provided for your sustenance, but commit no excess therein”, commands the Qur’an (20:81). Prophet Mohammed was known to eat fruits and vegetables grown in the region in which he lived and in season – and today, more and more consumers are choosing to buy fresh, locally sourced food or even grow their own. It’s a trend that’s helping people to be more aware of the natural resources around them, such as water, soil and light.

Muslims and Jews apply religious values to their daily eating habits through prescribed dietary laws. There are similarities between a halal (which means ‘permitted’) diet and a kosher one: both avoid pork and have a ritual slaughter method for permitted meat which must be adhered to. Halal extends beyond food into other consumer goods, including pharmaceuticals and cosmetics which contain ingredients derived from animals. Faith leaders are well placed to encourage ethical consumption and behaviour. If you already buy halal products, looking for a Fairtrade or organic label too is perhaps a smaller step than if you had never really thought to apply ethics at the check-out.

Waste not, want not

The Sebata Nunnery, 25km from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, will produce fuel from organic waste (such as cow dung) thanks to a new bio-digester funded by ARC in partnership with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The methane harvested will provide fuel to cook meals for more than one thousand local children at the nunnery’s school, and for over two hundred orphaned children. Slurry, a by-product of the process, will be used as a high quality fertilizer for the nunnery’s crops.

It’s hoped that using biogas instead of firewood as a fuel will reduce the level of respiratory disease and eye irritations caused by fumes from cooking fires. It will also free many of the girls from punishing hours of collecting fuel wood each day, and reduce the number of trees cut down to provide fuel.

Reverend John Nyota is Director of Charity at the Methodist International Centre. This piece draws on a talk he delivered to the British Council Ethiopia Forum for Sub-Saharan Africa religious leaders.

Photo: Creatas / Thinkstock

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