The One with Phenomenal Cosmic Power is … Stan

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.

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.

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.)

Published by danielcardozo

CEO of Ethix Merch, connecting values-driven organizations with ethically-produced merchandise for their members and events.

2 thoughts on “The One with Phenomenal Cosmic Power is … Stan

  1. Great post and a sobering reality check–one more–on the current condition of Catholic business culture. Stan probably went to Catholics schools but his economics classes were definitely not based on Catholic social teachings. Stan, in other words, is a bit schizophrenic in his faith. Pope Francis tirelessly points this out but Stan is not really listening–yet.

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  2. What a delightful way to show the barriers we’re up against! Being a Catholic Sister I agree with you that Catholic Social teaching is wonderful. My first love is the Economics pastoral published by the USCCB in 1984/85. And Pope Francis continues the teaching so well. Some of what you may be encountering is the dominant power paradigm, which means that someone like Stan doesn’t want to let go of the power they have, even if its just for purchasing. One of our sisters works for a Catholic Hospital system and they have been able to change purchasing by working with the suppliers and getting them to manufacture or offer more sustainable products. I know many Catholic sisters have changed their purchasing habits for their congregations to be in line with sustainability and other ethical values. They certainly would encourage it in their institutions but have no power to enforce it.

    I ran a craft cooperative in Appalachia and ran into that mindset of getting things “cheaper”. Many times our handcrafted items would be copied and mass produced with cheap labor and materials. I focused on wealthier buyers who could afford our products, but that consumer mentality is one we have to confront. it’s why folks can’t make a living wage, why earth’s resources are exploited, etc. And why consumption is devastating people and planet. Any ideas about a bigger communication strategy that would change the minds and hearts of consumers? I think this younger generation has done more in terms of “rent rather than own”, share and reuse rather than buy new, etc. so there may be an openness now to get these ideas more mainstream. And there are a lot more web sites that have products to choose from. I think about wal-mart and how do we combat them? We’ve tried through shareholder resolutions to get them to buy from minority vendors, use sustainable products,, which has gotten some movement. Value not quantity?

    Thanks again fro a delightful way to highlight the issues.

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