Perhaps you are reading this editorial on your mobile phone and are looking to upgrade to a new model. The Fairphone, made by a Netherlands-based social enterprise of the same name, is a worthwhile option. Conceived as technology produced with minimal impact on the planet and people, as well as fair labor conditions for its supply chain’s workforce, Fairphone claims to be built without the four conflict minerals needed for iOS and Android products. And since Apple and Google’s operating systems together dominate 96.4 per cent of the global smartphone market, chances are your phone will contain those minerals.
Gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten are “conflict minerals” because they come from the mines in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This region is a lawless land lorded over by armed militias. War, slaughter, and mass rape are the tools of warlords seeking control over the minerals to smuggle out of the country and into Asian nations (the millions they make from the violence purchase them more guns and weapons, perpetuating a vicious cycle of brutality). Factories in China, Thailand, India, and others then refine and process these minerals into the components that Sony, Apple, Samsung, and other multinationals purchase for their technology. As unintentional as we are in carrying a piece of the Congo’s violence in our pockets, to buy a conflict mineral-free smartphone could be a conscious, mindful step forward.
It is fitting that a ubiquitous symbol of today’s hyper-connected world should enter the discussion about consumption. Our consumerist habits are perhaps the final and most difficult frontier of ethical Buddhist practice. The Fairphone example is a stark reminder that unmindful consumerism is not unrelated to wanton harm that we would never wish to be perpetuated in our name.
The Buddhist concern is not about whether one should buy a smartphone, but the considerations we should bear in mind if we buy one. Buddhism advocates not indiscriminate asceticism but mindfulness of harm caused by one’s deeds, and accordingly, to cause as little harm as possible to both people and the environment. On the flip side, what are the benefits of consuming and utilizing a certain product? We often consider only how we can derive pleasure or gratification from a commodity. Considering whether a product is ultimately of benefit to ourselves and others would not only cut down on a good deal of unneeded or impulse purchases, but would also guide us to choose a more conscientious vendor.
It is the same with other needs and wants. A basic necessity like clothing involves a long and complex supply chain. We can be mindful of all those involved in its manufacture: from the farmers who grew the plants whose fiber went to make the clothing (and that the seeds of these plants came from other seeds, and other seeds before them), to those who transported the products and those who sold them. These considerations can lead us to a greater understanding of interdependence.
Through these reflective exercises, we understand better one of the three types of suffering (Skt. triduhkhata), often called all-pervasive suffering. If the items are made in factories where exploitation is happening, we might also keep in mind the suffering of suffering involved as well. Considering all this generates a deep feeling of interconnectedness and compassion. We hope to act in the most beneficial way possible, not from the head but from the heart.
If we choose to consume animal products, are we mindful of the conditions in which the animals are raised? The 2005 film Earthlings was a powerful and graphic testament to the normalized, mass brutalization of animals across diverse industries. Vegetarians of the ovo-lacto kind are called to be mindful whether the eggs they consume have come from caged or free-roaming hens. When we eat cheese, are we mindful whether the rennet is animal-based or not? And when we eat vegetables, are we mindful of the damage caused to the earth by harmful chemicals? We can choose to buy vegan fashion rather than clothing products that include leather or fur. Many Chinese Buddhist monastics, for example, wear shoes made of cloth.
Are the materials from our products biodegradable? Even the shampoo or the face wash we use can become exercises in ethical reflection. We can be mindful of the ingredients: palm oil, for example, is extracted by destroying vast swathes of rainforest to use for soap and many other products. Furthermore, are the chemical ingredients damaging the environment when they are washed away? What do we do with the packaging when the container is empty? Closer to home, what are the chemicals doing to our skin, which is itself an organ?
These questions are crucial to how we make a difference in mitigating climate change, the greatest environmental challenge of all; a spiritual obligation that Thich Nhat Hanh has made all his disciples undertake by inserting it explicitly in the second vow of his Five Mindfulness Trainings. It is fitting that mitigating climate change through less and smarter consumption should be framed within the precept of “no stealing,” for without a radical rethinking of our current ways, we may well be committing intergenerational theft by stealing from our children (and our own future rebirths) the livability of the Earth.
The fair trade industry has been the culmination of many attempts to source ethical materials in an ethical manner from ethical providers. While the purchase of fair trade products may be costlier than simply buying “conventional” items, the long-term benefits seem to render the higher price worthwhile. But it can be difficult and time-consuming to escape from the consumerist matrix. We find ourselves locked into purchasing daily necessities that have origins that, more often than not, have dubious components in one way or another. It might sound exhausting, but mindfulness is not supposed to be anything less than a constant activity.
A fundamental and far-reaching simplification of lifestyle habits is perhaps the best long-term way to cut down on unskillful consumption. It is impossible to cause no suffering at all; the nature of life itself is suffering. No one can ever practice as a saint and have no impact at all. But with the reality of suffering comes the attached Buddhist duty to exercise compassion and wisdom in order to transcend it. This is a timeless calling irrespective of what we choose to buy.