When I was in junior high, my mother told me that we would not shop at Target. We were boycotting it, she explained.

“Why?” I asked.

“Target gives money to companies that provide abortions,” Mom said.

Like any good pre-teen, I exercised my lawyerly muscles and pushed back. Target had cuter clothes than Kmart or Walmart or Sears. I wanted to shop there.

“But mom,” I said as we drove past the big red bulls-eye, “we can’t control how other people use their money. It could be that employees at Walmart are using their paycheck to get abortions. It could be that the companies that create the products we buy at Kmart donate some of their profits to Planned Parenthood. Avoiding Target isn’t a guarantee that we’re avoiding supporting abortion. It’s just all too complex.”

I don’t know if I wore her down or if Target changed their philanthropic habits, but a few years later, we started shopping at Target again.

I had effectively argued that being good was just too hard.

My cell phone provider emailed me over the summer. Apparently I’ve been burdened by this old iPhone 4 for over two years now, and I deserve an upgrade.

It’s true, I think, reading the email. The battery doesn’t last as long as it used to. The white rubber on my charging cord has broken open, revealing grey wires within. And I’ve filled up all the storage space with my photos. I should probably go ahead and upgrade.

That’s when I got lost for a few months in the ethical quagmire which is upgrading one’s cell phone. Perhaps you’ve been there?

First, I wondered if I should wait and get the iPhone 6, or if I should just move up from a 4 to a 5. Then I vaguely remembered hearing bad things about Apple’s factories in China, and I started wondering if I should get an iPhone at all. It only took about two minutes on Google to find statistics. According to Green America:

Roughly half the world’s smartphones are made in China, where tens of millions work in the electronics-manufacturing sector. These workers are regularly exposed to dangerous chemicals without protective gear or adequate training, and some are developing serious illnesses such as leukemia and nerve damage. Sick workers do not always receive sufficient treatment. More than 1.5 million people are estimated to work in Apple’s supplier factories. As a company that made $37 billion in profit in 2013, Apple can and must put an end to these abuses.

But the problem didn’t end with sweatshops: the more I read, the more problems I found with smartphones:

Conflict minerals, such as tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, are commonly used to make electronics components and are often mined in conflict regions, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Demand for these minerals finances warlords and can lead to forced and child labor.

There’s also the problem of what happens to our old cell phones when we upgrade. I could donate my old phone to a soldier, or for recycling, but eventually it would still end up leaching toxic chemicals in a landfill, or in one of the massive dumps in Asia and Africa where unprotected workers sort through the waste to salvage resellable scrap metal and minerals.

I wondered if all cell phone companies were as complicit in child labor, hazardous worker conditions, and environmental abuse as Apple seemed to be. I started looking for other, more ethical options. And I found one! The Fair Phone addressed every one of my concerns. I clicked to purchase; I found that it cost €310 (about $500), and was only shipped within Europe. I closed the browser window.

More digging turned up Motorola’s Moto X, which is “assembled in America.” That addressed one of my concerns, but not the others. A few additional clicks, though, told me that ultimately, the Moto X couldn’t even make it: it had to close its Texas factory over the summer and move production back to China and Brazil.

So after a few months, I threw up my hands in resignation and went to the store to just upgrade.

The line was too long.

I went another time and they said I couldn’t do it without my father or my husband present (darn paternalistic phone company). It seemed the universe did not want me to upgrade my phone after all.

So I tried to think through it all again. If there isn’t really an ethical option, what should I do? Was my 12-year-old self arguing against boycotts right after all? As an adult, I’ve tried to be a good consumer: I’ve tried to eat local and seasonal, to support farmers I know personally, to buy second-hand clothes, to avoid supporting fast fashion, to remain a one-car family, to limit my carbon footprint.

But is being a good consumer ultimately impossible?

Here is where I’ve landed.

The repercussions of my choices are more complex than I can even begin to understand. But that’s no reason to give up. Instead, I try to remember these five things in my decision-making:

1) Be curious.

As Courtney Martin wrote recently about this very kind of ethical dilemma, the solution is not to give up on making good choices and instead, simply pursue whatever is easy and feels good. Instead, part of the answer is to “let your actions be inspired… by curiosity. Be curious about where your food, your clothes, your stuff comes from. Learn more. Ask questions. Become a systems thinker.” You can’t learn everything, but you can take some steps toward being an informed consumer.

2) Be personal.

In every interaction, I try to bring my whole self. I don’t go through the self-check line at the grocery store. I make eye contact with the cashier. I treat people like people, not machines. And I try to find the people in every step of the production line. To know the farmers who grow my food, and to listen to the voices of those who have worked in the factories that created my phone.

3) Be prayerful.

This should go without saying, but let me say it anyway: I need to bring my ethical dilemmas about choices related to consumption before God. When I am delighting in God, I am more likely to have desires that are right and good, and more likely to make choices led by the Holy Spirit.

4) Be skeptical.

When I was a child, we didn’t have DVRs: we actually had to watch commercials. So we made a practice of mocking them: “Look, if you just have a {insert product}, you’ll suddenly go from being lonely to having friends!” we’d say. Today I remain skeptical of advertising, and talk back to it with Bible verses. “Oh, yeah?” I’ll say to the email from Madewell that tells me this particular dress would make me happier. “Well, consider the lilies of the field,” I say, and delete the email.

5) Use it well.

My friend Jeff Cramer, who teaches Computer Science and Engineering at Taylor University, talks regularly with college students about what it means live a “good life” and how our choices can contribute to human flourishing. When they discuss questions like this one, he encourages them to make the best choice in technology that they can, and then to use their technology well. Most of us can’t just give up our phones. But we can make sure that we’re not becoming enslaved to Candy Crush Saga or demoralized by lives that look better on Facebook than ours. We can try to listen to God before we check in with Twitter in the mornings. We can learn to use our phones well.

As for me, I’ll be sticking with my iPhone 4 for as long as I can. I want to reject the lie that I need a new phone every two years. I want to resist the urge toward instant gratification and the lure of the new and improved. Instead, I’ll remove the photos from my phone to free up space. I’ll buy a new cord. And I can deal with a phone that needs to be charged every night. After all, this phone is amazing: it does things that twenty years ago were only possible in sci-fi movies. And it exists at a great cost to many people around the world. I’ll keep it around for as long as I can.


1 Comment

  1. This is great Amy! So often I get paralyzed by these kinds of decisions. My motto is to wear everything into the ground (including my awesome flip phone) and to spend time with people who are doing the same. Otherwise, when I see nice new clothes/things, I suddenly feel entitled to buy what I don’t need or isn’t ethically produced.

Comments are now closed for this article.