The Human Thread

August 08, 2016

Author: editor

Category: Learn

Caveat emptor and Christian Stewardship

sweatshops garment industry

It’s an old Latin phrase meaning “buyer beware.” Wikipedia tells us:

The phrase caveat emptor and its use as a disclaimer of warranties arise from the fact that buyers typically have less information about the good or service they are purchasing, while the seller has more information. The quality of this situation is known as ‘information asymmetry’. Defects in the good or service may be hidden from the buyer, and only known to the seller.

One consequence of this notion is that once the buyer and the seller have agreed to the terms of the exchange, the responsibility for any fault or for any harm done by the product lay entirely with the buyer. Similar to items sold “as is,” caveat emptor presupposes that the buyer inspects the item and finds it satisfactory prior to purchase. Certain home purchases and most used car sales fall under this umbrella. If you did not inspect the house thoroughly, better ask around for a good contractor as you will be paying to repair the leaky roof. If you bought a used car “as is” and discover that the lemon needs a new transmission, prepare to pay the mechanic. If you purchase a defective lava lamp at a garage sale, the purchase is final, and you own a fancy new paperweight.

Now, imagine if we extend the limits of caveat emptor more fully into our lives as consumers, such that the consumer assumes responsibility for all the faults and harms in the supply chain for the purchased shirt or blouse. In that instance, we could say that the person who wears garments from H & M assumes responsibility for the 14-year-olds who worked 12-hour days for “for the lowest minimum wage in the world (about $3 a day)” to make the shirt or blouse. It does not seem unreasonable to say that this consumer, under caveat emptor, bears moral responsibility for the purchased product. That same consumer assumes a moral responsibility for the environmental havoc wrought by the reckless discharge of chemicals used in the manufacturing process of the same shirt or blouse for that H & M garment. Having purchased that short or blouse means that I now bear responsibility for a polluted, lifeless river, a child exposed to carcinogens living near the field where the cotton was grown, or the devastating loss of life in a factory tragedy.

Disney label at Rana Plaza

Disney label at Rana Plaza

In classical understandings, there were once three professions: lawyers, physicians, and clergy. To this day, all three have certain privileges enshrined in law. All three were understood as “healing arts.” The clergy healed the soul. The physician healed the body. The lawyer healed the communal relationship. Maxims like caveat emptor aimed to protect, or where broken mend, relationships in the community.

Similarly, our faith suggests that we would do well to heed caveat emptor in this broader sense. If we extend the notion in terms of Christian stewardship, Jesus warned, “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Mt 6:21). We may own the things we buy, but they also begin to own us.  Every purchase we make has moral consequences. Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’, said: “Purchasing is always a moral– and not simply economic– act.” Indeed, then, every purchase is caveat emptor, buyer beware, for this has impact on your soul, on your spirituality, on how you relate to God, neighbor, creation, and even that garment worker in some distant land.

We believe as Catholics that being in right-relationship gives true and lasting joy. Being in right-relationship with God, with family, with neighbor, with the garment worker, and even with my enemy is a critical expression of my lived faith. A richer understanding of caveat emptor means that, before I buy, I want to know the locations of supplier factories to enable independent monitoring and verification of conditions for workers. It means that I want workers to receive a living wage, without excessive overtime and with regular safety training. It means that I want to insure that environmental hazards are reduced or eliminated, at home and abroad. And it means that my desire for these things must express itself in action.

Before you purchase, remember: caveat emptor! As consumers we need to overcome that “information asymmetry” with a deeper knowledge of how this purchase impacts our lives as well as the lives of so many others.