Consumption, Ethics and the Environment: a Lutheran Perspective

Consumption’s impact: A Chocolate Case Study

[1] Some of the most significant environmental problems of our time result from the collective impact of individual consumption decisions. We decide what to eat, what to wear, how to heat and cool our homes, how to transport ourselves, and what products to buy. All of these add up to a significant environmental cost in terms of air pollution, water pollution, resource use, and land use.

Hartman[2] Let us consider chocolate. Most of us love to eat chocolate. On Halloween as a child, going through the candy I’d collected, I used to save my chocolate for last because I loved it so much. As an adult, I keep chocolate on hand as a treat – I eat it when I want to celebrate something, when I need a boost, or just when I crave it. When choosing a dessert, I typically opt for the brownie, the mousse, or the chocolate silk pie. Many of us do the same because chocolate is a common food, beloved by many. Chocolate comes from the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, which is Latin for “food of the gods.” In the ancient Aztec civilization, cocoa beans were so valuable that they were used as currency.[1]

[3] Chocolate is a big business. The top exporters of cocoa beans are African countries, particularly Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. The top importers of cocoa beans are the U.S. and European countries.[2] According to CAOBISCO, a European association of chocolate, biscuit, and confectionary makers, the developed world consumed more than 5 billion tons of chocolate in 2010.[3] In July of 2010, the hedge fund investor Anthony Ward pulled off a coordinated, highly secretive purchase of 7% of the world cocoa market in a single day, cornering the market and immediately driving up prices throughout Europe.[4] Not surprisingly, global sales of chocolate reached $100 billion in 2011.[5]

[4] It is disturbing, then, to be told that much of the chocolate that we eat on a regular basis was produced in a way that harms the environment, exploits farmers, and makes use of child slave labor. This is precisely the claim of many “fair trade” chocolate companies.[6] Consumers, they say, should buy fair trade chocolate, because conventional chocolate is implicated in environmental and social ills.[7] Lutheran World Relief offers “Divine Chocolate,” asserting that “Divine Chocolate helps turn people’s chocolate addictions into funds for meaningful development.” The chocolate comes from a farmer’s association in Ghana.[8] Some chocolate is also certified organic or sustainable, which often but not always coincides with a fair trade certification. The Rainforest Alliance, for example, has a certification program encouraging farmers to cultivate cocoa in the shade of existing forests rather than promoting deforestation. The alliance also encourages the use of solar-powered bean dryers and the fair treatment and compensation of workers.[9]

[5] Fair trade, organic, or sustainable chocolate is not always available to consumers. Try asking for it in your milkshake at a fast-food restaurant. When it is available, it tends to be quite a bit more expensive than conventional chocolate. Are we required to purchase “ethical” chocolate? If it is not available, should we abstain from chocolate altogether? Does one purchase really make a difference? What is a conscientious consumer to do? Where can we find help for these vexing problems?

Luther and consumption

[6] As I describe in my book, The Christian Consumer: Living Faithfully in a Fragile World, there are multiple ways for Christians to address the environmental, social, and personal costs of consumption.[10] Some Christian sources emphasize avoiding sin and complicity in sin. Others exhort savoring and enjoyment of consumable blessings. And still others judge consumption behavior based on its contribution to God’s coming kingdom. But Martin Luther, I believe, would have emphasized the importance of relationships, especially those characterized by service and love of neighbor. This is where we begin to articulate and understand a Lutheran ethics of environmental consumption.

[7] Luther’s thought is complex and relatively unsystematic and has been interpreted in many ways.[11] While love of neighbor was surely important to Luther, it was important not as a way of achieving holiness or salvation, but rather as an expression of the joy and flourishing of one who knows herself to be loved by God. The most important relationship, ethically and spiritually, is the one between humans and God, according to Lutheran ethicist George Forell.[12] Still, as much as Luther de-emphasizes the idea of everyday life as a site of spiritual achievement, he nevertheless measures everyday ethics in terms of its coherence with relational norms of love, service, and beneficence. Forell describes the principle of Luther’s ethics as “‘faith active in love,’” an ethics that judges right and wrong based upon whether an ethical decision is “helping or hindering the all-important relationship between God and man” and whether it allows the Christian to be “used by God to mediate the divine love to other men.”[13] For Luther, God’s love leads to, and finds its completion in, neighbor love; together they form the basis for his economic ethics.

[8] Lutheran theologian Cynthia Moe-Lobeda contends that Luther’s economic thought was ultimately rooted in “his conviction that economic life –as all dimensions of human life– must serve the proclamation and hearing of the gospel, and neighbor-love.”[14] Moe-Lobeda defines love as “active commitment to the well-being of who or what is loved… [which] inherently entails seeking to undo injustice.”[15] Moe-Lobeda links love and justice together, and interprets Luther in a way that highlights the need for justice and neighbor-love in economic relations, in the name of the proclamation of the gospel.

[9] Luther does not expect that the gospel or a norm of neighbor-love will substitute for law and order. As he writes in Trade and Usury, “I have often taught thus, that the world ought not and cannot be ruled according to the gospel and Christian love, but by strict laws and with sword and force, because the world is evil.”[16] Nonetheless, when it comes to everyday ethics, Luther would have the Christian ask, “’Whom does it benefit?’ … It must benefit your fellow man and society, otherwise the work is worthless.”[17]

[10] Luther holds Christians to a high standard in the economic realm. As he writes in Trade and Usury,

There are four Christian ways of exchanging external goods with others…. The first way is to let them rob or steal our property…. The second way is to give freely to anyone who needs it…. The third way is lending [expecting nothing in return]…. The fourth way of exchanging goods is through buying and selling, but for hard cash or payment in kind [not credit].[18]

This last way may be the easiest to accept, but a true Christian, according to Luther, should be very willing to be robbed, to give things away freely, and to lend, expecting no return. This is not something that can be expected of everyone, of course, but Christian witness to the gospel entails living in ways that run counter to the sinful ways of the world.

[11] Luther is wary of trade because it so easily becomes theft: “to steal is … not only to empty our neighbor’s coffer and pockets, but to be grasping in the market, in all stores, booths, wine- and beer-cellars, workshops, and, in short, wherever there is trading or taking and giving of money for merchandise or labor.”[19] Theft is, in an important sense, a sin against God. But, for Luther, dishonest market practices are also, perhaps most importantly, to be reckoned as a sin against the neighbor. Luther rails against merchants who sell their goods at the highest prices possible within given market forces, a practice that has become so widespread that it is an elementary principle of market economics today.

What else does it mean but this: I care nothing about my neighbor; so long as I have my profit and satisfy my greed, of what concern is it to me if it injures my neighbor in ten ways at once? There you see how shamelessly this maxim flies squarely in the face not only of Christian love but also of the natural law. … Because your selling is an act performed toward your neighbor, it should rather be so governed by law and conscience that you do it without harm and injury to him, your concern being directed more toward doing him no injury than toward gaining profit for yourself.[20]

Luther acknowledges a merchant’s need to make a living. But he denies that charging back-breaking prices is necessary. He does not trust fallible, if well-meaning, individuals to solve this. Rather, Luther appeals to the civil authorities to “set prices which would enable the merchant to get along and provide for him an adequate living” – without injuring the merchant’s customers.[21]

[12] Luther concentrates primarily on sellers in his writing, urging them not to overcharge or hoodwink their customers, but his use of neighbor-love as a standard in the marketplace surely could apply to buyers as well, since buying is also “an act performed toward your neighbor.” Consumers should consider the well-being of those who produce our food and other products, and act in the producers’ best interests as best we can ascertain them. Just as sellers should not inflate prices without regard to the effects on buyers, so buyers should not seek to buy the very cheapest item without regard to the effects on sellers. If products are inexpensive because of the exploitation of workers, Luther might well consider that theft: “being grasping in the market” without regard to others’ well-being. Our tendency to always seek the cheapest item, regardless of its origin and implications, in some sense contradicts Luther’s ideals. Colloquially we say we’ve been robbed when we pay too much for an item, but Luther asserts that being robbed is something Christians should accept with equanimity. Christians should also give freely to “anyone who needs it” – which, arguably, includes the producers of fair-trade chocolate. Luther, I believe, would favor fair trade chocolate in support of good treatment of workers without concern about its higher cost.

[13] Neighbor-love and service to the neighbor, then, can be exercised in buying and selling. But Luther was referring to a marketplace, in which real people encounter each other and exchange money and goods. Can we apply his insights to the global marketplace and the virtual marketplace? And what about non-human neighbors?

Loving the neighbor through consumption

[14] John Ruskin, a British social critic of the Victorian era, writes:

every atom of substance, of whatever kind, used or consumed, is so much human life spent; which, if it issue in the saving of present life, or gaining more, is well spent, but if not is either so much life prevented, or so much slain. In all buying, consider, first, what condition of existence you cause in the producers of what you buy; secondly, whether the sum you have paid is just to the producer, and in due proportion, lodged in his hands; thirdly, to how much clear use, for food, knowledge, or joy, this that you have bought can be put; and fourthly, to whom and in what way it can be most speedily and serviceably distributed.[22]

Ruskin is not alone is exhorting us to imagine the distant but very real ramifications of our purchases. Lutheran eco-theologian Larry Rasmussen defines the neighbor as follows: “anyone or anything we ought reasonably to think may be affected by our actions. …In this sense,” he writes, “neighborly responsibility is infinite in extent, with no preordained boundaries.”[23] In this way of thinking, the neighbor is both “nigh” and far away. And the community of neighbors extends beyond humans, according to Rasmussen’s reading of Luther as recognizing “all creatures” at a “common table.”[24] Just as God is manifest in the human neighbor, so God is manifest in the non-human neighbor, according to Rasmussen.[25]

[15] Moe-Lobeda helpfully summarizes Luther’s view on the “neighbor,” recognizing that for Luther it may be everyone on earth, including friends and enemies; only Christians; or “co-residents of a locality.”[26] She notes that for Luther, “parts of humanity are excluded from all three versions of neighbor,” particularly Jews, who weren’t even enemies, who one should love, but rather demons, which deserve only cruelty.[27] Moe-Lobeda is rightly critical of the exclusivity in Luther’s view of neighbor, since this seems to stem from unjustified prejudice. Moe-Lobeda, in a move similar to Rasmussen’s, articulates a vision of a “cosmic communio,” consistent with her interpretation of Luther as panentheistic and as recognizing Christ indwelling in the world.[28] Thus, in Moe-Lobeda’s Luther-formed view, the neighbor realm extends to the whole cosmos.

[16] Using these expansive views of neighbor, then, I ask: Who might reasonably be affected by my purchase of a chocolate bar at the grocery store? It affects not only me and those with whom I share the chocolate. My money contributed to the store “trickles out,” sending economic encouragement to the store employees and store owners, the shippers, the packagers, the processers, and the growers. In addition to these people, their families and friends are affected by the economic effects of my chocolate purchase. And, if Rasmussen is correct and non-human creatures are also neighbors, then my purchase affects the ecosystem in which the chocolate is grown, and the ecosystems affected by the pollution from processing and shipping. One chocolate bar begins to weigh heavily on my mind for we exist in dizzyingly intricate webs of economic connection. For Rasmussen and Moe-Lobeda, this is inspiring, not overwhelming, but I have certainly experienced it as overwhelming. I walk down the aisles of the grocery store and instead of seeing products on the shelves, I see exploited workers and suffering ecosystems. Admittedly, I sometimes have to bring a friend along for moral support when I go shopping.

[17] Love seems like the answer, the proper response to all these neighbors, seen and unseen, that we may relate well to everyone, through service and love. But how can I possibly love everyone in that intricate web? The mysticism underlying Rasmussen’s and Moe-Lobeda’s views is attractive: we are all interconnected, all one, and we all rely on each other. But its practical manifestation is elusive.

[18] Moe-Lobeda envisions a congregation solving these problems by pooling their time and talents, journeying together in faith. After prayer, Bible study, and reflection, they begin to take action:

Different people contribute different efforts… One small group becomes boycott information specialists, making certain that all households have information…. The church subscribes to consumer guides enabling people to support “green businesses”… The congregation joins a Community Supported Agriculture enterprise… Finding the morality of their personal economic lives to be determined not only by personal commitments and decisions, but also by the structures of which they are a part, they are moved to work for policy and structural changes…. Eventually a “public witness coordinator” is organizing rides, food, speakers, banners, and networking for protests…[29]

Her vision is compelling and appealing. To address the issues that arise in an economically and spiritually interconnected world, we must work together, not alone. Congregations are in a unique position to address the details and demands of environmentally preferable consumption.

[19] Luther would caution Moe-Lobeda and the rest of us, reminding us of human sin and finitude. Our salvation, after all, rests on our relationship with God first and foremost. Neighbor-love in the marketplace may be the manifestation of, or completeness of, the love God has for us. But the worldly realm is not the place where we work out our salvation. On the topic of the vow of celibacy, Luther once wrote, “If you would like to take a wise vow, then vow not to bite off your own nose; you can keep that vow.”[30] Luther’s recognition of the limits of human nature with respect to celibacy should help us stay realistic and humble in the face of the rigors of ethical consumption.

[20] Rasmussen, in light of the environmental destruction that we can wreak, calls for “humble power exercised in the sobering shadow of the cross and in full view of the considerable powers of destruction we have and wield.”[31] We have the power to harm one another, but we also have the power to love, and this love can be a witness to the transforming power of the gospel. Moe-Lobeda writes, “Justified sinners gradually are changed – individually but only in community – by the gratuitous righteousness of Christ. They are transformed into people who increasingly seek the well-being of others.”[32] They are transformed into people who love and serve their neighbors, human and otherwise – even when buying chocolate.


[1] “Cocoa,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online Academic Edition (Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 2013). (Accessed 7 February 2013.)

[2] World Cocoa Foundation, “Cocoa Market Update”, March 2012. (Accessed 7 February 2013.)

[3] Caobisco: Chocolate, Biscuits, and Confectionery of Europe. “Consumption Trends.” (Accessed 7 February 2013.)

[4] Julia Werdigier and Julie Creswell, “Trader’s Cocoa Binge Wraps Up Market,” New York Times, July 24, 2010. (Accessed 7 February 2013.)

[5] World Cocoa Foundation.

[6] See Fairtrade International, “Cocoa.”

[7] Not all fair trade certifications are equally strict, and promoters of some labels seek to discredit others. See, Sara Peck, “Certifying Blood Chocolate,” In These Times, June 25, 2010 ( (Accessed 7 February 2013.)

[8] Lutheran World Relief, (Accessed 7 February 2013.)

[9] Rainforest Alliance, “Rainforest Alliance Certified Cocoa,” (Accessed 7 Fruary 2013.)

[10] Oxford University Press, 2011.

[11] According to George Forell, “Luther, whose theological and ethical aim was to describe and interpret the relationship of man to God and God’s creation, cared little whether the result was systematic or not, as long as he felt that it described the actual human situation” (George W. Forell, Faith Active in Love: An Investigation of the Principles Underlying Luther’s Social Ethics [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1954] 47).

[12] Forell writes that relationships, particularly love of God and neighbor-love, undergird all of Luther’s ethical prescriptions. He writes, “Neither the Sermon on the Mount nor the Decalogue is the point of reference for Luther’s ethics, but always the relationship which God establishes with man through the forgiveness of sins in love” (63).

[13] Ibid., 100.

[14] Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Healing a Broken World: Globalization and God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 126. Moe-Lobeda sees Luther’s dynamic Christology in conversation with “varied streams of feminist relational theology that elaborate ‘relationality as a basic category of existence’ … [and] shared acknowledgement of Divine presence in morally empowering relationality” (107).

[15] Moe-Lobeda, 11

[16] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works , ed. Walther I. Brandt, Jaroslav Pelikan, and Helmut T. Lehmann; trans. Charles M. Jacobs (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1962), 45:264.

[17] Forell, 103.

[18] Luther, Trade and Usury, 255-256, 259.

[19] Luther, Large Catechism, trans. F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau, 1921. Seventh Commandment. (Accessed 7 February 2013.)

[20] Luther, Trade and Usury, 247-248. Luther catalogues many different forms of questionable market dealings – many of which are common practice today – and condemns the sinful lack of neighbor-love in all of them.

[21] Ibid., 249. In the absence of such policies, Luther advises merchants to consult their own consciences in setting prices (without, he hastens to add, becoming overly anxious about it – for it is not through such works, good or ill, that salvation is earned!) (250). Indeed, Luther acknowledges that buying and selling, like sex, is a practice in which sin is virtually guaranteed; but its necessity leads God to forgive such sins when forgiveness is asked (251).

[22] John Ruskin, Unto This Last and Other Writings (London: Penguin, 1997) , 227–28 (emphasis mine).

[23] Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth Community, Earth Ethics (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1996) , 261. His inspiration for this expansive definition is H. Richard Niebuhr’s description of the neighbor as “all that participates in being” (Ibid.).

[24] Rasmussen, 274-275.

[25] Ibid., 284.

[26] Moe-Lobeda, 98.

[27] Ibid., 98.

[28] Ibid., 127.

[29] Ibid., 144-145.

[30] Luther, “The Estate of Marriage” (1522), in Lull, Timothy F., ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005) 153.

[31] Rasmussen, 293.

[32] Moe-Lobeda, 79.

Laura M. Hartman

Laura M. Hartman, Ph.D. is Associate Professor in the Religion Department of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois