The TH Interview: Morgan Spurlock, Producer of "What Would Jesus Buy?"

Last year, Americans spent $455 billion dollars during the holiday season (ouch!). In an attempt to not only reduce that number, but get us all to think about our consumption and where our stuff comes from, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir toured the country (in a biodiesel bus, of course), spreading the good word about cutting back this holiday season. Producer Morgan Spurlock, along with director Rob Van Alkemade, made a film about it, and "What Would Jesus Buy?" is the result. TreeHugger had the pleasure of speaking with Morgan Spurlock about the film, its message, and what he's buying for Christmas gifts this year.

TreeHugger: Reverend Billy is a very charismatic, intelligent guy, but he's pretty in your face. Does the way he's perceived by some have the potential to distort the message? Do you worry that his overbearing style might turn some people off to the movement? Can you really expect people to take a guy who says, "Mickey Mouse is the Antichrist!" seriously?"

Morgan Spurlock: Well, so far, across the board, the reception to the film has been very positive. Whether somebody would say they are an activist group or a very "lefty" group or a very conservative group, or even with Christian audiences, the film has been very well received at Christian film festivals all across the country.

I think in the beginning, Billy can come off as a bit "in your face" and abrasive, but, I think as people listen to him and hear what he has to say, they realize that he's really trying to use humor, he's really trying to use this character to get people to think, and, hopefully, make people laugh a little bit. I think that, at the heart of what Billy does, it's a very funny message that deals with a very serious issue in a way that somehow makes it accessible -- palatable -- to a lot of us.

There are people who do shut off, but the majority -- and it has been an overwhelming majority -- have kind of latched on to him and the film, which is great.

TH: How can people move from "exploring the options" -- what the church asks people to do first -- to actually taking action to reduce consumption?

MS: Yeah, I think it is a choice we have to make every day -- there's the choice of where you buy, what you buy, how you buy -- so the first step is definitely starting to think about those choices. It's a lot to try to change in one day, for sure, so I think you have to take it incrementally. The first thing you could say is, "I'm going to stop shopping at 'Big Box' stores, and I'm only going to support locally-owned, community-owned businesses -- businesses where everything I buy is going to go right back into my community." That's a great first step.

The second thing you could say is, "Well, I'm only going to buy stuff that's made in the United States." Granted, that's becoming more and more difficult every single day -- good luck trying to buy stuff that's only made in America -- but I think that just going down that path will start to enlighten you even more about where the things you buy come from. I think the more you start to learn and research that -- the environments and where your products are made -- it'll start to have an influence on what you buy, and why you buy things the way you do, or why you should shop a different way.

I think a lot of us do come from this "out of sight, out of mind" world of consumerism, where, "It's not in my backyard, it's not here, so wherever it has come from, that's fine, as long as I can get it for cheap," but, I think, at the heart, most Americans don't want to buy products that are made in a hurtful environment, in an environment where people are tortured, or in an environment where people are basically slave labor, or aren't paid a living wage, you know? I think that Americans are good people, at their core.

TH: In the film, Reverend Billy comes down pretty hard on Wal-Mart. What's your take on the mega-retailer? They've been making strides in greening their supply chain lately (Ed. note: see TreeHugger's interview with Wal-Mart's Andy Ruben and Matt Kissler for more on that), but have yet to really address the human rights issues that have plagued them to this point. Are you cautiously optimistic or do you think they deserve to be scrutinized (and scolded) until their social compliance is addressed?

MS: I think we have to be scrutinizing, and I think there's no better time than now for a company like Wal-Mart to say that they're going to change their business practices. There are more and more product recalls, more and more things that are being sent overseas, and that's resulted in all the lead your child can eat and all the date rape drugs they can swallow in whatever toy they're getting. We have to start asking ourselves, "Why are these things being manufactured that way?"

As big corporations like Wal-Mart continue to build a price point -- because that's what it is, basically: they tell manufacturers and people they buy things from, "Here's the price we're going to pay, so you have to figure out how to get to that price point." And it's hard to really trim the edges and cut away the fat to try and get to that price point; you start to take away the efficiency, take away the safety, take away all of the things that, in America, led to safe products being manufactured.

There is a level of safety that we should look at in the things that we buy and there's a level of product quality control that we also need to look at that's completely being forgotten and it's all based on the idea that "Well, I get to save 50 cents if it comes out this way."

TH: There are examples of both consumption pattern extremes in the film. What do you find to be the fundamental difference between those who over-consume and those who are much more mindful of their consumption?

MS: That's a good question. I think the biggest difference is that a lot of people who just buy blindly don't really know all the facts; I think a lot of people don't know the information: they don't know where their products come from; how certain choices affect their local community; they don't know that when you buy from certain stores, the majority of that money goes back to a headquarters thousands of miles away, rather than staying in your hometown. I think these are all things that people are largely unaware of, and so the question is when people do have that information and continue to make those choices, why do they do that?

That's a bigger question, I think; when you look at a lot of the big box stores, the reason we go to places like this is more out of convenience than anything else: you don't want to go to two or three different places to grocery shop and to buy a filing cabinet and your tennis shoes, you know? Basically, it's here under one roof. But by going out of your way and supporting local businesses, what kind of choice are you making? What kind of economy are you supporting? How much more are you spending?

That's another big one, you know; people say, "There are people that need to shop at places like that, that need to save that money." That's true, there are people in this country who need to go somewhere where they can get the lowest price possible because they're actually just barely living above the poverty line. But there are millions of people who don't live that way, who could make a choice, and, if you could choose the better way, why wouldn't you?

TH: So, what do you think the biggest catalyst is for changing peoples' minds about the shopping choices they make?

MS: That's probably the biggest question of all. I'm a filmmaker, so, if I can make a movie that will make people think and make them laugh and make them look at the world that they live in, then that's a good thing. I think that people need to keep talking about it; we can't accept that this is just the way that it is, and that's it. We need people like you guys, who are going to keep writing about it; we need news agencies who are actually going to talk about what's happening; we need filmmakers who are going to tell stories about people like Reverend Billy. All of those things play a part.

TH: What are you giving as gifts this holiday season? What do you want for Christmas? What do you recommend other people give?

MS: I'm actually not buying anything for anybody this Christmas. Well, with the exception of the little kids, like my brother's kids, they'll get some presents, but, instead, my whole family is taking a trip together. We're all going to meet at a cabin in the mountains and spend the holidays together, cooking great food, playing games and just spending some quality time together, and that'll be Merry Christmas!

That's what it's all about: I work so much, I'm so busy, I never get to see my family, so, for me, that's pretty much all I could ever want.

For other people, I would recommend, like Reverend Billy says, to shop less and give more. It's not all about the bottom of a receipt -- that the number that's at the bottom of a price tag is how much you love somebody -- and there's so many other ways to express love and affection and how much you care for them than spending thousands of dollars on stuff. That's one of the best messages that comes out of the film.

TH: What's one thing we all could do to support and make the world a better place this holiday season?

MS: I think that if it comes down to holidays, you know, the whole idea of "giving more" is a great idea, and it's not just giving more to the people that you know. I think one of the best messages that comes out of the film are the invisible people that we never see, that are around but aren't really a part of our lives. If it's during the holidays or throughout the year, as Billy says, "If you can change Christmas, you can change the whole year."

If you started thinking right now, about people that you don't even know, about giving a gift to somebody that you have no idea who they are -- whether that's somebody at a shelter, or somebody who's overseas and in need -- if you can start to open that door of giving to people, and showing that you aren't looking for any kind of reciprocation, then you can really start to make a difference. That's a great message to send out, not only now but all year 'round.

Morgan Spurlock is the Producer of "What Would Jesus Buy?", a new "serious docu-comedy" about Christmas-related conspicuous consumption that's playing now in many theaters in many cities across the country.
More on Jesus
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Morgan Spurlock goes 'Off the Grid'
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Tags: Christmas | Consumerism | Gifts

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