Because I’ve written a lot about Wal-Mart,people are always asking me: Where should the socially-consciousconsumer shop? Sometimes, I resist the question. We don’t makesignificant social change by shopping: the process requires far morepolitical engagement than that. And there are no pure choices — life inthe marketplace is messy and brutal. But since we do love buying stuffand this is the biggest retail season of the year, it behooves us totake consumer politics seriously, and recommend some holiday purchasesfrom merchants who don’t suck.

A (Truly) Green Christmas Tree

The OrganicConsumers Association (OCA) reports that Swedish researchers did anenergy comparison between plastic and natural Christmas trees, and foundthat the real tree used a fifth as much energy as an artificial one.Lots of people assume that a plastic tree would be more environmentallyfriendly because it is re-usable, but that’s not so: artificial treesare often made from PVC, an environmental toxin. Besides, Christmastrees grow well on soil that is inhospitable to other crops, and likeall trees, they produce oxygen and absorb CO2. Thank goodness for theSwedish researchers for — are you listening, Bill O’Reilly? –defending the true sprit of Christmas: plastic trees are ugly anddepressing anyway! OCA recommends buying your tree from an organic farm– many farmer’s markets sell them — or one grown with a low level ofpesticides (most likely, that’ll be one local and native to your area),better for the health of the land, the farm workers and your family.

Sweat-Free Clothing

Bienestar International’s clothing, sold under theNo Sweat label, is made by workers in independent unions, all over theworld. No Sweat is the most commendable entrepreneurial project of itskind, but for too long, its products lagged far behind American Apparelin cuteness. No Sweat has also suffered from pallid marketing (again,especially compared to American Apparel, which has been criticizedfor its retro-pornographicads, but its image isanything but boring). No Sweat may be catching up, slowly: check outthe (quite fetching) sneakers, pea coats and hats on itswebsite. In addition to the more inviting goods, No Sweat also seems tobe getting a bit savvier in its marketing strategies, offering holidaypackages of enticing fairly traded spa products.

Fair Trade Cocoa

What’s better than a steaming hot cocoa in the winter,and what’s more horrible than forced-labor conditions under which somuch chocolate is made? Such contradictions aren’t always easilyresolved, but this one is. Equal Exchange — a company which sourcesentirely from democratically-run farmer cooperatives in Latin America,Africa and Asia — sells a fairly traded organichot cocoa on its website. Folks concerned about food miles willcomplain — the cocoa is from the Dominican Republic, the sugar fromParaguay and the milk power from the United States — but nothing inthis world is perfect, and Equal Exchange does a good job of combiningexcellent politics with high-quality product. (“Fair trade” means thatthe farmers received a price above the one set by the free market; ofcourse there is much debate over what a “fair” price really is, andwhether even “fair trade” brands are paying suppliers enough. If you’reinterested in delving into some of these complexities, I recommend theNew Internationalist‘s specialNovember issue on the subject. It isn’t online yet, but I’ve justwritten to urge them to put it up as soon as possible.)

A Free Press

You love reading free stuff on the Internet, but you knowreal journalism — and any high-quality printed matter — needs money tosurvive. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that a Nation subscriptionmakes a great gift. You knew that. I’d also highlyrecommend Bitch for the feminist on your list (of any age).

I welcome further suggestions from readers.