Holiday shopping won’t save the world, and, let’s face it, most evil retailers will still exist come January 1. Still, the way we buy during the biggest spending season of the year can have undeniable positive social and economic benefits. We can “do no harm” by not shopping at all, but it’s even better to do some good, by growing more sustainable economies and developing a less wasteful lifestyle that stays with us year-round. Here are six of the most impactful ways to go about it.
1. Find fashion that’s fair. After more than 1,100 garment workers lost their lives in Bangladesh earlier this year making cheap apparel for Western brands, buying ethically made apparel just got a lot more urgent. A recent poll showed that 70 percent of consumers in more than sixteen countries said they would be willing to pay a little extra for ethically sourced apparel. Now where to find it?
There is a new crop of online retailers that are so sleek and stylish, you’ll never miss those big box stores. They all provide details about whether a product is locally made, Fair Trade or eco-friendly, but—best of all—you can just shop for what you like since it’s all ethically sourced. Modavanti.com is the trendiest of the bunch, and carries several dozen brands, and some are downright cheap. (They’ve got gift cards and a promo code for Nation readers: Nation20). Zady.com and Everlane.com both sell finely crafted classic American style that’s either domestically made or ethically-made overseas; Zady has gift cards. Helpsy.com is the newcomer and pays homage to the most cutting-edge emerging designers, most of whom produce in the United States.
If you shop in chains, patronize one of the over 100 major brands that signed a legally binding agreement to pay for safety improvements in the garment factories in Bangladesh.
2. Help people use less stuff. We’ve all heard the stats: Only 13 percent of the roughly 29 billion plastic bottles sold in the United States annually are recycled. As many as 58 billion paper coffee cups are tossed out each year. As an antidote, give gifts that make it easier to consume less year around. Reusable water bottle and coffee mugs have gotten beautiful and make great gifts. The KOR Delta Hydration Vessel is visually striking and BPA-Free ($22.95) and Nalgene’s On the Fly series of BPA-free, leakproof bottles that you can open with one hand ($12.99). Caffeine freaks might like a reusable paper-cup-look-alike, such as the I Am Not a Paper Cup’s chalkboard edition, which you can write on. Or, gift a reusable shopping bag that they’ll actually want to carry around—like Rebel Green’s retro designed totes (they also have reusable zip-lock bags) or Baggu’s brightly-colored minimalist numbers.
3. Lower the gadget impact. We’re living in gadget-crazed times. As a result, electronic waste is rising at an alarming rate and is now responsible for 70 percent of the toxic waste in our landfills. If the person you’re shopping for already has a similar product that still works, try to avoid buying new electronics altogether. If that’s not an option, choose items with the EPA-approved Energy Star sticker when possible, and check Green Electronics or Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics to parse out which tech brands have better human rights and environmental records than others.
But, most of us have to buy our electronics from somewhere. So look into buying refurbished. Amazon carries an extensive selection of certified refurbished options of some of the season’s most-coveted gizmos, including Kindle Fire and Apple iPad. Tekserve, a New York City–based Apple specialist, stocks refurbished Apple products.
Lastly, help those you gift with electronics properly dispose of their older models. If the device stills works, rather than toss or recycle it, locate an appropriate donation center or take-back program—the EPA website has a list. For smartphones, consider donating them to participating charities, such as National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Cell Phones for Soldiers or Verizon’s Hopeline Program.
4. Choose patriotic presents. If each American spent just $64 on domestically made goods during the holidays, it would create an estimated 200,000 new jobs. And it’s now easier than ever to find a variety of USA-made products. Many websites allow searches specifically for American-made goodies, including The Container Store, R.E.I., L.L. Bean, Nordstrom, Piperlime, Anthropologie and more—simply type in “Made in USA” or just “USA” in the search field of their websites. Popular fashion brands like Eileen Fisher, J. Crew, Club Monaco and Brooks Brothers also promote American-made fashion lines. And, yes, even Walmart has a selection of American-made products (although they should be avoided at all costs for a variety of other reasons—see: poverty-paying retail work, sexism, lovers of outsourcing).
Or, skip the legwork and visit USA Love List, a blog of stylish domestic goods that also has a whopping twenty-five holiday gift guides such as “Stocking stuffers for teenage girls.” KeepAmerica is another website that collates every American-made product imaginable—from pet toys to children’s games to patio furniture and jewelry.
For beer fanatics, wrap up a case of brewskies from one of America’s many craft beer companies such as Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head, Smuttynose or Blue Point; or purchase a beer gift basket online from HalfTimeBeverage, CraftBeerConnect.com or StandardMarket.com.
5. Support the mom and pops. Shopping for gifts in independently owned stores, restaurants and boutiques in your community has all the benefits of buying American—plus, it reduces your carbon footprint and injects money directly into the local economy. In fact, for or every square foot a local firm occupies, the local economy gains $179, versus $105 for a chain store. Enter your zip code into Independent We Stand’s website for a list of independent stores near you. Etsy’s Local web tool will likewise track down and map holiday markets and pop-ups in your area that sell locally made goods.
6. Cut the wrap and the packaging. The waste created in the United States increases 25 percent (or by an additional 1 million tons) between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. To help cut down on all that ribbon and packing peanuts, choose unpackaged products, send e-gift cards and e-greeting cards, and digital gift subscriptions to magazines. Also consider gifts of time—such as concert and movie tickets or dinner at a popular restaurant—and check out Katha Pollitt’s excellent charities list and make a donation to one of them in a loved one’s name. When you do shop, remember to bring those reusable shopping bags and decline gift-wrapping. Instead, wrap gifts in reusable or reused materials (gift bags, fabric, newspaper comics or recycled paper).