Don’t Forget the Power of Ethical Shopping This Christmas Season

Ethical shopping gift-giving guide — a close-up of a young girl's hands holding a Christmas present.

When it comes to gift-giving, our culture tells us that more, and cheaper, is better during this Christmas season — but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, this is the perfect time to start the practice of living and shopping with an increased awareness of our power as consumers; we’re poised and ready to spend our money, and so we have a unique opportunity to vote with our wallets for the kind of world we want to live in.

Growing up with an environmental activist uncle, hearing stories of his work in rainforest management and wildlife conservation, I’ve always been aware of the impact that we humans have on the world around us. As the species at the top of the food chain, we have huge amounts of power to destroy or preserve the world around us. This awareness, coupled with the Catholic faith of my nuclear family, gave me a sense of responsibility that I’ve never been able to shake. I vividly remember asking my father as a child why he always picked up other people’s trash, and his reply was that we have a duty to leave the world a better place than we found it.

It was this philosophy that inspired me to create a website promoting ethical brands and consumer choices, named A Better Place in his honor.

The Story of Stuff project, founded by Annie Leonard, reports that the US has 5% of the world’s population, but is using 30% of the world’s resources, and creating 30% of the world’s waste. Apparently, if everyone on the planet consumed at US rates, we’d need 3–5 planets.

And it’s not just the environment and natural world that is laid to waste in our current model of consumption: entire communities of people are hurt by toxic pollutants, unjust working conditions, and wars fueled by demand for the precious minerals that make our smart phones and laptops.

“It wasn’t always like this: the average US person now consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago,” Leonard reports.

I believe we’re called to be stewards of God’s creation, but whatever your reasons may be for caring about where the stuff you buy comes from (and where it ends up), it’s clear it has an impact on many different levels.

Polls show that we now have more stuff than ever, but connect the rising amount of “stuff” we own with a decline in happiness. Bringing back practices that our grandparents and their parents valued, like resourcefulness and thrift, could be good not only for the planet, but also for our emotional well-being.

So, if you want to embrace a spirit of intentional generosity this Christmas season, here are some ideas to help you do it without breaking the bank. Because, after all, caring for other people and the planet doesn’t need to be an elitist activity; we can all make a difference, no matter what kinds of budgets we have.

Find out what your loved ones actually want

This might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t actually do their research before doing their Christmas shopping. Maybe we’re embarrassed to ask in case it makes us look unimaginative, because we don’t want to ruin the surprise element of our gift-giving, or because we feel too rushed to check in to find out what they would like.

Isn’t it so much nicer to receive something you actually want and need, though, rather than something you’ll put in a drawer and forget about — or worse, throw out at the first opportunity? Ask people to email you a wish list, make a wish list on Pinterest, or via an online platform like Elfster.

Seek out good quality, ethical products

Are ethical products more expensive? Yes, and when you think about it, this makes sense; we’re used to being able to buy things at crazy low prices because people down the line are being mistreated and underpaid, so when the people who make the products are paid a fair wage and work in safe working conditions, the price is bound to be higher. Then there’s also the fact that ethical companies are designing products to last, rather than throwaway products for the lowest price point possible; higher quality, sustainably-sourced materials and craftsmanship naturally cost more money.

This doesn’t mean that you have to spend more money than you usually would during the holiday season, though. Scour eBay and local thrift stores for second-hand but still great quality products, look for small businesses on Etsy, and in local shops that sell hand-crafted products.

If you find an ethical brand you like but feel is too expensive, consider teaming up with other family members to buy the item you have in mind. Plan your budget well so that you know in advance how much you have available to spend on each person; you may well find you can make your money go further if you plan well. In fact, I’ve created a few spreadsheets to make financial and gift planning easier.

Buy less, choose well

British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood once said that the key to ethical shopping was to “buy less” but to “choose well.” This essentially means spending the same amount of money you would have, but on less stuff.

This can be a lot easier said than done, especially if you’re a natural born gift giver and just love to be generous, but remember that you don’t have to give everyone a gift just because it’s Christmas. Try to ignore all the consumerism-driven marketing of the season around you and focus on who you really feel like you would like to spend money on.

You can always find other ways to show people you love and appreciate them that don’t involve spending lots of money; sending a heartfelt handwritten card, perhaps along with a print of your favorite photograph of a happy memory that you share (Artifact Uprising does lovely ones in batches that you can pick straight from your Instagram feed), can be a lovely way to show you’re thinking of them.

Consider giving handmade or non-physical gifts

Ethical gift-giving can be as simple as making cookies for friends and family, and wrapping them with a bow, like here.

I know the thought of making handmade gifts can be super cringe-worthy, but it doesn’t have to be; there are lots of great ideas out there for making lovely gifts to show someone you care if you can’t afford to splurge on every single person on your list. I love the idea of making a big batch of this easy and delicious granola (I’m addicted to the chocolate one), and putting it in mason jars tied with a pretty ribbon, for example. Or you could spend an afternoon making large quantities of your favorite cookies, and boxing them up beautifully to drop off with a handwritten note, a hug, and some Christmas wishes to a local friend or family member.

Alternatively, do you know someone with kids? I can speak from experience as a parent that they’re bound to be eternally grateful for a proactive offer of babysitting — and by proactive, I mean write them out a “voucher” along with their Christmas card, then follow up in the New Year by pulling out your planner and asking them when they’d like to schedule their babysitting (some people feel awkward “redeeming” vouchers like this, no matter how well-meant they were).

Or, perhaps you could offer to cook someone a special dinner, or series of dinners (again, make sure you get a date — or dates — in the planner so they don’t feel like they have to follow up with you). Finding out their primary Love Language will help you to think of a non-physical gift that they really love.

Taking any of these steps can go a long way toward making sure your gifts don’t end up in a landfill. Cheers to an intentional, truly generous and world-changing Christmas season!

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