It's that time of year again. In the lead up to Christmas we hear the desperate calls of consumerism, begging for our custom and insisting that expensive gifts are the best gifts. Buildings are bedazzled with glitter, tinsel, and lights as we spend part of our summer trying to make things look wintery.
I'm not here to suggest that all of these things are bad. Decorations are wonderful. I may, as the only house in my street which puts up Christmas lights, be guilty of attempting to put an entire street's worth of lights in one yard. Gifts are great - you purchasing things causes employment for sales people and manufacturers. Giving gifts feels great, and receiving them feels pretty good too.
But not all gifts are created equal. Some are environmentally sustainable, while others waste resources. Some empower people, and some disempower people, either through the manufacturing process or the end result.
This is by no means exhaustive, nor prescriptive. Trying to do all these things will not make you a good Christian, and not doing them will not make you a bad Christian.
So here is a bit of a guide to some things to think about when considering "ethical" gift options.
Local. Locally grown, locally made. There are a huge range of things you can get locally - veggies, honey, sweets, art - and they have a range of ethical benefits. When you buy local you support producers who are trying to earn a living, and you can enquire about production methods if you want to. The reduced amount of freight and shipping is good for the environment too.
FairTrade. Look for the Fairtrade logo. Fairtrade certification guarantees producers are paid a fair amount for what they grow, and that their employees are paid a reasonable wage. Fairtrade goods can be found in a wide range of places and include products in your local supermarket. You can also check out this Fair Trade Shopping Guide which lists a range of stores selling Fairtrade and ethically sourced products, many of which have online stores.
Behind the Barcode. Baptist World Aid did some research to see which companies had the fairest manufacturing practices. Fashion and electronics brands were graded on the wages and conditions in the factories they use, and what they do to make sure their supply chains are ethical too. If you go to their website (or click the linked words) you can check out the full reports and shopping guides for fashion and electronics.
The Little Book of Big Gift Ideas. What do you get for the person who already has everything, or the one who you know is trying to avoid accumulating more stuff? Well, they've probably never been given crickets before! The Little Book of Big Gift Ideas contains a whole range of gifts which help end poverty. Gifts range from crickets, chickens and goats to education, tools, sanitation, and physiotherapy. Prices range from just $5 up to $1000
Ethical Retailers. There are a whole range of retailers now who specialise in finding products which are "ethical" or "good". There are a range of different views as to what this actually means, ranging from environmentally sustainable to ensuring fair work conditions and pay, though often these two different aspects of ethical production are found together. While not everything in their stores is FairTrade certified, some retailers make the commitment to ensuring they know how their products are ethically sourced - they find out how the products are made, who they are made by, and are dedicated to making sure all people in their supply chain are treated fairly. A few examples I'm aware of include etiko, Happy Pants, and Oxfam. Of course there are many more who can be found with a little research.
Cruelty free. If animal welfare is something you care about then there are a few things you can do. If buying cosmetics or similar products you can make sure to choose a brand that doesn't engage in unnecessary animal testing. When buying animal products, like meat, eggs, or leather, you can find out about production methods if possible. How did the animal live and die? Was it likely to have endured undue suffering, or was it treated humanely? Is the information you found about that based on the way we farm animals in Tasmania, or is it based somewhere with different farming practices? Is what people are saying about a particular practise being "cruel" based on what the animal in question experiences, or on people feeling uncomfortable with seeing it?
Green Concerns. There is a huge amount of variation I what people thing is acceptably environmentally friendly. Some people don't care at all, some will purchase only things which are organically grown, GMO free, recyclable and compostable if they can't grow it or make it themselves. Most of us fall somewhere in between. A few things you might want to look out for are excessive plastic packaging which will end up in landfill, quality of manufacture, and whether it's a good use of materials. Questions to ask include: Will it last? Can it be repaired? Does it fit its intended purpose well?
Of course, I can't tell you how much is the "right" amount to care about any of these things. Overall I personally am trying to choose ethically sourced and environmentally sustainable products where possible. But I also still buy cheap things from Kmart, Shiploads and The Reject Shop, and I don't feel bad about it when I go to the supermarket and buy whichever brand is on special instead of trying to find which one is ethically best.
It's not up to me, or anyone else (except maybe your significant other), to tell you how you should spend your money. What I can tell you is that you don't have to go all-or-nothing, and it's ok to do what's best for you in your current circumstances. If you read this and you decide to make sure everything you buy is local, environmentally friendly, or provides fair pay to everyone in the supply chain, if not all of those, then that is good. If you read this and decide to buy the sugar that's in a paper bag instead of the one in a plastic bag, or remember to bring your reusable shopping bags with you, then that is good.