Award-winning journalist Fran Hawthorne has been a writer or editor at Fortune, BusinessWeek, Institutional Investor, and other publications. She is the author of several books including Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love and The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting,and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism. Follow Fran Hawthorne on Twitter.
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A partridge in a pear tree? But the Nahan’s Partridge of Africa is endangered, as are the Sichuan Partridge of China and the grey partridge of Britain. And why would you uproot a pear tree from its native habitat?
Chocolate Hannukah gelt? Not if that chocolate is from Cote d’Ivoire – the source of half the world’s chocolate – where young girls are forced to undergo genital mutilation.
On the other hand, coal in the Christmas stocking isn’t a great idea, either. Was the coal strip-mined by blasting the top off a mountain in Appalachia? Were any mine workers killed underground trying to dig it out?
Sigh. If you want to be an ethical gift-giver, it sometimes seems as if the only safe present is a tube of Tom’s of Maine peppermint toothpaste.
(Oops: Tom’s of Maine was bought by Colgate-Palmolive, so you would actually be giving your money to a big corporation that uses weird ingredients like PVM/MA copolymer and propylene glycol.)
Then factor in size, price, and whether the recipient would actually like the thing, and by any definition, it’s impossible to find the perfect gift.
But ‘tis the season. You have to try.
You can certainly read labels, consult “do not buy” lists, and seek out companies that fit your ethical standards. In fact, we at Beacon have compiled a comprehensive list of the major consumer, environmental, labor, animal-welfare, anti-sweatshop, and other “ethical” rankings:
If that seems too arduous, maybe you could look at gift-giving from a different direction. Instead of analyzing the labels, analyze the process. Here are some ideas:
Some companies are actually better than their reputation. Nike, for instance, has dramatically improved its monitoring of overseas suppliers and is considered a leader in ethical leather sourcing in the shoe industry. Nevertheless, it still has such a terrible image, stemming from its sweatshop horrors of the 1990s, that friends and relatives might be furious if you gave them a pair of Air Jordans. So for now, buy the shoes for yourself, and tell people why you did.
Other companies are worse than fans realize. Someone on your gift list might love a bag of Starbucks Via or a mermaid-logo mug, but you know that Starbucks tried to cheat the poor coffee farmers of Ethiopia, wrecks the environment by selling bottled water, and was cited by the National Labor Relations Board for illegal harassment of union organizers. Don’t buy that mug.
If a company takes some actions that really bother you, but overall it seems to be ethically operated, then go ahead and purchase its merchandise. But at the same time, make a donation to a cause that will help counteract the company’s misdeeds, and include the donation card with the gift. For instance: a contribution to PETA along with a set of leather Timberland boots, or a contribution to NOW with an American Apparel shirt.
Give alternative gifts. For the person who lives on Starbucks lattes, try a gift certificate to a local independent café. The Trader Joe’s addict? Some banana bread from the farmers’ market. Of course, the recipients may hate your gift; after all, there’s a reason they go to Starbucks five times a day. But they can always re-gift it.
In the end, there’s some truth to the cliché that it’s the thought that counts.
Generosity and friendship are never unethical.