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A present shopping guide? 15 tips

This article is not meant to feed the season’s shopping fever. On the contrary, these are tips on how to shop, if you must, a bit more responsibly.

By Kirsten Dirksen and Nicolás Boullosa

Given the economic situation worldwide, measurement agencies have extra work this season: to confirm if, as expected, purchases fall with regard to previous years.

In the United States, for example, during the past 5 years Christmas purchases through the Internet have risen sharply (to see the graphic from comScore published by TechCrunch).

In 2008, this trend was broken, even in the purchase of tech products online. Forty-seven percent of Americans polled by comScore said they planned to buy less gifts, while 46% said they would continue buying presents, though less expensive ones.

Despite the fall in sales volume of e-commerce, 39% of those polled will continue using this method to take advantage of discounts (since shipping is free, it avoids traveling expenses), while 37% will plan to use the Internet to spend more time searching for deals.

Voluntary or compulsory simplicity?

Voluntary simplicity makes more sense than ever in a moment of economic crisis and a sharp rise in unemployment.

Consider not buying anything material, unnecessary and contaminating. Potential trash. This decision doesn’t need to be viewed as the result of budgetary limitations, but as a more thoughtful action. Our gifts will be more meaningful, since our imagination, ingenuity and personality will be more present in these Christmas gifts than those from previous occasions.

Greenpeace Canada considers the best purchasing advice for 2008, given the economic situation and raised awareness regarding sustainability: buy nothing.

Likewise, the organization’s Canadian office reminds those who decide, despite the crisis, to buy material gifts, to think about where and how they were manufactured, who made them and under what conditions, what materials were used, how they are packaged, what occurs when the useful life of the product is over, and what do we know about the companies that manufacture the products.

These can be difficult questions to answer, but here is where to begin:

  • Look for recognizable certifications. If possible, research them online.
  • When buying electronic and computer products and home appliances, it’s crucial to learn about the energy labeling of the product as well as the materials used in its production.
  • Buy directly from producers, local artisans and specialized producers can explain without intermediaries how their product was made and what material was used. Also it is easier to guarantee the labor conditions under which the product was produced.
  • It is not just what is bought, but how it is bought. Using the car instead of public transportation and opting for products manufactured in other countries are two decisions that increase our environmental footprint. It’s often possible to go shopping by public transportation, bicycle or foot. Do you accept plastic bags and ostentatious wrappings on top of the product’s own packaging? You can bring your own bags and look for recycled and recyclable packaging, and just less of it.
  • We don’t hesitate to find out if a product we’re buying is in good condition or has a reasonable price, so why not ask where it has been produced or about the logistics policies of the business, for example. Maybe you’ll be the first to ask this of some of the larger stores or even the corner store, but studies show that manufacturers and stores respond to consumer pressure.

To consume

During our interview in San Francisco with Gary Gardner, research director of the Worldwatch Institute (an organization founded by Lester R. Brown and responsible for the annual report The State of the World), we listened to his arguments about the consequences of unrestricted consumption (his Guide to responsible consumption).

We continue to buy more and it doesn’t make us any happier, according to studies cited by Gary Gardner. The Economist quotes a study by the U.K.’s Richard Layard, that showed that family relationships, work and health contribute much more to our sensation of personal prosperity -or happiness- than our incomes. Surveys by Gallup (World Poll), Pew Research Center (Global Attitudes Survey) and the University of Michigan (World Value Survey), show similar results.

The world spends 18 billion dollars annually on cosmetics, while 10 billion annually would be sufficient to provide drinking water for the world’s population.

Without succumbing to sensationalism, the grotesque nature of Christmas shopping could be observed recently at the doors of the American distribution chain Wal-Mart in Long Island, New York.

An employee of the chain, who awaited the opening of the doors of the establishment on the morning of “Black Friday” (the traditional start of the Christmas shopping period in the U.S.), died after being crushed by the crowd. Despite efforts by the store’s security team, the human avalanche had so much force that there was nothing they could do.

To buy, at any rate

Despite the downward trend, purchases will not disappear with the crisis.

The independent organization Conference Board estimates that American consumers will spend during this holiday period 418 dollars on gifts on average, as opposed to the 471 dollars last year. In Europe, according to consulting firm Deloitte, the top spending countries for holiday spending are: Ireland (1,305 euros per person), the United Kingdom (930 euros) and Spain (910 euros).

Those who still relate Christmas with impulse buys and superficial expenditures, will discover online and in the traditional media plenty of advice, thanks to the marketing efforts that every brand makes as an advertiser. It is difficult to harshly criticize a product, or to leave it out of an article or publication, if the manufacturer is advertised on the website, paper or channel. At times, what appears in the press is a collaboration with the good work of communications departments, that send journalists and publishers their work practically done (text, images and from time to time titles).

If you are determined to buy something, follow the advice of Seth Godin (creator of permission marketing) for Black Friday, the fourth Friday of the month of November, a day that inaugurates holiday shopping in the United States.

For Godin, “the decisions you make with your hard-earned money this year will have more impact than ever before. So put your money where your mouth is.”

Some ideas to consider, according to this marketing specialist:

Buy handmade objects by people you like.

  • Don’t buy gift cards. It’s lazy and somewhat idiotic.
  • Don’t buy from large brands or big stores where you don’t matter to them or whose actions you don’t support. There are many interesting alternatives in almost every category.
  • When in doubt, purchase digital articles. Better yet, make a donation and make many people happy.
  • At times, when purchasing by Internet, there are ways to buy things where a portion of the price goes to charity (Amazon’s red ribbon campaign, for example).

But our favorite advice offered by Seth Godin for the holidays is the least costly: “Hugs are an underrated substitute”.

Treehugger, again this year, has published its Holiday Gift Guide 2008, with a less severe critique of holiday consumerism than that of Seth Godin.

We are offering other advice. Like the protesters organized in the United States against the “celebration” of Black Friday, under the platform Buy Nothing Day, they would put a very different spin on a guide of Christmas purchases, we have focused on advice for purchasing behaviors.

Simply, the rejection of the most unbridled consumerism has deeper roots than fit in this article.

Advice for for those who are planning on shopping?

1. Buy nothing.

Given the crisis, buying nothing and resolving to improve some aspect of our daily life is a gift we can give ourselves. A good way to begin 2009.

Kirsten Dirksen explains in a report on how it is possible to save without giving up anything.

2. For who they have some time during these festivals full of commitments: make what you give.

We are much closer than we think to commendable works of craft. And thanks to the Internet, and Youtube, you can find helpful DIY tips for making just about anything.

Some ideas:

Gifts from recycled materials. Follow the example of Barcelona designers Loila and Hernâni of timtimxtimtim in the following videos:

There are very accessible recipes for making your own soap. To make it unique and sophisticated, collect aromatic plants in the most next wild zone to our house, or opt for alimentary ingredients like olive oil or citrus.

Traditional bread and pastries. It is not necessary to imitate David Nelson and Gudrun Margret, who make artisanal bread and pastries with flours as old as spelt and yeast that requires hours of rest (see video on our visit to their bakery/store Barcelona Reykjavik).

Design and make your own toys like stuffed animals, kites, puzzles, games, mobiles, paper dolls and kaleidescopes. As an added bonus, you can assure they were made with non-toxic materials.

3. Computers.

  • Avoid peripherals related to office automation; when all is said and done, why do we need a printer? Paperless homes and businesses are becoming more popular, explains The New York Times.
  • For those who use the computer to connect to the Internet and to use online applications for email, productivity, photo and music management, etc, there’s a new generation of computers of a reduced size and specs, as well as with operating system Linux. It’s a new segment of the Netbook. We talk about the convenience of machines with reasonable specs, low prices and a Linux operating system in the reports Traditional Vs. cloud computing and Linux: Ubuntu and other options.
  • A laptop for all: when we sell, gift, donate our old computer, we can invest the necessary money to buy a laptop that is sufficiently versatile, comfortable, affordable and sustainable to last for years. Many free versions of the Linux operating system, such as Ubuntu, have the sturdiness and necessary simplicity to be used without problems by any user, independently of their computing level. They are free operating systems capable of taking full advantage of the computer’s capabilities, as well as being stable and able to consume less energy.
  • Program G1G1 of OLPC: the program to bring cheap laptops to children in developing countries undertaken by the organization One Laptop Per Child, directed by Nicholas Negroponte, launched at the end of 2007 its first commercial version of laptop for children with an excellent adaptation of Linux, the XO-1. During the past holiday season, Americans and Canadians could sign up for the Christmas promotion G1G1 (“Give One Get One”), that consisted of buying two XO-1, one of which was sent by OLPC to the buyer, while the other was destined to children in the poorest countries. For Christmas 2008, Amazon is collaborating with OLPC and offering a page where anyone worldwide can give one or several computers and, in exchange, receive one at home.

4. Useful electronics.

  • Open source Robots for electronics freaks. Hardware components exist to create all kinds of devices that anyone can use, for use as a gift, for yourself, or even for manufacture. It is all related to projects using open source (a listing of the 60 most interesting projects of 2008, compiled by the specialized site Make), that anyone can use, modify and use to manufacture products (commercial or not) without needing to pay for rights.
  • Energy saving apparatuses. There is not a more appropriate electronic product to buy if we want to save electricity and reduce our environmental footprint as the accountants of a new generation. We talk about the most interesting models (among them, the Wattson from DIY Kyoto) in Cool gadgets to help save energy.
  • If we want to give -or be given-, a radio or similar appliance, we can always follow the advice of Seth Godin: buy a quality product of a brand that you admire, instead of buying something cheap and of questionable quality that will soon become more junk for the attic.
  • The electronic book has arrived? Now it is possible to go on a trip with 50 books in your handbag that occupy less space than a single book. The Amazon Kindle has become popular for being able to download books instantly without a computer, through a connection to mobile networks. While the Kindle is not yet available in Europe, there are other interesting alternatives. Electronic books, or e-books, are becoming a new family of devices. They promise comfortable reading and, above all, light. To succeed and to be become a product of the masses, they will first have to defeat one of the best designed objects for the transition of knowledge: the book. Among the different models, besides the aforementioned Kindle from Amazon, the following devices are on the market: Cybook, Sony Reader, iLiad, HanLin, Hanlin-V3, STAReBOOK and FLEPia. The main commercial enemies of the e-book, besides the traditional book (a rival with impressive strength)? Smart phones are incorporating increasingly more applications and capacity for reading books.

5. Cellular phone system.

We have our doubts about the existence of a telephone that can be called “ecological” (see No news of an eco-phone), although we like some ideas that are being developed in laboratories right now.

If we follow the latest edition of Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics, then the most interesting cellular phones are from the firms Nokia, Samsung, Toshiba and Sony Ericsson, due to the apparent greater sustainability of their products, according to this elaborate study by the environmental organization, which is already in its tenth edition.

Apple appears at the bottom of the list of the Greenpeace guide. Despite this, the company is making improvement efforts in different fields (eliminating dangerous materials from their screens and circuitry and improving their recycling policies, for example). Nevertheless, the iPhone can represent an emerging way to understand digital work and leisure; by being various devices in one (a powerful handheld computer with Internet access, e-mail and applications; a telephone; and a multimedia player), to buy an iPhone, or a similar telephone of other brands, could constitute an action of frugality. Instead of buying 3 different devices for Internet and mail, phonecalls and multimedia, to opt for only one, is with difficulty a blameworthy act.

Thanks to its store of applications, an iPhone can become:

  • – A locator for cheap fuel.
  • – A monitor for trips, meditation exercises, etc.
  • – An electronic book (thus it is not necessary to buy another device). We emphasize two applications: Stanza, that allows for the storage and reading of thousands of classical books from all periods and in various languages; and Shakespeare, a program that includes the complete work of the legendary playwright.

Devices with the operating system Android, a platform of open code developed by Google from Linux, have the same versatility and potential utility as the iPhone. Other manufacturers are fighting to reach the height of the up until now best two operating systems developed for cellular: Mac OS X and Android.

6. Clothes.

We are buying increasingly more clothing every year- and throwing away, or giving away, an equally large amount- so if you want to give a gift for the wardrobe, try to do so by avoiding the so-called fast fashion.

Before trying to buy clothes made with eco-fabrics or fairtrade labor, consider buying something with an even smaller environmental footprint: used clothing. Thanks to changes in the industry, it’s now possible to gift used clothing with style.

A) How to buy secondhand clothing with a new life:

Buy remade clothing. There’s an entire industry built around the idea of repurposed/reworked clothing. As we discuss in our report Fashion Guide III: redesigned clothing, there are designers making new sweaters out of old and shirts out of pantyhose.

Make something out of used material. There are plenty of websites with DIY tips like wardrobe refashion. Or morsbags.com has simple instructions for making a shopping bag out of an old sheet or fabric scrap to encourage your friends and loved ones to bring reuseable bags for shopping.

Go vintage. While simply giving a used t-shirt might not have the same effect, a classic vintage item- a leather jacket, a Pucci dress or fashionably worn jeans- is often better-made and more valuable than its new counterpart.

B) If you’re going to buy new, opt for heirloom pieces. For some options for more longer-lasting clothing, see our report Fashion Guide I: Slow Fashion.

In our interview with British slow fashion designer Amy Twigger Holroyd, creator of the line Keep & Share, she explained how she designs to encourage customers to hold onto their clothing longer. “The main challenge… is trying to design pieces that will transcend passing trends, but still be interesting and quirky enough to hold the wearer’s interest… My main strategy is to combine archetypal shapes, garment details and fabric references with geometric shapes and unconventional methods of construction – to create something that is at once slightly familiar and also surprising.”

C) Avoid the “natural” fiber trends like bamboo or soy fabrics. These require too many chemicals to process the fabrics. As Patagonia’s Todd Copeland told us in a video interview, “Things like bamboo rayon, and things like milk and soy and all of these protein fibers… these are old technologies… and now I think people are going back to them and saying oh this is natural, this is natural, this is natural. But natural isn’t always environmentally friendly.”

Instead, if you want truely environmentally friendly fabrics, borrow Patagonia’s list of approved e-fabrics as a guide. After extensive research and testing they include in their list: organic cotton, hemp, tencel, organic wool, chlorine-free wool and recyclable nylon.

7. Food.

Food is a big part of the holiday expenditures for most families. Independently of the cost of gifts, family gatherings continue to be the main course for this period of the year. There are ways to prepare exquisite delicacies with little money and a scrupulous respect for our health and that of the environment.

  • Buy local food which doesn’t suffer from the typical holiday price increases.
  • Shake the dust off those recipe books, ask parents or grandparents, search the web for interesting dishes. Why not give a bit of happiness to a parent or grandparent -or for those who dare a mother-in-law- with an afternoon of companionship in the kitchen?
  • If possible, raise, cultivate, collect in the country or receive from a friend the food destined for those most special days. For more information on urban gardens (they can be a potential gift), visit our story Why we will all be gardeners.

As a present for someone open to eating more locally or organically, give a membership to a veg or meat box plan or a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). CSAs, and other box schemes, allow communities to buy directly from local farmers. To find a CSA in your community in the U.S. or a veg box scheme in the UK.

When shopping for food in the store, here’s more holiday culinary advice from Greenpeace Canada:

  • Avoid products that during the holidays see absurd price increases. Is it necessary to eat frozen shellfish at Christmas time?
  • Avoid products that include genetically modified ingredients.
  • Choose, when possible: organic, local, fairtrade. Check out our reports on local products and from the garden: Footprint of smoothies and Counting miles per bite.

8. Festive decoration.

Be a little imaginative. Ask your elders. It’s not necessary to go out searching for moss moss, since it has probably disappeared from those spots where you found it when you were small.

  • Plastic is not necessarily better than the real thing. A decorative tree is not sustainable simply by not being a tree. Try a living tree that you can plant afterward. Or even a fruit tree to add to, or start, your backyard garden.
  • Be original, when all is said and done. The little ones will thank you for it.

9. Continuing along the idea of “useful gifts”.

  • Create a board game with your own hands: chess, Risk, a puzzle, an invented game.
  • Design, create something personal that is useful. Plan a garden, plant a tree or make a reuseable shopping bag (again, try morsbags.com for a downloadable pattern and easy directions).

10. A gift through e-mail.

  • A photo gallery, a multimedia presentation, an elaborate letter.

11. Buy something from a brand that you respect, or some lasting object.

And we’re not talking about blood diamonds. Completely the opposite.

  • Take advantage of this low moment in the market and buy a small package of stock from ethical companies. Visit our Ethical investing guide 2008.
  • Invest for the entire family: solar panels, a small wind power generator, a specialized book.
  • A good bicycle (why done buy second-hand through Internet classifieds) is one of the gifts with more possibilities to positively change the future habits of the person receiving this brilliant vehicle. Check out our report on Commute Bikes.
  • Buy a pass for a bikesharing service, if such a service exists in your area. In many cities in Europe, most notably Paris and Barcelona and increasingly more in North America, there are very useful public bike sharing networks. For more information, visit Smart bikes: bikesharing redux and the video Bicing Barcelona
  • For someone considering giving up their car, buy them a carsharing membership. For a list of carsharing services worldwide see our report Inconspicuous consumption and for more on the topic see our video How to share a car.

12. Give an experience.

  • Instantaneous: remember Seth Godin’s advice of a hug. There are also other types of similarly recommendable affection.
  • Passing: a good wine, a good restaurant, a weekend in some special place.
  • Lasting: training, languages, dance or art classes, a gym membership.

13. Give a better future for our loved ones and for those we don’t know.

  • Promote reading, sports, the values that fortify among our beloved beings.
  • Help economically a person, family or community in need. Remember, however, that we should trust only those organizations that offer all the guarantees of transparency.

14. Give a goat or a mosquito net.

It might appear to be more of a virtual gift because when you give someone an animal (cow, goat, chicken) or a mosquito net (to fight malaria), it actually is given to someone in a community in need in another country. But your friend or loved one will get a card recognizing his, or her, gift, that should make anyone feel good.

For more, see the blog entry The gift of the goat has arrived.

15. Give time.

Spend time with family, instead of frantically shopping. Remember going slow is the new fast.