Can we shop ethically this Christmas?
Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t get worse, we have entered another lockdown. This time in the cold and wet and in the run-up to Christmas. At a time when retailers would usually be welcoming a flood of customers looking for that perfect gift, the doors are shut and consumers are left wondering where to go for their seasonal shopping.
As Black Friday looms, online giants like Amazon will be luring us with cheap prices and fast delivery, hoping to grab a significant share of our Christmas budgets.
But where does this leave the independent shops, many of which rely on Christmas shopping to keep their businesses going?
Thank you to Emma Oddie from Ethical Consumer magazine who explains how we can put our money where our values are this year, spending less, but helping smaller, local businesses along the way.
Putting ethics at the top of the Christmas list
Christmas is an individual experience, it means different things to different people, but for many, it involves a time of shopping. We buy presents for our nearest and dearest to show them how much we care and it seems that we spare very little when it comes to celebrating Christmas. YouGov reported last year that the average Brit spends £1116 on Christmas festivities with £381 going on presents alone.
The financial strain of COVID-19 means than many have tighter Christmas budgets this year. So, how do we make sure that we spend what we have wisely? Could this be the Christmas when ethics make it to the top of the Christmas list? Follow our five simple tips for an ethical Christmas and make your budget count.
Christmas tip #1: Don’t buy things (get creative)
OK, this seems like a weird tip to put in a Christmas shopping blog but it’s an important one. We all know that excessive consumerism is driving big problems: waste, pollution, climate change, deforestation and exploitation, to name just a few.
Gifts are only one way that we can show our loved ones that we care. To reduce your impact, why not try an alternative this Christmas?
Gift a post-lockdown experience
Planning an experience is a personal way to show someone that you care:
- Buy tickets for a show or a concert and support the arts, an industry which has felt the pinch of the lockdown more than most.
- Plan a trip – buy tickets or vouchers and have fun planning an adventure, make your own itinerary and share it with your loved one.
- Buy membership to a nature reserve or trust, such as the Woodland Trust, for a year of trips and give much needed financial support to worthwhile causes.
Gift your time
If you have green fingers or are handy with a hammer, gift your time to help get some home improvement projects started. Pledge to clear out an attic, help someone move home or support someone starting up their new business.
If you’re a dab hand with a sewing machine or can whip up a crocheted blanket in a matter of days, why not make your own gifts this season? While we’re in lockdown, with more time on our hands, crafts can help to lift our mood and give our days purpose.
Give to charity
So many charities are offering alternative gifts this Christmas. Use your loved one’s passion to help someone else. For green-fingered friends, buy an Oxfam Unwrapped farm kit, give the gift of clean water with Unicef or pledge to feed a child for a year with Mary’s Meals.
Gillian McMahon, Director of Supporter Engagement and Income at Mary’s Meals, explains the importance of charitable giving at Christmas:
“Over Christmas, many people will be taking time to remember their precious loved ones. Others may be looking for alternative gift ideas beyond the usual festive fayre. The Mary’s Meals virtual dinner table offers an ideal way of doing both and celebrating the season of goodwill and generosity.
“By setting a place at our virtual table, you can help feed a child at a place of education in some of the world’s poorest communities for an entire school year.
“Public donations made by 31 January 2021 will be doubled by the UK government, up to £2 million, meaning we can reach even more hungry children in Liberia with life-changing school meals. This is all the more reason to give and help make a positive difference this Christmas.”
Make Christmas delicious
Why not make your own jams or chutneys this Christmas with leftover fruit and seasonal produce. Add some homemade biscuits and a Christmas pudding and repurpose a wicker basket and tissue paper to make your own hamper. It’s the perfect Christmas treat without the plastic packaging.
Christmas tip #2: Buy second hand
Want to see the look on someone’s face when they unwrap your gift? Then before you buy, think about second hand or nearly new options. Repurpose unwanted gifts from last year, gift your most-loved books to share your favourite tales and look for beautiful vintage pieces or upcycled gifts.
World of Books offers a wide selection of second hand and even rare books, as well as a range of used DVDs and Blu-ray. Oxfam’s online shop is full of original, pre-owned items from accessories to bridalwear and, of course, vintage books. Beyond Retro offer a huge selection of vintage clothes for a truly unique twist on fashion.
“At Beyond Retro we are all about out with the new, in with the old. Shopping second-hand and vintage for Christmas is such a special way to gift your loved ones for the festive season,” explains Kate Peters, Managing Director, Beyond Retro. “Every piece you buy is handpicked and one-of-a-kind, adding a unique touch, plus it has an ethical feel-good factor for the giver and the receiver.
“Shopping sustainably means giving presents from our past to save our future, every cable knit, silk blouse and band tee can have a place in a loved-ones wardrobe instead of landfill, creating a positive impact on the environment whilst celebrating the individual style of the person you’re buying for. Also, it’s a great opportunity to show people who don’t normally shop second-hand the quality and variety available; it might help convert some fast fashion lovers to shop vintage more often.”
Check out the Ethical Consumer guide to ethical fashion for more upcycled fashion ideas and inspiration. Many shops have an online presence, making shopping simple through the lockdown.
See also Fast and Cheap Fashion – Who pays the Price? Simon Birch from Ethical Consumer explains more about fast fashion which has been at the heart of a number of controversies over the past couple of years.
Christmas tip #3: avoid Amazon
Online giants like Amazon are the death of independents. By driving low prices – largely through avoiding tax, and taking a big cut from marketplace sellers – Amazon continues to increase its market share. For years Amazon has been associated with pretty much every kind of unethical business practice, from unfair working conditions in supply chains to tax avoidance schemes. By spending your money on Amazon, you are endorsing and supporting this activity.
Ethical Consumer is currently leading an Amazon boycott, calling out its outrageous tax avoidance. Amazon will push big deals your way on Black Friday, they will undercut booksellers and appear at the top of your gift searches but avoid the temptation if you can.
Vote with your feet does boycotting work? article about boycotting discussing how it can work.
(Note from The Complaining Cow – Yup! Undercutting small businesses too including self publishers who can’t sell their books at the right price. See How to Complain: The essential Consumer Guide to Getting Refunds, Redress and Results! and 101 Habits of an Effective Complainer)
Christmas tip #4: find your independents
If you need to buy brand new gifts, look for an ethical retailer and shop local wherever you can. The shops might be shut but many are running a click and collect service and branching into selling online. Help them wherever you can.
We talked to Kate Mullin, owner of Pickles & Lillies, a small ethical children’s shop, specialising in organic clothes and sustainable toys, based in Lavenham, Suffolk. Kate discusses how consumers can help support their local independents.
“Hearing the news of the second lockdown was devastating. Although the regular Christmas fairs were cancelled, we felt optimistic that shoppers would make the effort to come to shop with independents like us and we were starting to see increased numbers into the shop. To get us through lockdown, we’ve set up a click and collect service and we’re shifting sales online but this is hard without huge marketing budgets. Small businesses simply can’t compete against bigger brands online.
“My advice to shoppers is to support independents now more than ever. Like many other small businesses, we provide a personal service, we take time to source unique items and we help customers choose the perfect gift. At Pickles & Lillies, we work hard on understanding our supply chain and sourcing ethical brands and you won’t find any plastic in our shop. If you care about where your gifts come from, independent stores are often a great choice.
We’ve been overwhelmed by the messages of support that we have received and it gives me faith that our high streets may be changing for the better when this pandemic is over.”
Christmas tip #5: give Christmas more meaning
COVID-19 has made 2020 a difficult year for so many. We have missed time with family, struggled with disconnection and had our communities disrupted and damaged. Many of us made resolutions in the first lockdown to commit to better, truer and more ethical lives. Christmas 2020 is the perfect time to show that commitment, to focus on how we can be better connected and reduce our reliance on using things to make us feel happy.
Give yourself a gift this Christmas and pledge to shift towards more ethical living. It might be giving Veganuary a try, ditching Amazon, switching to Fairtrade brands or leaving the car at home and walking to the shops or work.
We can’t tackle climate change or clean the oceans by ourselves, but every small deed adds up. What action will you take this Christmas?
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About the author
Emma Oddie is a Features Writer for Ethical Consumer magazine.
Ethical Consumer is an independent co-operative founded in 1989, providing the tools and resources consumers need to make ethical shopping choices simple, informed and effective.
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