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This holiday season, in trying to find gifts for my friends and family, I’m struggling profoundly. And this is even within our post-modern, consumerist landscape of the 21st century, where so many of the advertisements I see are for ethically produced goods. I should be happy, right? I can admit this is a major shift from even just a few years ago and one that marks the larger societal recognition of the need to think more about what we’re buying and where it’s coming from. However, I still can’t shake the feeling that we’re not being sold the full story — or, maybe, we’re not understanding the more important point.
Thanks to our generation’s prioritization of ethical consumption, it’s now becoming the norm that major companies are promising sustainable sourcing of resources, fair-trade standards for their factory workers, and infamous “buy-one-give-one” slogans in which our purchase is matched with a donation of equal value. Initially, I was thrilled to hear about all of this.
I mean, my favorite companies were so committed to campaigns ranging from social justice to environmental stewardship that I was excited to shop again amidst the growing conversations about carbon footprints, toxic consumer culture, and overseas factory labor abuse. For a while there it even increased my spending. I mean, why not tack on an extra hoodie if it means that I’m supporting inner-city youth? Or, why not snatch just one more pair of shoes if, by doing so, a low-income child gets a pair, too?
That kind of thinking got dangerous, though. It soon occurred to me that a lot of these major corporations promising big donations with our increased spending get tax breaks for such self-proclaimed noble gifts. So, while their contributions are legitimate (and I’m not looking to take away from that), there are alternative motives driving what might be quickly turning into surface-level philanthropy by major companies. As usual, it seems greed is behind something even as seemingly good-natured as some of the increased social awareness of the companies we’ve been buying from. And, more annoyingly, it really works in getting our generation to keep the gears of capitalism turning.
At the core of many of these altruistic advertisements is the same motive that has always been there: the desire to convince more buyers to buy more products so that the company can make more money, regardless of impact. So, while it’s encouraging to see big corporations setting new standards for everything from carbon reduction to reductions in packaging, I still can’t seem to find peace in my holiday gift shopping this year.
It makes me think that the solution to our shared dilemma surrounding the impact of creating all of this “stuff” is to just stop buying it. Tied up in so many parts of our daily lives are the horrific impacts of everything from fast fashion to factory farming that we never thought twice about until the past few years. However, even as I seek to turn away from my traditional conception of gift giving, I struggle to find a satisfactory way to do so.
Even in attempts to gift meals instead of tangible items, there are caveats. Trips to the grocery store have become irritating. Walking through the aisles of the frozen food section makes me feel like somebody hired Willy Wonka to do the advertising for Tyson and Perdue and I question whether I really want to give someone a meal cooked with the gross byproduct of factory farming.
It’s not enough to only see things for what they are just in the moment they become relevant to us. Everything from the food we eat, to the clothes we wear, to the packaging that it’s all wrapped in has a history. In doing our holiday shopping this year, it’s important that we question not only what we’re giving and where it’s coming from, but if it's necessary to bring new “stuff” into being at all.
Going into the Christmas season, I’m trying to have the mindset that a gift doesn’t need to be a consumer good. And while I don’t have much of a solution quite yet for how to reframe gift giving, I do have a few goals for myself as I shop this year.
When I do shop, I want to keep it local. What I do buy, I want it to be artisanal and hand-made, unique in how it was crafted so it can be unique to the person I give it to. And, in most cases, I’m beginning to see how much further a small gift, something as simple as a handwritten note and a used book or small piece of art, can go in sharing love with friends and family.
Rachel D. Levy ’22 is an Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column “The Experiment of Life” appears on alternate Mondays.
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