We all know about Purchasing Power and Voting With Our Dollar. It can get kind of overwhelming sometimes, feeling like you should always be looking into a company, their ethics, how their products are made, just to buy a five dollar bag of popcorn. We often wonder why it’s even worth it. But in the past couple of years we’ve seen just how desperate marketers are to win over customers. The retail landscape is very different from what it once was and with the rise of social media companies know they need to bend over backwards to make us happy. Saying that you vote with your dollar is never more true than it is today, and it’s especially true during the Christmas season. Seasonal items and especially toy manufacturers make a huge portion of their yearly sales during this time, so it’s exactly when lost customers will hurt them the most.
Where do you even start? First, it’s worthwhile to think about what you want to promote this holiday season. Is it local businesses? Is it ethically manufactured products? Is it a company that shares your political beliefs?
I would pick one thing that you’re really going to look for, because if you try to find a company that perfectly matches how you want things to be done, you’ll drive yourself crazy.
Write to your companies
So you’ve picked your one value that’s very important to you right now. When you find companies that support that value, let them know! Feedback is very important to let companies know WHY you are choosing them. Find them on facebook, email their website, write them a letter. Tell them why you’ve chosen to buy products from them this year and if you’d like, slip in a little comment on things you’d like to see them do more of. This is a note I wrote to our local grocery store recently:
“I love coming to _____ to stock up on your local produce. I can’t get enough of your apples because they aren’t heavily coated with thick wax to make them shiny so I can feel OK with letting my children eat them, skin and all. I would like to be able to find other local products easier. Maybe if boxes were labeled with an orange Local sticker or something. It’s important to me to buy these products over others but I don’t always have time to search packages for labels. Or perhaps have a “featured” local item every month.”
I really doubt they’ll actually take my suggestion verbatium, but when I and other people are always asking which products are local, it will suddenly become good business sense to them to highlight these items in some way. It may not work but that almost always is because people don’t speak up, not because companies are resistant to change. They want to please you, be sure to tell them how!
The time to think about ethical Christmas food is……August
Ok, so it’s a little late for this one. But unfortunately the companies with the worst practices thrive on, “Oh shoot, I just need to run to the store and get _____.” Your local farmers market likely closes in September, maybe October, but the pickin’s get slim around this time. In August is the time to be stocking up on locally grown tomatoes, green beans, anything that’s left, and putting it in the freezer, or canning if you know how. Most small meat producers take requests for products at the beginning of the year, so they know how many animals to breed. If you’re dreaming about a heritage turkey, your dream should start in March.
But if you’ve already gotten to this point in the year with nothing in the pantry or freezer, talk to your grocer about what companies are local. Buy organic. Shop at an Amish farm store, which will have local products canned for you. And best of all, you can still grow some of your own food, even in this cold weather. A small pot in a windowsill can grow some lettuce seeds within the month. Your only other real alternative for lettuce during your Christmas dinner is some that’s been flown in from California with water which that state really can’t spare. (Sorry to burst your bubble here but you have to watch even your seeds. 94percent of all seeds come from one of four large companies. Pinetreeseeds.com is one of my favorite go-to seed suppliers.)
Avoid the big retailers. Buy directly from your companies.
One of the biggest problems with getting your “message” across is that it’s usually superseded by a middle man known as Target or Walmart or the like. Lately I came across an article chiding Lego for taking so long to create a female scientist character.
Lego has become a predominately “boy toy” in the past decade and their attempts at appeal at girls has been clumsy and borderline stupid. However, they do, and have had female scientists, female police officer, female doctors, and even a female engineer in their much criticized Lego Friends line.
The problem is that none of the big stores carry these toys. Because when Target negotiates with them about which products to carry they aren’t able to decide where toys like these should go….the boy section or the girl section? It’s these stores which are so heavily divided into girl and boy, and they are the ones directly influencing the toy manufactures. Buy directly from the company you like and let them know why you’re doing that as opposed to just stopping by the store. Feedback like this will be an important negotiation tool for what kinds of things do show up in your store. Even take it a step further and tell Target why you are not buying from them. I particularly love Playmobils because they are divided by theme instead of gender (which is probably why most retailers don’t carry them) and I plan on telling them so this year when we buy some.
Don’t forget about online shopping
Often people don’t live in areas where they don’t have easy access to local, small, or ethical businesses. I’d have to drive quite a ways to do holiday shopping the way I’d like to do it. Fortunately, almost all retailers, big and small, have products available from their websites. I just discovered this great baby retailer in Louisville but I’m not about to make a 2 hour trip down there to buy baby things. I googled their company and found they have all their items online. When we go to festivals in the fall I make a note of a lot of the small craftsmen that have booths there. Although not all have websites, many have other companies that they supply to, or small craft websites, like Etsy, where you can buy their items. Specialty stores, like Woodcraft or JoAnn, will many times know of local craftsmen in your area. You can even request for things specially made from these people, to make your gifts even more personal. You can also find lots of great things at Museum shops. Almost all the museums I’ve ever been to feature local or craftsman made products in their stores. One of my most precious pottery pieces was from a museum shop.
Think outside the (product) box
My biggest Christmas hangup is usually that I want to get that vase I saw at TJ Maxx and it’s not something I can find anywhere else, or that my kids want that plastic toy that only Toy R Us carries, or my husband wants that watch he found from some Chinese company over Amazon. Whatever, get it for them. You don’t have to be perfect. But it’s a rare Christmas in our wealthy country that people only get the one thing they really wanted and nothing else. We all love to see a big pile of presents under the tree and stockings brimming over. So for those other items, don’t just buy cheap crap you saw at the last minute. Give gifts that think a little outside the box. There’s nothing wrong with putting a cake under the Christmas tree for your husband who loves cake but doesn’t get to eat it often. Or stuffing your children’s stockings with magazine subscriptions or tickets to an event or memberships to the zoo. We tend to think about Christmas in terms of items…items that are tangible and useful.
I always chuckle a little to myself when I see lists of present suggestions for people who like to garden and it’s full of shears and gardening gloves. I always think, maybe a person who likes to garden would like….plants! That’s so crazy! Why would they want the actual thing that they like to take care of?!?! If you know someone who likes gardening, put a plant or packets of bulbs under the tree. You know someone who dabbles with woodworking, put some expensive pieces of wood under there. You have kids that enjoy football, mow and spray paint part of your lawn into a field for them. There are so many alternatives to the typical boxed present we think of, things that often make better presents than those products ever could be.
This is the absolute enemy of all ethical shopping. I know a lot of people like to do “Tar-jay Vay-Cays,” but I avoid walking around stores during holiday time like the plague. Or if I do, I try to stick to small shops along the street. It’s so easy to go into a store and be swayed by things sitting there right in front of you. “Eh, it’s here,” you think. “I don’t feel like driving across town to the other store to buy basically the same thing.” Have a game plan and stick to it. Commit yourself to a certain store or a certain product and don’t let the pretty Christmas decorations push you to buy an inferior product.
Have any more suggestions for ethical shopping this Christmas? Let me know! And I hope you all realize you can definitely do this! Even if you can buy just a few things in a values-centered way, you’ll be making a difference to some fortunate company!