Con­sider eco- foot­print of gift- giv­ing


Com­merce Depart­ment fig­ures showed con­sumer spending dropped by 1 per­cent last month; the hol­i­day shop­ping sea­son is off to a slug­gish start. Amer­i­cans are scal­ing back. New York Times lin­guist William Safire went so far as to de­clare “ fru­gal­ista” his Word of 2008.

Many of us will choose to put fewer presents un­der the tree this year – largely for eco­nomic rea­sons. How­ever, the gifts we re­ceive have costs far be­yond what the price tags list.

As a so­cial phe­nom­e­non iso­lated from its re­li­gious roots, Christ­mas has be­come a cel­e­bra­tion of con­sumerism and ma­te­rial goods.

Cloth­ing and ap­parel have tra­di­tion­ally made up the largest cat­e­gory for Christ­mas gifts. In a re­tail en­vi­ron­ment that cel­e­brates “ wants” over “ needs” – or claims that every­one needs to be a part of the lat­est cloth­ing trend – the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pli­ca­tions of this ma­te­ri­al­ism tend to be ig­nored.

Even a sin­gle ar­ti­cle of cloth­ing takes a toll of the en­vi­ron­ment. To pro­duce a cot­ton T-shirt, for ex­am­ple, re­quires 1,800 gal­lons of wa­ter. When we par­tic­i­pate in a cul­ture where ap­parel pur­chases are di­vorced from util­ity, and in­stead are made to have some­thing to wrap and put be­neath the tree, the over­all ef­fect is as­tound­ing. A study by the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment­funded Car­bon Trust found the av­er­age Brit emits one ton of emis­sions each year just by the cloth­ing and footwear con­sumed. That’s more than the .81 ton cre­ated by their com­mutes.

But where has our end­less con­sump­tion got­ten us? Are we hap­pier for it?

As a na­tion, we’ve be­come in­creas­ingly will­ing to sub­sti­tute, re­plac­ing en­vi­ron­men­tally dam­ag­ing goods with en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly ones. This is es­pe­cially true when the de­ci­sion is eco­nom­i­cal ( such as us­ing com­pact flu­o­res­cent ) or trendy ( such as trad­ing a gas-guz­zling SUV for a hy­brid). We are less will­ing to cut out goods al­to­gether. Tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions have al­lowed us to re­duce our car­bon foot­print and re­source use by pur­chas­ing dif­fer­ently.

Pur­chas­ing dif­fer­ently, though, is just one part of the puz­zle. We must pur­chase and con­sume less. Un­for­tu­nately, it is far eas­ier to change a light bulb than change our life­style or our par­a­digm.

In re­cent years, go­ing “ green” has been the thing to do. As noted by Mickey Hart of the Grate­ful Dead, “ pop cul­ture has … pro­pelled the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment along, and that’s even more true to­day be­cause it’s trendy, be­cause it’s in fash­ion.”

The zeit­geist is shift­ing, but the un­der­ly­ing ma­te­ri­al­ism re­mains un­touched. For those who can af­ford it, re­stock­ing one’s wardrobe ev­ery sea­son is still fash­ion­able. The fash­ion in­dus­try it­self has been rel­a­tively slow to make it­self en­vi­ron­men­tally friend­lier, in large part be­cause sus­tain­able prac­tices are fre­quently at odds with profit-max­i­miz­ing mass pro­duc­tion.

In early 2008, de­signer Tom Dixon teamed with La­coste in hopes of cre­at­ing an “ Eco-Polo,” from or­ganic cot­ton and dyed with nat­u­ral indigo. The chal­lenges he faced – a com­plex global sup­ply chain, dif­fi­cul­ties in ac­cess­ing large quan­ti­ties of or­ganic cot­ton and a seem­ing in­com­pat­i­bil­ity of en­vi­ron­men­tally sound meth­ods with in­dus­trial tex­tile pro­duc­tion – were so great the project was al­most halted.

This Christ­mas, we should think about buy­ing sec­ond-hand or vin­tage, start­ing white-ele­phant ex­changes of used gifts, giv­ing the gift of our time, or of­fer­ing presents that are sen­ti­men­tal rather than ma­te­rial.

In­stead of buy­ing in to the cult of ma­te­ri­al­ism, we should take a step back, ac­knowl­edge the im­pli­ca­tions of our con­sumer de­ci­sions and re­mem­ber what the sea­son is all about.

Ob­server com­mu­nity colum­nist Elena Botella is a se­nior in the In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate pro­gram at My­ers Park High School. Write her at ed­botella@ gmail. com.


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