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.