'Tis the Season To Be Fair and Green
by Mindy Pennybacker
Most of us, nowadays, are consumers rather than producers of food. Still, from autumn through the winter solstice, we celebrate the harvest and brighten the long nights with festivals such as Homowo, Chu Seok, Zhongqiu Jie, Hounen-Odori, Tet Trung Thu, Eid Al-fitr, Diwali, Yalda, Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas. Unfortunately, while leading less-active, post-agrarian lifestyles, many of us eat far more than is healthy for ourselves or the environment (see "Meat: Now It's Not Personal," Worldwatch July/August 2004). And our uncurbed appetite for other products-including holiday gifts-contributes to industrial pollution, depletion of natural resources and sweatshops.
In the United States alone, total retail sales in December 2003 were $340 billion, an increase of more than 6 percent over December 2002. About $55 billion was spent on toys, "60 percent of which are made in Chinese sweatshops...," Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College, reports in State of the World 2004. In the past 10 years, Schor adds, U.S. toy prices have fallen by 33 percent and apparel prices by 10 percent, largely due to cheap labor. Meanwhile, a growing global consumer class now totals 1.7 billion, of which China and India represent more than 20 percent.
Should we cut back on gifts, or perhaps give none at all? Try suggesting this to the children in your life; while you think of yourself as a tree-saving Lorax, they will see the Grinch. Instead, we can simplify and lighten up the holidays by buying fewer non-essentials and choosing products that are less toxic and more environmentally and labor friendly. Here are a few suggestions for your list:
Choose PVC- and Lead-Free Toys. Do be a Scrooge about polyvinyl chloride, or PVC vinyl, whose manufacture and disposal release toxic dioxins into our air, water, and food. Soft PVC contains plasticizers known as phthalates, which have been linked to cancers and reproductive harm in animal studies. Britain has banned soft PVC toys, and an EU study has recommended that all member countries do the same. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has asked that manufacturers voluntarily not use soft PVC in "mouth" toys for children under three. Companies that have gone PVC-free include Brio, IKEA, Lego, Primetime Playthings, Early Start, Sassy, and Tiny Love. Other PVC products, such as some children's backpacks, have been found to be tainted with lead. As a rule, avoid cheap toys made with metal or paint that may contain this brain-damaging heavy metal.
Serve Local and Certified Organic Food. Local food is fresher (has more vitamins, better taste) and requires fewer fossil fuels in transit. Certified organic food has been grown in ways that protect soil and water and carries only one-third the pesticide residues in conventionally grown food.
Indulge in "Slow" and Shade-Grown Treats. When you choose traditional, artisanal foods produced with old breeds and seeds, or coffee and chocolate grown in rich rainforest habitats, you are helping to preserve the Earth's biodiversity as well as good taste, also endangered. For specifics, see www.slowfood.com, www.rainforest-alliance.org, and the Coffee and Chocolate Product Reports at www.thegreenguide.com.
Support Fair Trade. The "fair trade certified" mark on food (coffee, chocolate, tea, bananas, herbs), clothing, shoes, and toys helps ensure that companies pay fair prices and wages and that working conditions are humane and monitored. Note: purchase fairly traded and certified organic cotton goods, and you'll be doubly blest. See www.rainforest-alliance.org, http://fairlabor.org and Clothing and Shoe Product Reports at www.thegreenguide.com.
Spare Forests. Wood products bearing the Forest Stewardship Council, Scientific Certification Systems, and Rainforest Alliance's Smartwood labels are the most sustainably harvested available. Choose recycled paper that contains at least 30 percent recycled post-consumer waste.
Use Energy-Efficient Lighting. Switch to long-lived compact fluorescent bulbs. Strings of colored holiday lights which use 80-90 percent less energy than conventional ones can be ordered from Innovative Energy Solutions, www.inirgee.com
Go for Greener Computers. Details to look for are company takeback programs for obsolete computers; elimination of chemicals such as lead and potentially neurotoxic flame retardants known as PBDEs (as a rule, laptops and machines with flat-screen monitors have far less lead); and green labels such as TCO (Sweden), Eco-Mark (Japan), Swan (EU) and Energy Star (U.S.). For companies, see the Computer Product Report at www.thegreenguide.com.
Mindy Pennybacker is editor of The Green Guide, a consumer publication of The Green Guide Institute, www.thegreenguide.com.