Photo courtesy of Lily Freeman
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, filled with joy, family, celebration and gifts. For many, giving and receiving presents defines the holidays, creating an aura of excitement surrounding the festivities. However, all the anticipation and rejoicing also comes with more material spending than during any other point in the year.
To those who are scrambling to find last-minute gifts for loved ones: think carefully about where you shop. The annual spike in consumption during the holidays is not only environmentally devastating, but also harms workers battling unethical conditions. This holiday season, American consumers should focus on shopping sustainably and ethically.
The most popular shopping site for holiday gifts is Amazon, a company worth roughly $1.65 trillion. In 2020, the company earned nearly $5 billion during the three-day period from Black Friday to Cyber Monday. Yet, Amazon has made headlines for its unethical working conditions. Employees have said that Amazon restricts their bathroom breaks, forcing them to occasionally urinate in bottles and struggle to change menstrual products.
The clothing store Forever 21 has similar issues. It’s popular for its cheap prices and massive sales, with products often starting at $5; that popularity generates a $2.7 billion dollar revenue from its 794 stores worldwide. Forever 21 also doesn’t give its employees a living wage, as detailed in a 2017 LA Times expose on the company’s failure to meet federal standards. There’s no reason to support a company that pays its workers $6 an hour for 50-hour workweeks.
None of this is breaking news. The scary truth is that either American consumers are already aware of these business practices and just don’t care, or simply aren’t paying attention. This is why we need to educate the public, but also promote alternatives such as second-hand shopping, supporting small businesses and creating homemade gifts.
An excellent option to reduce the harm of big businesses this season is “thrifting” or thrift-shopping, which has gained popularity throughout the United States, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thrift shopping is buying used or second-hand clothing donated to thrift stores, which offers more diverse styles and cheaper prices.
“During the pandemic was when I really began to thrift,” senior Karla Stephan said. “It’s really a way to save money and expand your style because everything you get is unique.”
Thrifting also is a way for shoppers to advance their style sustainably and reject the mass production of companies, Stephan said.
On sites like Depop or eBay, online thrift provides a wide range of items for the customer. From winter boots to vintage cameras, shoppers can find precisely what they need from different sellers. Depop seller @divineivy, for instance, makes designs including screen-printed t-shirts, long-sleeved shirts, hoodies and beaded jewelry.
Shopping at thrift stores doesn’t necessarily mean one is buying clothes that should have been available for the less fortunate. Some stores, such as Goodwill, depend on income generated from sales to fund charitable activities. Additionally, supply isn’t an issue: three million tons of clothing are incinerated from unwanted items in thrift stores and ten million tons get sent to landfills each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. We aren’t taking away from the less fortunate by shopping second-hand; we’re helping our planet by shopping ethically.
Buying second-hand items isn’t the only way to reduce one’s contributions to big companies. Taking advantage of small businesses, especially local businesses, are a great way to support entrepreneurs, who have roots in the community. These businesses provide local jobs for sales staff and artisans, rather than making bank off of factory and assembly line workers.
Red Orchard, a Bethesda shop located in Wildwood Shopping Center, is an excellent local store to support this holiday season. The shop was started by a Washington, D.C. couple, John Helm and Caroline Liberty, who were in the Peace Corps and previously sold their products in South Beach, Miami. While in Miami, they housed and financially supported at-risk teenagers to help them graduate high school.
Another possibility: instead of purchasing a present at all, consider making a handmade gift. Knitting a scarf, for instance, instead of buying one from a big corporation, is a small action one can take to avoid supporting companies that harm their workers. While some find homemade gifts cheesy or “cheap,” more often than not, these valuable items — which could range from a craft, such as knitwear or art, to a poem or letter — will be presents that your recipient will remember forever.
“Handmade gifts are really meaningful,” Stephan said. “Even if you can’t make it yourself, finding something one-of-a-kind online or at a flea market is always really cool.”
Of course, individual choices won’t solve all the problems related to capitalism and environmental distress. Wealthy business owners who benefit from mass production bear ultimate responsibility. However, as consumers, we can show that we will not support unethical businesses and ultimately put pressure on corporations to do better.
“Buying more sustainable items is really important to me because so much of the industry benefits from fast fashion, which has so many negative effects on the environment as a whole,” junior Maya Blanks said. “Preventing companies that support fast fashion to grow, especially during the holidays, is extremely important.”
We need to be smarter about where we spend our money and who we support. And, in the spirit of giving, we need to give back to the environment, workers and small businesses. As you pick up those last-minute stocking-stuffers or secret Santa gifts, think about where those items are coming from and what they represent.