The Socially Responsible Santa

Socially responsible Santas will have lots of choices this year for giving gifts that are not made by young women making pennies in sweat shops or drenched in toxic pesticides or bought at dirt-cheap prices from farmers in Third World Countries.

Socially responsible, organic, union-made and fair trade products have become increasingly popular with consumers over the past few years, and the holiday season, when even anti-capitalist types give in to the urge to splurge on gifts, is one of the prime times for this movement.

Plenty of stores, ranging from mainstream chains like Starbucks and Urban Outfitters to local boutiques and co-ops offer fair trade, union-made and organic alternatives. As the anti-sweat shop movement has gained increasingly visibility in the past few years, there are plenty of internet-based distributors that offer certified union-made, sweat-free casual clothing -- a number of them are compiled on the site Union Mall (www.NoSweatShop.com).

Unfortunately union-made clothing can't quite compete with the cheap prices of mass-produced textiles available at Wal-Mart and other super discount outlets that use sweatshop labor. Stacey Harrington, founder of the sweat-free, union-made company UnionThreads, learned this the hard way when her Boston area shop was forced to close its doors on Dec. 5. Harrington started her business two years ago out of the back of her truck, after being laid off from her own union job, and opened a store a year later. Now the web site includes only a plea for shoppers not to patronize Wal-Mart.

"The Union Mall confronts individual consumers with the same ethical dilemma that the management of major corporations face," notes the Union Mall web site in regards to UnionThreads' fate. "Pay a fair price for labor or pay the lowest price possible. The choice is yours. If you support us now there will be many more choices next year."

Numerous web sites also list different companies that are guilty of using sweatshop labor. The biggest offender is Wal-Mart, which has been awarded the Maquila Solidarity Network's Sweatshop "People's Choice" prize for the third time in four years (Disney won in 2001). Another Web site, www.sendcoaltowalmart.com, lets people send "coal" and a holiday message to the company's CEO about their labor practices.

Though sweat-free retailers do need to charge slightly higher prices, many of the options are completely reasonably priced, competitive with higher-end sweatshop offenders like The Gap. For instance the company Sweat X, which sells goods made by a co-operative of former maquila workers in L.A., offers an organic tote bag for $14.95 and an organic peach or powder blue tank top for $13.95. Meanwhile The Union Jean & Apparel Co. offers stone-washed relaxed fit jeans for $27.99 and a hooded fleece for $37.86.

"This is a growing trend," said Union Jean co-founder Lawson Nickol, who along with two friends started the company in Arcanum, Ohio this August after becoming disenchanted with the global garment industry where he had worked for some years. "The people have been out there wanting to buy American and buy union for a while, but now they're finding out where we are."

Maggie's Functional Organics, an Ypsilanti, Michigan-based company that sells over the Internet and at stores around the country, offers its socks, bedding, camisoles, mittens and other products at what manager Vernon Rowe described as "high-end" prices. A three-pack of socks will go for $19, compared to about $6 for Hanes or the like. But Maggie's customers know they are getting 100-percent organic materials made by people making living wages. One of the company's projects is working with a women's co-operative in Nicaragua called Maquilador Mujeres, where they buy their camisoles at fair trade prices.

"People are more and more interested in living healthy lifestyles, helping the environment, saving the world," said Rowe. "Buying our stuff is part of that. It's an overall good thing."

While most people associate organics specifically with food, buying organic clothing is another meaningful way to support environmental protection and workers' rights. Cotton workers have been referred to as the sweatshop workers of the fields; one of the worst things about the back-breaking, low-paying job is the fact that workers are constantly exposed to toxic chemicals. Over 14 pounds of pesticides are usually used on one acre of conventionally grown cotton, including the highly toxic compounds chlorpynfos and cyanazine.

Meanwhile clothing isn't the only realm where people can buy responsibly. Fair trade coffee has been a big issue for years now, with coffee being the U.S.'s second largest import after oil. More recently fair trade tea and cocoa products are also on the market. Fair trade essentially means that local growers in developing countries are paid a decent price for their products, about $1.26 per pound for coffee at the moment, and that the producers don't have ties to multinational companies or paramilitary groups.

Since some companies might make misleading or fraudulent fair trade claims, the organization Transfair USA certifies companies as meeting internationally agreed on fair trade standards, and Transfair's web site offers a directory to find fair trade products in your area.

"For a while the fair trade coffee market was doubling every year," noted Rodney North, the "answer man" for Equal Exchange, a democratically run, worker-owned co-op based in Boston that started selling fair trade coffee in 1986. "Last year it grew about 40 percent, and more and more companies are getting on the bandwagon."

He noted that the market for fair trade chocolate and other cocoa products is a relatively new development.

"People are hearing about the exploitation of cocoa workers in West Africa, so this is a direct way of responding and helping push the industry toward ethical practices with our dollars."

Arts and crafts from developing countries are always popular gifts, and again the purchaser has the responsibility of determining whether the creators of these products were paid fair prices. The Mennonite non-profit organization Ten Thousand Villages was one of the pioneers of the fair trade movement, starting to buy crafts at fair prices from villages in developing countries in 1946. The group offers countless household goods, jewelry, crafts and other goodies at stores around the country and over its web site.

And the company EcoPlanet is just one of a number of major companies that have sprung up to meet the relatively affluent consumers' interest in ecologically and environmentally friendly home furnishings and products. At stores and over the internet, EcoPlanet offers enough products to outfit an entire house in green gear, if you have the money.

"The hot gift this holiday season (in our humble, green-leaning opinion): anything recycled or organic," says an article on the Organic Consumers Association website. "Demand for home products made from recycled or organic materials grew by 66 percent in 2001 and continues to rise, according to research conducted by New Hope Natural Media in Boulder, Colo."

Among EcoPlanet's offerings are organic hemp hammocks for $199 and a "stylish high-tech composter" made from an oak Bordeaux wine barrel -- for $275.

A composter is surely a better choice than a brand new SUV or a sweatshop-made wardrobe, but these kinds of products and prices might also serve as a reminder that one of the best ways to be ecologically and socially responsible is the simple DIY approach -- do it yourself. Make your own composter out of recycled materials, knit a scarf or paint a picture. As they say, it's the thought that counts.

Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago. She can be reached at karilyde@aol.com.

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