Many “alternative” gift articles suggest non-gifts — things like giving to charity in the person’s name, or giving service rather than a thing — but choosing a present specifically for another person, wrapping it playfully and offering it to them can tap into love, charity, selflessness and hospitality. I refuse to let consumerism win by equating gift giving with money and greed. I want you to buy gifts, real physical gifts. So how do we choose gifts in a mass consumer culture?
There isn’t just one approach. You might choose items made locally; or by individuals; or from small manufacturers that treat their employees well. If you’re not buying directly from the supplier, you will be considering the retailer too. Let’s call it “conscious” gift shopping. The spiritual principle here is to consider the whole gift: what it will mean to the recipient; what it’s made of; how it was made; who made it; how it got to your hands. I think everyone can embrace supporting individual craftspeople and small businesses over multinational corporations. At least for Christmas.
I don’t want to encourage the kind of scrupulosity where consumers think they must know everything about products and feel guilty any time they buy anything mass-produced or unrecyclable. And if you know the perfect gift for someone and it doesn’t fit these criteria, the happiness they will get from that gift is probably worth it. Most spiritual principles, if you turn them into rules and apply them thoughtlessly, can do more harm than good. This is no different. But if you use these suggestions for some or all of your gift buying this season, it might just help spiritually ground the Christmas season a little better for both the receiver and the giver.
The common denominator is love
The easiest place to find local craftspeople, if they’re too small to have a store, is probably a farmer’s market, if your town has one. You can also find many of them on Etsy, which includes a “shop local” option. Following are a few personal suggestions and some more thoughts to consider for your conscious gift shopping.
As I see it, the common denominator of the businesses that follow is love. The creative folks behind them love what they do, and they love sharing things that others will love. This is simply not the goal of large corporations. As Parallel Print Shop cofounder Monika Rose sums it up: “We are choosing a simple lifestyle and doing what we love to support it. Everything we make holds within it our intention to fill the world with love, beauty and peace.” I want to support businesses like that.
When you buy a gift from an individual, you know your money is going to the person who did the work, and often you know something about them and their process. That can add a nice story to the gift as well. A great example is Metta Metalworks. Owner Kathy Cherry is a successful jewelry designer; she also runs the Dharma Punx NYC Buddhist group with her husband, Josh Korda. Kathy started the line to create pieces that would bring reminders of spiritual teachings into daily life. Some have an obvious spiritual component; others are just playful, with an edge — like Dharma Punx. “My circle of friends are a bawdy and unorthodox bunch,” says Kathy. “I don’t think that being spiritual means you need to speak in hushed tones, wear organic cotton outfits and carry a blissful smile at all times.”
Kathy does freelance design for others and makes her own line, and she loves it all: “There is nothing more thrilling than seeing one of my designs walking down the street on someone. It is the same thrill whether it is a Metta Metalworks piece or a piece I did for another designer… well, maybe a little more thrilling when it’s an MMW.”
What about the inherent conflict between buying sparkly things and the spiritual principle of nonattachment? “The thing to look for is integrity in the work, a relationship with the designer or local business if it is possible, and some sense of your underlying motives for making the purchase.”
Katheryn Langelier makes hand-crafted herbal medicines, body products, baking extracts and teas in Midcoast Maine. She sells her Herbal Revolution products through farmer’s markets, stores and her own mail-order business, which includes a very cool herbal CSA option. (The CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, model is a great example of more closely connecting the buyer with their purchases. Consumers pre-buy a share of the upcoming season and receive fixed shipments with content that varies based on what is produced.)
Katheryn acquires her herbs through a mixture of sustainable gathering, her own organic garden, and buying from other local organic suppliers. She then makes the products in small batches by hand. “I find it very powerful keeping the money I work hard to make in the hands of small businesses: farms and people who create,” says Katheryn. And that’s a good reason to buy from her rather than one of the large beauty product conglomerates pretending to be a friendly little herbal company by using an alternate brand name.
More importantly, “every step in the process is taken with great care and respect, infusing the herbs and the products with positive intentions and love.” And for gifts, the gorgeous packaging helps too.
Herbal Revolution; herbalrevolutionmaine.com; Maine
California-based Parallel Print Shop uses a vintage letterpress with recycled and reclaimed papers to create hand-printed cards and other paper products.
Like Katheryn, Parallel Print Shop co-owner Monika Rose emphasizes the sustainable approach you are supporting when you buy from hers and many small businesses: “We do our best to complete the circle, by sourcing our paper and printing material locally and USA made, and spending our earnings at other non-corporate places.”
There are plenty of gift ideas among their paper products, and they have beautiful gift cards and tags that will enhance all your presents.
There’s nothing wrong with manufacturers. But as companies get bigger, the pressures to cheapen their products increase. And a little understood factor in the mass consumer culture is the role retailers can play. Wal-Mart’s insistence on low wholesale prices pushes suppliers to cut employee benefits and salaries, outsource and lower quality.
A wonderful example of a retailer that celebrates ethical manufacturers is Dry Goods, in Brooklyn, NY, which focuses on what are called heritage brands: products from long-standing smaller companies that produce in their country of origin. You won’t find these items in discount department stores, but some of them are household names, or warm fuzzy memories from childhood, like Jadeite plates, Stanley thermoses and Pendleton blankets. They are well made, durable and attractive, designed to last, even to be passed on. A store statement says, “We believe that using and supporting these companies enriches our lives. Using these products makes what ever task embarked upon more pleasant and functional.”
Store co-owner Carla Brookoff said it was important to have products at different price points and appealing to all generations. While heritage brands aren’t going to be as cheap as mass-produced junk, many items are surprisingly reasonable, ranging from $3 to $300. Dry Goods just opened a few weeks ago and doesn’t have an online store yet, but you can see many of their items in the photo galleries of their Facebook page and call to order.