an idiot’s guide to ethical christmas shopping

Last month, a Facebook status from a friend, asking for ideas as to how to shop more ethically this Christmas, confirmed the desire I’d had for several weeks to blog on this issue. It’s clearly something people want to talk about!

Of course, ‘ethical’ is a sliding scale. We can be ‘more’ or ‘less’ ethical in our lifestyles – but, as a result of sin, we will never be able to live our lives with a zero carbon (or any other) footprint. And it seems that just as we’re trying to be ‘more’ ethical, we hear of yet another company whose ethics are questionable. Earlier this year, even Fair Trade food companies came under fire. I find it helpful to consider how I would justify my decisions before God – He knows of my situation, my limited finances, my knowledge of injustice, as well as my lack of knowledge. So, please, rather than feeling guilty at the word ‘ethical’, instead be encouraged by Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:8-10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Now, our family lives on a fairly limited budget for most of the year – but Christmas, giving gifts to others, is an excuse to spend some money, to invest in the economy! But there’s a choice here: do I invest in the large companies, the high street shops and supermarkets? Do I contribute to lining the pockets of Amazon directors? Or do I want my money to be invested in businesses where people come first? My pound can do an awful lot of damage – or an awful lot of good. Let’s be encouraged that God has prepared ‘good works’ in advance for us to do, rather than focus on things we aren’t able to be so ethical about. We can actually do some good!

There is no right or wrong approach, I merely offer some ideas from my own experience. I would love to hear yours (please do comment!). And apologies for non-York residents, when I mention local shops; I’ve tried to offer general, nationwide ideas too.

* Firstly, I start with the Fair Trade companies. They have limited gift ranges, so I prioritise their catalogues to maximise the money spent with them. I use the fantastic Fairer World shop here in York, but elsewhere Fair Trade shops can often be found in cathedrals and large churches, or there are one-off fair trade markets and stalls. Shared Earth shops can be found in Liverpool and York (and you can buy online). If you can’t get to a shop, why not look up the Created and Traidcraft catalogues online. Both companies also sell beautiful Christmas decorations which I love.

* Next, I look for other local social enterprises to support. In York, these include the fantastic Bike Rescue Project (which employs and trains ex-offenders and others struggling to get employment and experience), York Disabled Workers Cooperative (beautiful woodwork) and, my personal favourite, Mermaid and Miller – frustratingly not open at the moment, due to change in premises, but still hoping to open later this month 🙂 Mermaid and Miller employ adults with learning disabilities, and train them in a variety of crafts. What they sell is beautiful – and much of it is old second-hand pieces lovingly upcycled into something quirky and different. Very reasonable prices too. Go check them out!

* Then I widen the net to other local, independent businesses. And boy are we blessed with those in York! (Non-Yorkies, feel free to ignore the following paragraph – you’ll have your own local places to support!) I love Shine, Snow Home, Love Cheese, Look What Mum’s Made, Blossom & Walker, Collection Box and York Cocoa House to name but a few. OK, so I don’t know the working conditions of those making the products, or whether the raw materials came from sweatshops overseas (although chances are that most of these products are made in the UK, many even made locally). I do know, however, that the presence of these shops in our towns and cities makes life better. I want to support them. I want the people who make these lovely, unique items to be able to make a living from being creative. And they’re just much nicer gifts! With lots of family and friends living far away, a gift which has ‘York’ on the label, or which simply wouldn’t be found anywhere else in the country, is pretty special in my opinion.

* Finally, when I need to use large retail outlets or websites, I choose carefully. In my family, there are lots of Christmas Lists. Some of the items – specific books, games, DVDs or toys – are impossible to buy from independent businesses. So – what to do? I try to avoid Amazon at all cost. Not always possible, but I try. I like using Who knows if they’re any better? Again, we do what we can given our circumstances, and trust God’s grace for the rest. For a book I bought recently for a birthday present, I used Waterstone’s online. If I can’t make it into town, at least I can invest some money in a high street retailer by using their website – which I think is preferable to an exclusively online shop. And of course there are companies like John Lewis, known for their ethical values.

Quite often, the ethical choice is pricier than its alternative, something which often drives us to the supermarkets, with its heavily-laden aisles of cheap gifts. But, as someone who’s on a budget (yes, even for Christmas), I want to reassure you that the ethical alternative can and does work. I spend the same as I would have done – but buy less. (Who needs more rubbish at Christmas?) It’s better quality, though, and will probably last longer. There’s more value, I think, in the uniqueness of the present – a gift, after all, should say something about the giver, and the relationship between giver and recipient. This Christmas, let’s make our pounds do some good.

the case for ‘pre-loved’

Anyone who knows me knows I love a bargain. I break all rules of conversational etiquette when someone compliments me on something I’m wearing by responding with an enthusiastic declaration of how little it cost, and from where. Charity shops, second-hand sales, eBay – I love ‘pre-loved’.

But, over the last couple of years, I’ve been challenged to make this a central part of my shopping philosophy. Let me explain: I’m not talking about casually wandering into charity shops, buying the odd thing or two which, quite honestly, we don’t need anyway. I’m talking about changing our lifestyle so that we don’t buy new unless we absolutely need to.

Mister needs a bed – we search the community furniture store. We need a camera – we browse eBay. The kids need next season’s clothes – I scour charity shops and second-hand sales.

Joel's bed - or, should I say, 'hotbed' of pre-loved goodies: bed, bedguard and duvet cover.
Mister’s bed – or, should I say, ‘hotbed’ of pre-loved goodies: bed, bedguard and duvet cover.

Unless we need to buy something new (e.g. for safety/hygiene reasons) OR we simply can’t find what we need second-hand, my preference is to buy pre-loved.

Why such a fuss about pre-loved?

* To slow the unnecessary production of new goods. The earth simply cannot sustain the incessant demand on its resources to create yet more ‘stuff’ which will only be disposed of a few months or years down the line. We need to be re-using and re-using as much as we possibly can!

* To reduce the profits of companies which exploit their workers. For example: clothing. I’ve explored various ethical clothing options over the last few years, and have come to the conclusion that the most affordable ethical option is to buy pre-loved clothes. I hate the irony that my children’s clothes may have been made by similar-aged children who don’t share their privileges – and I was appalled to discover, shortly after the Bangladesh tragedy, that two ‘bargain’ cardigans I’d recently bought were made in Bangladesh. Buying pre-loved high street clothes doesn’t change the fact that they weren’t made ethically – but it does mean that those companies aren’t making extra profit from me buying their clothes brand new, and of course it frees up my money to give to charities and fair trade businesses who are working for justice.

* To lessen landfill waste. Why should someone have to chuck something still perfectly usable? If I can take it off their hands, that’s much better for the environment.

* It’s cheaper. This might mean that a better quality product can be obtained, or that more money is saved to give away. Or both.

If we call ourselves Christians, we have no choice but to be concerned about these issues. God is clearly concerned for the earth (He created it), people’s well-being (He created them), waste (which ruins the earth He created) and money (which is His anyway). We need to align our concerns with God’s concerns.

My beautiful sewing machine. The best thing Freecycle ever gave me.
My beautiful sewing machine. The best thing Freecycle ever gave me.

So what’s stopping us?

* Pride. Perhaps the biggest obstacle between us and the pre-loved market is that we don’t want to be seen with an older or scruffier version of what we really want. We’re concerned with what people think of us, and, to some extent, our identity is wrapped up in what we own. Amy Ross, CAP Intern, challenges us to be ‘free from fashion’ in her excellent article about being ethical on a budget.

* Choice. We live in a consumer-orientated culture, where we can be picky down to the tiniest detail of colour, shape, size, style and brand of whatever we’re buying. I do this regularly – and usually don’t even notice, sucked in as I am by the world’s way. I have to ask myself, Does this really matter in God’s kingdom? Whether I buy a doll’s pram which is wooden or metal, pink or blue, close to the floor or ever so slightly elevated? Does it matter, from an eternal perspective?

* Time. Finding what we want in a pre-loved state is often time-consuming. It could involve hours spent trawling through eBay and Gumtree, frequenting a large number of charity shops, or putting second-hand sales in the diary. It is much quicker to simply walk into a shop and buy what we want straight away.

* Organisation. Pre-loved items, unfortunately, don’t always present themselves at the time you need them. Often it takes a bit of forward planning to get them. If the fact that my children need wellies only dawns on me at the point at which they move up a shoe size, I probably have no option but to buy new ones. The cost? £10 for me. Rubber, plastic, fossil fuels for the earth. Perhaps a day’s badly-paid labour for someone on the other side of the world. But if I can predict that they will need wellies in the future (and in the UK, let’s face it, it’s not a difficult prediction), then I can search for them in the next few sizes up whenever I’m in a charity shop or at a kids’ second-hand sale. It’s difficult to be organised about shopping, when our culture is all about being able to buy whatever you want whenever you want it – but perhaps it’s a small price to pay in order for God’s earth and God’s people to be treated with respect.

Joel's wellies - a bargain at £2ish. I have a mild obsession with pre-loved wellies. I say mild obsession - it's bordering on mental illness.
Mister’s wellies – a bargain at £2ish. I have a mild obsession with pre-loved wellies. (I say mild obsession – it’s bordering on mental illness.)

* Quality. There are often no guarantees with pre-loved items. They could break within days of receiving them. However, my experience has shown this to be the exception rather than the rule, and with the money saved overall, the odd mistake is affordable.

* Instant satisfaction. We want something now and buying pre-loved takes longer than that. But perhaps instant gratification isn’t good for us. Perhaps we’ll appreciate our possessions more if they’ve taken longer to source. Perhaps we’ll appreciate them more if we know that, through their purchase, we have done some good.

Don’t some of us need to buy new items, so that the pre-loved market stays healthy?

Perhaps there is some argument here. But I don’t see any slowing down of the availability of pre-loved goods. Car boot sales and charity shops are everywhere, and Ebay ain’t going out of business just yet. Let’s first plunder the second-hand market for all it can give us – then perhaps we can argue this statement a little stronger.

But when I buy a new item, surely I’m helping to provide jobs for people?

Yes – kind of. You’re providing a job for a Western shop assistant, and others involved in the (probably Western) company. But perhaps somewhere else on the planet, another person has lost a job because their trade is dying out due to cheaper products being mass produced elsewhere. Perhaps the person who made the item isn’t being paid what they should. Yes, they have a job – but not one which can support them.

Also, some second-hand outlets do provide jobs – for those who really need them. By buying from them, you’re indeed creating the right jobs. The wonderful Bike Rescue Project in York (who supplied Mister’s new bike, his pride and joy) employ and train ex-offenders and unemployed people. I like that my money has gone to them. Some charity shops pay some of their staff. And, for all we know, people selling at a car boot or on eBay may be selling things in order to support their families.

Joel's new bike.
Mister’s new bike.


This is an issue which has been tugging at my heart-strings recently. (Can you tell?!) Of course there are lots of times when it’s just impossible to find things pre-loved. I have tried, and failed, to source pre-loved toys for the kids’ birthday presents this year. I’m currently not having much luck finding pre-loved bunk beds. It’s a real privilege to be able to buy new items whenever we need them – but from now on I want to make pre-loved my first choice.

* Do you buy pre-loved? If so, how do you go about it? How do you make it work for you?

* If not, what stops you? Is it lack of time, the possibility of damaged goods, or something else?

* How do you consider how you spend your money? Do you see it as a force for good?

(P.S. Sorry for the poor quality of the photos. My pre-loved eBay camera is currently having its flash fixed. I’d love to say this was an ironic joke but, sadly, it’s not. See point about ‘quality’ above.)