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 play.com. 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.

ten things i’ll miss about york…

1. Gillygate. The best street for shopping in the whole wide world. Seriously. There are two gorgeous independent toy shops, where I’m on first-name terms with the owners; a fabulous craft shop; my friend’s delicious little eatery Ambience, which makes the best Eggs Royale; and Shine, solution to all my present-buying problems ever.

Ambience, my favourite cafe, next to the best toy shop in the whole wide world.
Ambience, my favourite cafe, next to Bubbles, my favourite toy shop.

2. Pack-ups. Know what they are? If you’re not from/don’t live in Yorkshire, then probably not. Essentially – a packed lunch. By a better name.

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3. Snow. Every winter. Guaranteed. 🙂

Our snow nativity of 2009.
Our snow nativity of 2009.

4. Tourists. Silly thing to miss really, given where we’re moving to, but York seems to be just dominated by them, whereas Cambridge seems to match its tourist population head-for-head with students and science/IT geeks personnel. I’ll miss being asked directions by tourists. Even if it does happen, I’m going to miss not having the answer straight away.

5. Being asked at the chippie if I want ‘bits’. Not that I’ve ever dared say yes. (Mental note: add ‘bits’ to bucket list.)

6. Fairer World. On Gillygate, but deserves a separate mention because who else has an independent Fair Trade retailer a 10-minute walk away from their house? What a luxury. I think I’ll have to make special trips back just for this shop.

7. Simon Baynes van. When we first moved here, I thought my Dad had surreptitiously started a fruit and veg business two hundred miles away from his home, in order to spy on me (perhaps). Baynes is not a common surname, at least not spelt like that. What are the chances? Spooky.

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Simon Baynes van. And snow.

8. The accent. There is none better. Except Brummie. (Joke.) I was so hoping my kids would grow up with a Yorkshire accent. Now they’ll join me in the boring realm of Estuary English.

9. My church. Characterised by ridiculous amounts of cake, David Watson references (he was vicar in the 1970s) and social media presence. Also (proudly) one of the top Christian podcasts in the world! (If you like short, snappy,thought-provoking, Welsh things – give it a listen.) But mainly my church is a fantastic group of humble, encouraging, generous and godly people who I will miss hugely.

St Michael-le-Belfrey.
St Michael-le-Belfrey.

10. My friends. My list is in no particular order, apart from this entry, no.10 in a 1-10 scale, where 10 is the thing I’ll miss the most. Where do I start? Becoming a parent is such a weird, one-off life-event that you need people around you who don’t mind the vast amounts of milk stains on your clothes, and understand why you can never finish a sentence. The friends I’ve made during this life-stage are incredibly special to me. Everyone says I’ll make new friends, and yeah yeah, I know I will – I’m not totally socially-defunct – but friends are individuals with common interests, not items on a list which you can replace like-for-like. I will discover a new favourite shopping street, some new quirks to replace the Yorkshire ones I’ll miss, and I know my new church will become my spiritual home over time – but new friends do not replace old ones. So, to my York friends – you know who you are – whilst I cannot put into words just how you’ve crafted me over the past four years, I can at least say thank you for being so much fun to do life with. Thank you. 🙂