Gifting wisely and well is not always easy; if nothing else the "first do no harm" principle is something to keep in mind. There's a way to add an extra dimension to gift giving that can have effects reaching far beyond the immediate and the personal.
Many people find this time of year a burden. With so many still out of work, looking at bad prospects, still trying to recover from disasters man made and natural, and all the other things that contribute to making this a vale of tears, the idea of holidays built around mass consumption can seem more than a little delusional. And yet, there is a basic satisfaction in finding a gift for someone that manages to say something like:
"Here. This shows I was thinking about you, care about you, and wish you well. I would like your life to be better, happier, more fulfilling - and while this gift may or may not be able to do that, the intent is there. You are not alone in the world; other people do place value on your presence here. As a token of that sentiment, please accept this with my best wishes."
The act of giving can be its own reward - and with some thought that reward can be shared even farther. Some suggestions follow below the Orange Omnilepticon.
What moved me to write up some ideas about giving gifts was the cover story on this week's Metroland, "the alternative newsweekly of New York's Capital Region." Like so many publications at this time of year, it's full of articles on gift ideas - but Spending for Keeps is what got my attention. That's the tag for Paying It Homeward by Stephen Leon. It's a potent antidote to the Black Friday - Cyber Monday mass-consumption frenzy which has become something of a Darwinian Economics test of fitness for the big retailers. Stock prices rise or fall for companies based on their sales figures.
This year we're seeing push-back on behalf of the workers condemned to spend the holidays at work, increasing shareholder value for the big box corporations, but at what cost? Stephen Leon's article makes note of something making a real difference: shopping locally owned businesses.
Advocates for stronger, locally based economies have long urged consumers to consider that while big-box prices might seem cheaper, they hurt communities in the long run because they drain resources away. While estimates vary, experts use numbers in the 70-percent range to describe how much money spent on local businesses remains in the community, compared to around 40 percent for spending at chains. Among other things, that money drain helps support costs some consumers might find objectionable, such as the cost of shipping goods long distances, large-scale marketing campaigns, and high corporate salaries.emphasis added
Stacy Mitchell has been studying local, sustainable economies for more than a decade, and her nonprofit organization, the Maine-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has been conducting surveys for several years in an attempt to collect real data measuring any shifts in consumer spending habits. According to the group’s survey of 1,768 independent, locally owned businesses across the country during an eight-day period in January 2011, a majority of business reported revenue growth in 2010, and more important, they reported stronger holiday sales than the industry average. And more than three-quarters of the respondents said that public awareness of the benefits of supporting locally owned businesses increased over the previous year.
Among other things, there is an emerging realization that the low prices of the mass merchandizers come with some real costs - and people are increasingly choosing to spend more where the money will come back to their community. It supports local jobs, it supports a better quality of life, and it can make a difference. Again from the article in Metroland:
Jeff Milchen, co-founder of the Montana-based umbrella organization the American Independent Business Alliance, echoes Mitchell’s analysis and adds that the success of buy-local movements does not seem to be contingent on cultural and political factors like a community boasting a high percentage of liberal-leaning residents or “cultural creatives.”Leon's article in Metroland has some anecdotal tales of local businesses going the extra mile for their customers, customers who in turn are willing to spend more for that local connection because they know it's making their community stronger. Indeed - supporting locally owned businesses over big chains may be an act of self-preservation at several levels.
“One of the most exciting things about the burgeoning localization movement,” Milchen says, “is that Independent Business Alliances and related organizations have thrived in communities of all sizes, economic circumstances, geographies and political leanings.”
As for the possibility that we are seeing a long-term shift in attitudes, Milchen says, “The evidence appears in many different realms, including: Tremendous growth in local food initiatives, farm-to-school programs and farmers markets; increasing growth of Independent Business Alliances/Local First groups, their long-term viability and impact; more communities passing laws geared toward leveling the playing field and passing pro-local policies, such as local purchasing/contracting preferences. Pro-local holiday initiatives like Shift Your Shopping and Small Business Saturday (AMIBA is a partner in both campaigns) took a huge bite out of the news space usually focused on chain stores/Black Friday, and early evidence suggests sales are indeed shifting.”
Typically, the big box store coming into a community waves the prospect of jobs at local government - in exchange for tax waivers, services, 'development' grants, etc. etc. In exchange for those jobs - usually part time minimum wage - consumers may get cheaper goods, but they also get higher taxes and lose locally owned businesses who can't compete against those subsidies. It's called the Walmart Effect. (Also a book.) And it can be deadly.
Some Additional Thoughts
There's more than one way to go about this. At a basic level, you can start by trying to find items that are made in America. Some of the big corporations are starting to feel the pain of negative vibes over making China richer - and are taking a hard look at making things here again. (Although Andrew Leonard at Salon has some cautionary observations.) You can try ordering national brands through a local retailer so at least part of your money stays in the community. (And looking for the Union Label is more than a song.)
Buying food locally through farmers markets, going directly to farm stores, shopping at supermarkets that buy locally - this is all good. Looking for local craftsmen and artisans for unique gifts is another way to build community. Eating at local restaurants instead of fast food chains - it turns eating into dining. The idea is to shop locally when they have what you want - and to find out if they can get it for you if they don't.
Granted, it can be hard to gift wrap a sack of local potatoes, and locally grown grass-fed angus beef steaks won't do too well sitting under a tree till 12/25... That's why gift certificates were invented. They work for things that don't fit in a box - like tickets for a local community theater group, local house-cleaning services, restaurants, etc. etc. They also have the advantage of letting the recipient pick the time and place of the gift they choose according to their tastes, and lets them try something novel they might not otherwise attempt.
Think Intangibles. Gift giving doesn't always have to be about stuff. Maybe your recipients would like donations to a charitable organization they support. Are they getting on in years? Offer to take them shopping or to events and appointments if they're giving up driving. Offer to watch their pets and water their plants if they travel, or run errands for them. Think about personal things you can do for them.
Think long term. Some gifts offer possibilities beyond the immediate. Take the traditional electric train set for example. With care, one can last for years and be expanded. High quality tools for hobbies, raw materials for favorite crafts, plants and seeds for gardeners - gifts that keep on giving in other words.
Think sharing. Think about gifts that add the extra dimension of shared experiences, like taking a class with someone to learn new skills, explore new knowledge. Think about visiting someplace with someone who has always wanted to go there, but not alone.
Think basics. A really good flashlight is bound to be appreciated. The new ones which can be powered by a hand crank that combine a flashlight with a radio and a USB port to charge phones could turn out to be a lifesaver. Ditto for a good first aid kit. A country with a decaying infrastructure in a time of climate change makes giving survival-oriented gifts something more than merely practical.
Think about interaction. Games that involve multiple players. Community symphony memberships for a year of concerts. Dues for social organizations. Memberships in local museums and historic sites. Ways for people to make local connections.
Think about sustainability. Buying used or refurbished (where appropriate) can save money, help someone else pass on goods they no longer need, saves energy, saves resources. Too much of what we buy is disposable - too much of what we have sits idle when there are those that would be happy to have it and put it to use.
Think about receiving. If you are going to be exchanging gifts with others, make it easy for them by letting them know what you would want - or would definitely not want. Between Facebook, and wish lists, it's easier than it used to be. And - you can still be surprised by someone - but the odds will be better that it will be a pleasant surprise for both of you.
Gifts should come from the heart - but there's no reason the head can't be involved too. May the gifts you give and the gifts you receive enrich your life and the lives of those around you this season and all the seasons to come.