buy nothing christmas '03
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Shopping ethically: Bucking the holiday commercialization trend

By Mary Bergin

From The Capital Times, Madison, Wisconsin, December 9, 2003

Ice fishermen, hear this: Neiman Marcus is selling a hand-built ice fishing house with "all the comforts of home, and then some."

"Say goodbye to the days of shivering on the open ice with a bucket for a seat," the ad says, at www.neimanmarcus.com. "With 240 square feet of fishing and lounging space in your 10-by-24-foot house, you might be tempted to move in permanently."

Base price: $27,000, which includes six ice fishing holes that can be closed if the house turns into a movable summer cabin.

Feeling flush but less self-indulgent? There is a call for "ark angels" at www.heifer.org, the online site for Heifer International, a charity that teaches the poor how to be self-reliant.

"Launch an ark of 15 different pairs of animals to provide food and income for 30 hungry families," the ad says. Two by two, the menagerie includes beehives to water buffalo.

The price: $5,000, which "includes the purchase/transport of quality animals and the training/support Heifer Project gives recipients."

If you are average, both online options are out of your budget.

You will spend $518.44 on holiday gifts this year, the National Retail Federation says. Then you'll spend another $34.18 on holiday decorations, $25.79 on greeting cards and postage, $79.42 on candy and food and $14.06 on flowers.

The total of $671.89 will be almost 4 percent more than what you spent in 2002.

If you are Catholic, and the thought of spending more seems sinful, the Catholic Knights have a new way to lessen the guilt. Its new Visa credit card "lets parishioners automatically give a full 1 percent of their regular purchase amounts back to the parish and/or (Catholic) school every time they shop!"

The nonprofit Catholic Knights, based in Milwaukee, calls this a "credit card with a conscience." If 200 parishioners "spend the nationwide yearly average of $4,000 each on their cards," it's a tidy $8,000 payback to the church or parish school.

An extra incentive is a $10 "jump start reward" for using the Visa within the first 30 days. That's another $2,000 for the parish, based on 200 cardholders.

For more about the We Share credit card, call 800-927-2547. No word on whether these "shopping for God" contributions will lessen the need or willingness to fill collection plates on Sundays.

So one strategy is to acknowledge the typical American's spending habits, accept them as a way of life, then capitalize on them. At the other extreme are those who want consumers to spend almost nothing.

Go to www.buynothingchristmas.org for more about this initiative of Mennonites in Canada and other volunteers "who technically have more time because they won't be shopping this Christmas."

They acknowledge how difficult it is for parents, in particular, to buck the pressure to commercialize the holidays. They also argue that overconsumption "affects global disparities and the Earth" and that capitalism "favors the rich, abandons the poor, is heartless, and is based upon the assumption that people buy things out of self-interest."

Ten Thousand Villages is a nonprofit Mennonite program that markets the handicrafts of Third World countries. It is one of several entities that support the "fair trade" movement to lessen worldwide poverty. For more, call 717-859-8100 or go to www.tenthousandvillages.org.

The 54-year-old trade and development organization SERRV International moved its administrative offices from New Windsor, Md., to Madison about three years ago. (SERRV stands for Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation Vocation.) It sold $5.7 million in fair trade handicrafts, coffee and chocolate in 2000.

The work of about 90 producers is represented at the SERRV International gift shop at 122 State St., where the organization's mission statement is part of a wall mural.

"It resonates as our commitment," says Holly Pilch, shop manager, who notes that holiday business is "going really, really well." Divine Chocolate coins, Advent calendars and candy bars from Ghana are hot items, Pilch says. So is a line of organic teabags: green, chai, ginger, Earl Grey.

The book "Harvest of Hope," which features the work of Maryland photojournalist Phil Grout, is a $13.95 soft cover that "tells the story of the farmers we work with, and puts faces on the fair trade movement," Pilch says.

For more, call 251-0430 or go to www.serrv.org; merchandise can be ordered online.

A similar mission has kept Global Express, in two railroad boxcars at 646 W. Washington Ave., in business since 1992. It is operated by about 20 volunteers and is co-sponsored by Church Women United of Madison and the Dane County chapter of the United Nations Association.

"I've been an activist all of my life," says Lee Burkholder, who has been with Global Express since its beginning. "A lot of times when you're a do-gooder, you don't know if you're effective. This works. It's concrete."

More than 100 places worldwide, including many indigenous organizations, are a part of the shop's merchandise. The cultural swath is wide. There are Menominee Indian crafts. There are rugs and jewelry from Buddhists in Nepal and India.

"Most of the people we help are women," Burkholder says. "For many, this is the first way for them to make money, and that brings empowerment." More than 50 percent of the profit goes back to the artisan.

Global Express is selling more clothing than it used to, Burkholder says. There are Alpaca wool sweaters from Bolivia, cotton/silk/hemp jackets and unisex items from Nepal.

For more, call 255-5506.

E-mail: mbergin@madison.com

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