Posts Tagged 'gifts'

Pregaming for the Holidays: Making a List

Hope you had a good Thanksgiving!  Mine was very relaxing.  I overheard my younger cousins discussing who was better at recycling and had hope for the world.  And nobody murdered me when I kept wondering aloud how many of the items we saw in our annual Reading Of The Seasonal Catalogs were made with child and/or slave labor.  This leads obliquely to my point:  Do you know who made what you want for Christmas?

While you’re looking for local/organic/fair trade/sustainiwhatever stuff for other people, take a look at your own wish list.  Are you asking for stuff that reflects your values?  Do you really want this stuff, or will it just get shoved in a drawer by February?  Instead of stuff, could people give you gifts of time- help with a project, dinner out, concert tickets? Are you dropping hints that you’d prefer handmade jewelry from a skilled local artisan/fair trade doodads/organic clothing to substitutes from a big box store?  Are these hints loud enough?

My immediate family has a highly effective system of a) asking each other what we want and b) including direct links in the reply emails, so there’s no hinting about it.  I’m trying to make sustainable choices.  A magazine I want comes in an online version- less expensive and less environmental impact.  I’m linking to books I want from BetterWorldBooks instead of Amazon this year, too- they fund literacy and have free shipping (and can typically beat Amazon’s prices, which they include on each page).  Found a few pretty things I want at etsy, of course.

But it’s not all so easy to make green choices when ‘wanting’ is involved.  I’m having a moral dilemma about the Slanket this year.  I would really like a thick blanket with sleeves. That would make me very happy.  But all I know is that while the Slanket started out being made in Maine as a family business, it’s now manufactured in China.  The business is still run in Maine, but I don’t really know much else about the process.  except they do donate a portion of the profits to charities, according to the website.  It’s all polyester fleece material.  So does it meet my supposedly high standards for gettin’ stuff?

Well.  Consider the alternatives.  The smaller, cheaper Snuggie (can’t find any info at all on how they’re made, and the low price point makes me pretty sure it’s not with unionized labor) is a definite no.  I could make one in an organic fabric- I have a sewing machine and I think I get the concept of sleeves.  But this does not reward the brilliant inventor of a sleeved blanket.  I could send Slanket $5 and make my own.  This convoluted option probably gets most of my principles in, but.  Seriously?  Dah.  Oh!  Slanket could make one in an organic fabric!  And tell us how their Chinese factory operates!  I’ll write them a letter to that effect, but it does not solve my immediate problem.

Anyway.  I will continue having this dilemma until Christmas, at which point I will or will not receive a Slanket.  And if I do, I’m betting living in it for a week will numb the environmental unease.  If I don’t get one, problem solved.

Pregaming for the Holidays: Cards

People say Thanksgiving isn’t respected as a holiday anymore- what with the inflatable penguins in the stores from September these days- but I think it’s what you make of it.  And I’m making my Thanksgiving a time to write Christmas cards, to practice my eating and sitting around, and to make  presents.

I’m not writing a gift guide this year, because I’ve done it the past two and all that still applies.  Plus, I’m planning on making many of the presents I give this year, and that won’t be helpful for folks who can’t knit.  (For those who can, mittens!)  My only recommendation this year is, if you’re going to buy anything, shop at small businesses.  Local, if you have the time.  Check out etsy.com, if you don’t have time to browse in person.  Shop handmade, shop sustainable products- but whatever you’re looking for, put your Christmas money into supporting the small businesses that create ideas and jobs and support families.  I know regular jobs do too, but it’s a rough economy out there right now, and if you want to keep innovative artists and growing companies around, then support them with your dollars.

For now, though, I’ve been looking for Christmas cards, and I’ve got some recommendations if you’re looking as well.  Ten Thousand Villages carries cards and stationery made in Fair Trade agreements, and often from recycled or quickly renewable materials.   You can buy them online, if you don’t have a local shopThe Spotted Sparrow uses FSC certified and recycled papers to make neat cards- there are a series done on old book pages.  Smockpaper and byvik ink make beautiful letterpress cards, and use recycled papers to print on.  Etsy has a great search function, so find any other kinds of cards you like at their Paper Goods section.

Or, grab a potato and make your own?  It’s still cool if you’re not five anymore, I promise.

‘Tis the Season

It’s already the end of November?  When did that happen?  I would feel lazy if I remembered October at all, really, but this comes as a surprise. So, here you are:

Giving in 2008

It’s a good year for solemn gift guides.  Glitz and extravagance seem tasteless beside rising foreclosures and hunger in the US, plus who has the money to spare these days anyway?  But all this crisis makes it a great year to focus on the purpose and meaning of gifts-another silver lining in the garbage bag containing the international economy.  Basically, making it about money and stuff this year is finally tacky!  Gauche!  Passe! Sooo 2007!  Thoughtful is so In right now.

FIrst, the general approaches:

1.  How you buy it is as important as what you buy.  Start your shopping at thrift and consignment stores, handmade fairs or websites, and fair trade shops.   Etsy is an incredible handmade resource for items beautiful and practical- browse it, support small businesses, and I bet you’ll find something suited for every taste, from bizzaro to cutsy to classic.  You know the arguments for buying fair trade and used already.

2. Do you have friends with skills?  Commission them (the earlier the better) to make your relatives pottery or jewelry or scarves or whatever their specialty is.  Do you have skills?  Give your dad a year of cheerful IT help.

3.  Give time and attention, even if you don’t have giftable skills (or skills you want to gift…).  A year of monthly dinners together.  A year of regular phone calls to relatives far away (ones that actually care to hear from you, for sure).

4.  Do they already have everything?  Give to a charity they (and you) support in their name.  CharityNavigator.org sells gift cards that recipients can give to a charity of their choice on the site (they can research the efficiency and work of the charity at the same site, too).

5. Are you one of those aunts who always give the nieces scented candles/bodywash/bath froofy-do?  I am not here to judge you, but make the candles beeswax or soy wax and the bath gunk biodegradable, if you must continue in this vein.

Ahh.  Enough generalities, now specifically awesome gifts:

1.  Fair Trade Piggy Banks! Saving is cool again.  From Ten Thousand Villages, piggys and elephants and cats. From One World Projects, various pigs and owls. You can search for more online also, but check the creds of the Fair Trade projects you buy from.  In the same vein, with less adorableness, Elders: your young’uns may not understand what a 401K is if you start them one this year, but they’ll thank you with genuine feeling later.

2.  Coffee.  Specifically, coffee from Mesa de Los Santos, a Colombian farm that helped pioneer organic, shade grown, fairly traded coffee.  They’ve grown organic for over 100 years, built a school for their worker’s kids, and reforested their fields, earning a Bird-Friendly certification from the Smithsonian, USDA Organic certification, and a BioLatina badge.  There’s a personal connection, too: my GF is from a branch of the family that’s owned the farm for four generations.  As to the taste, I do not actually drink coffee- but I still enjoy this stuff black.  Still, don’t take my word for it:  reviews (and online ordering forms) are here and here and here.

3.  Gift certificates to local, organic restaurants.  Self-explanatory, no?  Give the gift of a night far away from your loved ones.

4. Potted plants or Garden Tools/Seeds/Composters.  Scale this one to the gardening level of the giftee.  Apartment-dweller or college kid?  Potted plant(s) (or tree!) with very specific instructions.  Do they have a few flower beds?  Vegetable seeds and maybe some books on growing your own food.  Do they always bring up how they grow their own tomatoes?  Up their ante with a compost bin and a thoughtful little charcoal-filtered kitchen bucket for food scraps.

5. Classes.  Vouchers or promises for fencing lessons, sewing classes, cooking classes, metalworking lessons, language tutoring, and basically any other skill you can think of are useful, and not just for delighting your curious and adventurous loved ones.  Sign them up alone or do it with them, for some quality time.  Added benefits: surely a trained cook will make you meals in gratitude?  Worth a shot (fencing lessons are less useful for this reciprocity principle).

Anyway, now you know what my family’s getting for Christmas.  I wish you a stressless holiday full of delicious smells and guilt-free giving.

PS. If none of this does it for you, check out these ideas from CNN/Oprah and HuffPo.

Progress: Volunteerism

Welcome to my failure.  I don’t do activism, I don’t do volunteering, I mostly do sleeping late and donating online.  That’s what I’m comfortable with, that’s what I’m good at.

I actually have volunteered since I set it as the October goal.  I spent a couple hours canvassing for Barack Obama November 2nd.  That took two days of personal guilt trips and John McCain’s stance on women’s health to get going.  I started a new job and there were midterms and this wedding and it was cold and I am fantastic at having a ton of excuses to not leave my basement.

So yeah, I lose.  But this is it.  This is what I’m bad at, and it’s always been my problem:  I am no good at giving my time to other people that I do not personally know.  Also I get a little cranky when people invite me to parties while I would rather stay home and sew, but that’s a different issue.  Maybe not.

Point is, I have to work on this until it’s gone.  So, this month, it’s volunteerism again.  Volunteerism and um.  Giving.  Like Christmas, but the organic whole wheat soy fairly traded version.  They’re kinda the same premise, I guess, doing for others the wholesome way, and I need to work on it.

Volunteering/Activism/Acting in general will continue to be a monthly goal until i get it right, and I’m redirecting all the guilt I can muster at it.  I’m finding a local food bank and taking them a bag of groceries a week, in person.  I’m going to see where I can tutor or clean up or something.  I’ll get a friend to harass me until these things get done.  You can help.  Make me feel bad.

I’m looking forward to Giving, though!  A Gift guide!  Recipes, perhaps!  Anything to distract me from argh.

The Coats are Thrifted

They’ve got the cold-weather stuff out at the Salvation Army on Duke Street, and Wednesday was (is always) Customer Appreciation Day, so I got 25% off. Check it out, got them all for less than $55!

This thing is just awesome. It’s a leather overcoat, and in it I will star in a western, hopefully set in outer space. Once I remove the hideous buttons and replace them, of course. One must dress well in space, too.


Then I got a few presents, because I like other people.

The rest are in the gallery, of course. Hurrah for fall.

Garden: Third Week

So far, everything except the sweet peas has come up from seed. Those I planted a full inch deep, just like the packet said, so I’ll wait a little while before I start worrying. The shelling pea plants are growing the quickest.

spearmint sproutI’m rather suspicious of my success. All I did was collect dirt, pots, seeds, and water. I didn’t even get drainage in most of the pots right, so they’ve flooded twice with the heavy rains the past couple of weeks. And for this, I am rewarded with perky sprouts? Just get a load of that spearmint sprout. He has no idea what he’s getting into. Clearly unprepared for, and unconcerned with, the ravages of my attention. I want him to grow quickly, so I can make tea of him.

I have discovered an effective method for curing the impatience between planting and finding green things: go away for the weekend. Plant Thursday night, make some plans, come back Sunday, and voila! No chance to spend the weekend avoiding one’s phone and staring at dirt, plus rewards when you return.  This has been keeping me calm, anyway.

Eating these guys is the next step that I’m very excited about, but the next actual step is transplanting. I started my seeds close together, like the package said, so I’ll need to thin the morning glories and climbers especially, and the hidden kalanchoepeas, also- there’s one guy who’s struggling in a small pot with two other thriving pea plants. The kalanchoe is now hidden in the glories, but he appears to be doing well. I assume he’s a bit confused about all the (living) company these days, but soon he’ll be moved to safety.

My Gentleman Friend’s wonderful mother gave me a gigantic stash of planters (with a huge spiky bromeliad bonus) this weekend, which is going to make it possible to separate things the way they should be (and decorate my bathroom). For now, though, more photos of the garden tonight are here. I have romaine lettuce, maybe!

I’m also looking for good homes for a few morning glory sprouts. They’re probably best in pots, since they tend to grow quickly and consume yards and native plants otherwise. Want one? or six?

Just Push an ecoButton?

Before you read the real part, do something quick for me? If you’re running Windows, go to the Start Menu, Control Panel, and click into Power Options. Set some power-saving options for when you aren’t using your computer, if you haven’t already- no reason to keep it on full power when you abandon it for something more interesting.

Ok, that was pretty easy, right? But don’t you wish there was a green colored button with a picture of the world on it that you could just push to make it happen? None of that annoying dragging the mouse all across the screen and clicking on a thing then dragging the mouse again and more clicking?

Rejoice, lazy ones, the EcoButton is here. Engadget covered the big green thing today. Just plug it in to a USB port and then push it, and your computer goes into “ecomode”. Press any key on the keyboard, and it will return from that happy green yonder and tell you how much carbon you saved while it was away. Their website is astounding. I don’t mean the good kind of astounding. Green logos and sidebars, a picture of children planting trees, and a prominent mention of carbon emissions on every page? This isn’t just greenwashing, it’s greenbashing you over the head with greenwashing.

No amount of green plastic or planting children will hide the fundamentally silly idea: spend 30 seconds and set up your computer to do this all the time, or buy a manufactured plastic thing and waste a USB port and push a button every time and then get a distracting screen when you start up again. This doohicky is for sale in bulk to cooperations as a promotional item- like the pens and key chains and stress things you get at job fairs or the end of a fiscal year, if your company pretends to love you. Now, they can give you the ecobutton! It’s a green worthless giveaway!

No, it is not. Well, ok it is worthless, but not green. Do not be seduced by the ecobutton at your next job fair or trade event. It has betrayed its stated principles, and you need that USB port for your rocket launcher anyway.

These doodads and gadgets to make your life greener rile me up. They make a mockery of the considered thought and purposeful effort that are the basis of sustainable decisions. An “ecobutton” to put an “ecomode” on your PC? How wonderful! Is ecobutton 2.0 the one we push to reduce dependency on fossil fuels? I’ll wait for the upgrade, thanks!

You feel like an easy green change? The easiest I know of? Do the power saving thing I talked about at the beginning. If you’re not running Windows don’t rely on those directions, but I promise you it’s easy even if you have to figure out how to do it yourself. Better yet, turn off your computer when you’re not using it, and unplug it from the wall. Unplug doohicky chargers and your TV. Put them all on the same surge protector and unplug it- make it really easy. These things all draw power even when they’re not being used, and it’s all wasted.

Note- Unplugging the Tivo/DVR will result in it not taping MacGyver reruns for you, so leave it in. And my Gentleman Friend, a computer type, is of the opinion that turning off computers more than once a year is bad for them because then they die? I don’t understand this idea, and I do feel like if your computer dies because it hated being turned off so much, maybe it’s best to just let it go, but fair warning.

Go right ahead, buy Africa a Ferrari

International aid charities have set up donation campaigns around Christmas, encouraging people to buy each other livestock or aid for the developing world, instead of say, socks or fruitcakes. At the Oxfam America Unwrapped site, you can donate boats, water trucks, mosquito nets, crocodiles (yes, really), money to start a business, and all sorts of other tools and services for people in developing countries, and save your relatives and the environment from unwanted and wasteful consumption. UK-based education and film-making charity WORLDwrite blames all that for Africa’s disappointing, “demeaning” Christmas haul. Reuters AlertNet and the BBC both reported on WORLDwrite head Ceri Dingle’s objections:

“Nobody’s offering washing machines. I’ve traveled all over the developing world, and people not only know what we have, they want what we have. Helping to make that possible is what development is all about.”

Yes, Ww and Ms. Dingle are upset that we’re not shipping washing machines to Africa. Don’t bother getting worked up at her, Oxfam’s stated the obvious for you:

“To insist on offering washing machines and other white goods luxury items to communities that have neither a plug socket nor a water supply shows complete lack of understanding of the communities we work with…Fifteen litres of water is required for one half-load of washing – the same basic amount that we are trying to achieve for one person per day to survive.”

The Ww slogan is “Ferraris for everyone”, meaning that they think we should help people develop by giving them all the things that rich, developed nations have, now. Put the reliable electric lines, power plants, plumbing, stable monetary system, available jobs, and big box stores on a boat, ship them across the ocean, plop them all down next to rural villages, and everyone will be happy! Before I get carried away into ranting, I’m going to cite a few decent points Ww makes, or at least links to their site (I had to dig for them, but at least I found a tiny basis to all this washing machine nonsense).

In one insightful section of a poorly-reasoned article on Oxfam’s program, one author points out that red tape mandated by the charity conflicts with actual use of the gifts- the need for accountability to the donors and general public causes Oxfam to implement burdensome monitoring procedures. Also, the procedures they use for determining what each community wants (chickens? hoes?) might not be as transparent to the community as they think. Reuters, the BBC, and this article all detail different opinions on this topic, with Oxfam always saying they work with people in the community directly to determine need. Me, I’m glad Oxfam knows what they’re giving and what it’s doing for people, but maybe they could ease up a bit too.

Another decent bit emerges from a completely anecdotal piece on how the Western world idealizes subsistence farming. The author points out that there may be organizations who, for the sake of low environmental impact, emphasize traditional, low yield farming techniques that keep everybody hungry and well, subsisting. Ok, sure, there are a few crazy environmental-type people who might make this mistake, but those people are a) crazy, and b) easily convinced with photographs of starving children that they’re wrong. Besides, not all low-impact farming is low-yield, and there’s no reason these groups can’t advocate good, long-term farming practices based on developed nations’ experience- so let’s champion that. Oxfam is blamed for perpetuating subsistence, since it offers hand tools for farmers, but not tractors. The author doesn’t acknowledge that tractors require fuel and skilled maintenance, neither of which are common in subsistence communities.

So, that’s a couple of things to consider when you buy that passel of baby chicks for your little cousin. Don’t worry about it too hard, but try to pick something entertaining and that won’t cause Ww to whine more. The Reuter’s article I cited above has a great list of non-Oxfam charities with gifts for all seasons- land mine defusing, teeshirts (shirt’s for you, donation’s for Africa), and other stuff (check out the crocodile).

Ww might have some good points, but they’re hidden in all their terrible, useless ideas. Next year, let’s test them: let them buy the farmers a Ferrari, and I’ll send some goats, and we’ll see which gift is more useful after three months. No matter how long you leave two Ferraris in a garage alone, they’ll never create a third Ferrari. And you can dismantle a broken car and sell it for parts, but you can sell a goat for parts (milk! cheese!) without dismantling it at all.

Sunday Special: Give a Little

It’s about that time to start wondering about the holidays- at the very least, to wonder about how to unplug those ridiculous store speakers blasting holiday music. But that’s a start, and while you’re plotting vengeance on jingle bells and window displays, save some brain space for considering how to make your holidays happier and more sustainable. No, seriously- sustainability may be the last thing on your mind in the rush of parties, last minute gifts, travel, cooking, decorating, family, and whatever else one lists in lists of potential holiday hassles, but it’ll save you money and stress.

So, Brilliant Holiday Advice (BHA) part 1: The Gift Guide.

First Rule: Before you buy someone something, figure out if they’ll actually use it. If it’s a purely decorative thing (say a bauble or perhaps a knickknack), is it “their style”? If you have no idea, don’t waste money (see gift ideas below).

Second Rule: Shopping involves ethical decisions, and those decisions don’t go away just because there’s a lot of stuff to buy. Buying fair-trade and responsible items or organic foods or sweatshop-free or recyclable and recycled things matters, and especially now, there are a lot more opportunities to shop ethically this year with a little research (good thing you’re starting early!).

Third Rule: People appreciate the thought most. If they don’t, kick them. Instead of mailing random stuff to people to indicate that you remember them, send them a handwritten note- they care more about hearing from you than odd boxes. If you have skills, make something for them. Give a huge favor- Grandmas love lawn care.

Fourth Rule: If you’re close to the giftee, talk to them about what they want: a surprise, a new microwave, jewelry, slippers, nothing. This works best with close friends and family and will save you the worry of meeting expectations, self-doubt, second guessing, and set appropriate gift levels.

And now, good gift ideas. These aren’t the only good ones by far, so if you think of more, let me know (I have a list to make…)

1. Gift Cards: Impersonal? Only if you do it wrong. Indicative of a lack of caring or thought? Not at all! Sometimes the most loving impulse is acknowledging that you have no idea, based on long distances or generational divides, what people need or want for Christmas/Eid/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Festivus (are there Diwali gifts?). Keep in touch better next year, but don’t saddle them with random things they don’t want or already have so you feel more connected and personal. Gift cards to stores you think they will like, or to places you know they do like, with a long, personal handwritten card- everybody appreciates that. Plus, they’re small enough to mail in a regular envelope: smaller shipping cost, both in fuel and money.

2. Take a stroll through local Goodwill, Salvation Army, and thrift stores. These places sell lots of random things and their selection changes all the time. On a good day, you will find glassware, jewelry, pottery, records, books- anything, really- just right for that blank spot on the list, maybe with a little cleaning up first. Bonus small price tag, and instant thoughtful gift!

3. Reusable grocery bags: Try this on someone who’s more likely to actually want to use them- hard to make it a loving gift when you have to explain what they are and give a lecture on the ecological reasons for using them. Any bags will do, but preferably they’ll be at least as large as the plastic grocery bags, not too large to carry when loaded, strong enough for a gallon of milk, and contain separate sections for breakable items like eggs. Personalize old tote bags you have lying around. Crochet your collected grocery bags into a few new ones. Sew some bags for them on your own. Find interesting bags around: everybody sells bags. Local libraries, restaurants, operas- get bags from places they like.

4. Planet Earth series: If you think nature documentaries are lame, admit new evidence. The Planet Earth series has astounding footage of the earth earthing and animals doing animally things they’ve never been seen doing before, thanks to new camera technology and infinite patience. It’s least expensive at Amazon and Costco, and perfect for families, people who like the outdoors, people who hate the outdoors (bring it inside for them!), and, you know, everybody. Not exactly a sustainable tip, but it is awesome, and it involves the promise of technology and respecting the earth because it is pretty and can also eat you, so.

5. Jewelry: Fair Trade or responsibly made, for sure. greenKarat makes jewelry from recycled gold and gems, or find vintage items at thrift stores or consignment shops. Somehow, recycled and lab-grown diamonds say “I love you” much better than the ones currently financing wars and causing ecological and human damage- different post, though. Fair trade jewelry may also be made from recycled items, and Ten Thousand Villages carries a really interesting selection of it- styles range from modern to exciting. Some of their stores are in Old Town Alexandria, Richmond, Baltimore, Bethesda, and Rockville, though there are more in the area. Their wares are all fairly traded, and they also carry lots of other likely gift items and decorations.

6. Solar chargers: For the gadget types, I mentioned a few solar powered chargers for phones and music players in my post on the Solar Decathalon. They’re useful, sustainable, and something nobody else has yet! Perfect gadget for anyone who sees sunlight ever.


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