Green retailers have reason to hope this holiday season. And Santa has some green helpers for shoppers.
Heading into my local TJ Maxx the day after Halloween, I noticed the aisles bursting with new arrivals. Cashmere sweaters, delicacies in fancy jars, and toys galore. On your mark, get set, go: the holiday shopping season has begun.
Retailers have reason to be nervous about the size of holiday shopping receipts: a recent survey on behalf of the National Retail Federation predicts a 3.2 percent drop in spending by recession-conscious consumers to an average of $682 dollars for gifts. To my frugal soul, that seems like a lot, but it’s the lowest level in six years.
Consumers Ready to Spend More for Green Products
But companies that cater to green-conscious shoppers can take heart. According to the just launched Green Confidence Index, American consumers are poised to spend more on environmental products and services, even though these goods tend to be more expensive. The monthly index tracks, among other things, attitudes about past and future purchases of green products. It registered an increase of 3.8% in the three months since it started in July 2009. Not all these will be gifts, of course, but the sentiment indicates that eco-conscious companies will be better positioned to weather whatever winter retail storms lie ahead.
Consumer Resources Reveal "Green-ness" of Company
Green shoppers have plenty of resources to find out whether a company is on the level about its commitment to the environment, so greenwashers beware. They can visit ClimateCounts.org to find out how well companies in various categories stack up. Launched with support from Stonyfield Farm several years ago, the organization has been able to track changes in the companies it follows.
For example, the first year Apple Computers came in dead last with a score of 2, as I reported in 2007. It was up to a score of 11 this year -- not great, but an improvement. ClimateCounts.org found that “Apple has completed analysis of the impact that many of its products have on global warming while being used by consumers and has engaged with its employees and other companies on climate-related issues.” But it faults the company on its failure to disclose information on “Apple’s efforts to measure its companywide impact on global warming.”
Greenpeace was kinder to Apple in its own consumer guide. It moved it up from 11th place to 9th, lauding it as the “most progressive” computer maker in removing toxins in its products. If you are thinking of giving that special someone a cell phone, Nokia came out ahead of the pack, with good scores on toxics use reduction, energy and recycling.
Video Game Components Not So Green
But you might want to steer clear of Nintendo game consoles for those kids on your shopping list. Greenpeace’s guide puts the Wii and the DS Game Maker tied for last place. The Wii’s success has meant a boost in more than Nintendo’s bottom line; its greenhouse gas emissions rose, too. Rival Sony is a better choice, according to the rankings. (You can find out about more electronic products in Greenpeace’s latest Guide to Greener Electronics.)
Giving video games and consoles might not be the best idea in any case. In the U.S. they burn 16 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, according to a new study by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and Ecos Consulting. That’s equal to the annual electricity use of all the homes in the city of San Diego. And all the most popular models - Sony Playstation 3, Microsoft XBox360 and Nintendo’s Wii - used as much energy when they were idle as when they were being played. So include a power strip that can be turned off if you do give them as gifts.
Beware of Hazardous Components
Non-electronic toys can be problematic, too, as the scandals over lead and phthalates in toys show. Despite consumer complaints and promises by toy companies these poisons are still around. Recent tests by Illinoispirg show that “some toys still violate CPSC standards for lead and contain illegal phthalates.” Even some products from more “natural” manufacturers, like Melissa and Doug, were judged a “medium” risk, although other products in their line were given a low risk rating. You can find more toy ratings at HealthyStuff.org, which published the study. Another toy safety site is Safetoys.com.
If the definition of “green toys” means supporting small and local businesses to you, the quest for safer toys is erecting some road blocks. Local small toymakers are being hammered by requirements under a new safety law -- not because their toys are dangerous (often they are less hazardous), but because it is mandating they test each ingredient in every product they use. The owner of Ogunquit Wooden Toy told the New York Times that implementing the new law would cost him $30,000 to test the ingredients that went into his toys: maple, walnut and cherry woods finished with walnut oil and beeswax from a local apiary. You can’t get greener than that.
Try a Charity
Of course, for some people, giving more stuff to people who already have enough isn’t green at all. For those, charity is more in the holiday spirit. A great place to start is Heifer International, which gives poor families the means to making a livelihood, like a heifer to give milk and bear young to sell or chickens for eggs and meat. That kind of gift could do a lot to bring “peace on earth and good will to all”.
By Francesca Rheannon