Christmas is upon us, and each year at this time we hear the usual choir of complaints about commercialism, consumerism, and the suffering of sweatshop laborers who make those toys on kids' wish lists. My friends at the National Labor Committee, for instance, have released a report about the horrible conditions in Chinese factories where this season's hottest toys are made. And although it's important to be aware of these sad truths, I always wonder what some positive alternatives might be, short of dropping out of the gift-giving tradition altogether.
This year I found one I'm tickled with. Instead of buying stuffed animals at Wal-Mart, I bought my friends real animals. Cows, to be precise.
My husband Gordon and I are buying about 20 milk cows for the villagers in Achuapa, Nicaragua, the same community with which we established a community trade agreement for fairly priced sesame oil for The Body Shop. And we are planning to name each cow after someone on our Christmas list. ("Hillary, the cow." Oh my, I certainly hope none of my friends takes offense.)
It was our friend Nick Hoskyns who suggested this adventure as part of his vision for a "campesino economy." He envisions this as a way of further strengthening the cooperative farming community in this poor region. It would work like this: Each family in Achuapa will be supported according to its needs, resources, and abilities; those with children will be guaranteed, for example, a daily supply of milk per day per child in exchange for a fair amount of labor on the farm.
If it works, we hope to expand the program to include pigs, chickens, maize and other agricultural goods, and eventually allow others to sponsor the livestock (name a pig after your boss!). Eventually we hope to create a fair-trade system in which all of the goods produced that exceed the sustenance needs of the collective can be fairly traded within the larger local economy, which now has hard currency from its sesame seed oil trade. People outside of Achuapa who sponsor the livestock program can treat it like an ethical investment, either reaping financial gain if the expanded trade scheme is lucrative, or -- preferably -- reinvesting dividends back into the community in the form of more livestock or seed grain, or supplies for local schools.
Nick dreams of this as the beginning of an ethical trade zone in Nicaragua, where at the moment Las Mercedes Free Trade Zone -- a nasty outgrowth of NAFTA -- has turned a once-vibrant culture into a society of drones for major corporations churning out blue jeans for a few pennies each. If we make this alternative work in real life, our argument against globalization and in favor of trade with dignity will be even more credible.
But this idea is hardly mine alone (actually, it's Nick's). While the Achuapa program is just getting off the ground, there are existing programs like it in place if you're interested in opting out of the excessive consumption cycle next holiday season.
You can send a needy family somewhere in the world much-needed livestock through The Heifer Project. Find out how you can give a tree, a cow, a chicken, a buffalo, a goat, a pig, a sheep, a hive of bees, or any number of other animals to needy families around the world on behalf of someone you love.
And you can also download the NLC's "Toys of Misery" report from their Web site to learn more about the plight of sweatshop workers who make toys for Wal-Mart, Toys R' Us, Target, and Kmart, among others.
Do you have other alternative gift-giving ideas? Let me know. Send an email and I'll collect the best and publish them here.