What you need to know to shop socially and environmentally conscious this holiday season
Research, read labels and look for certification logos, experts say
Gifts purchased this holiday season can ultimately make a big difference in someone else's life or help the planet, according to Toronto business consultant Angela Wallace.
Wallace works with socially and environmentally conscious businesses across Canada and is encouraging consumers to think about where their gifts come from and who is behind making them.
"It has a whole life cycle to it," Wallace says. "If consumers can consider how their purchasing power could make or break a difference in someone's life, or in the world to support people or the planet, it can have a big impact."
"It's one of the best ways we can make a tangible difference on some of the world's most pressing problems."
Farm-to-table, but for clothes
In an online video, an elderly, barefooted woman chisels away at the ground in the Nile Delta in Egypt.
"I've been here for 30 years working in the cotton fields," she says in Egyptian.
Other workers say it's a simple life, but they don't wish for anything more. They just want opportunities for their children.
The video is part of KOTN's Black Friday and Cyber Monday campaign. Instead of offering shoppers deep discounts, the company gave 100 per cent of sales from Black Friday through Cyber Monday to help fund schools for its farmers' children. It says that will help stop the cycle of child labour.
KOTN is a Toronto-based brand that creates ethical and sustainable clothing by working with small family-run farms in Egypt. The company prides itself on being transparent — its website shows photos and videos of each step of the manufacturing process.
"It's really important to know where, who and how the garment was made, so that you can form an opinion on whether you want to back that product with your consuming power," Rami Helali, the CEO and co-founder says.
The growth of conscious consuming
A few doors down from KOTN on Toronto's Queen Street West is eco-friendly general store Login & Finley. Julie Skirving opened it seven years ago with a focus on clothing and products that are local, natural and built to last. Her shop includes all-natural beauty products, reusable cups and containers and a kit to eliminate single-use plastics while grocery shopping.
"[Eco-friendly and zero waste] was pretty new seven years ago," she says. "People thought it was a really weird store."
Skirving says she's seen a "big shift" since then, specifically after a 2015 video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck in its nose went viral. The internet, social media and influencers have all played a role along the way, she says.
"I think people are discovering all the problems with plastic, pollution and things. I think it's more top of mind for people," she says. "Some people, that terrifies them. I think they just forget what they read and the other people are very empowered to go out and find ways to waste less in their own life."
Skirving says while consumers are taking notice, she's concerned some companies view it as just a trend and are trying to capitalize off that. She says some have even tried selling her products she doesn't believe to be authentic.
"I think that must be really confusing to consumers."
What to look for: logos, labels and research
There are certifications businesses can get that prove they meet a particular standard. Logos like fair trade, organic and B Corp Certification can be found on tags, packaging and the company's social media and websites.
"You're empowered to know, 'OK when I see this symbol I understand someone was paid fairly or this was made without hurting the local environment,' whether that's coffee or chocolate or whatever it may be," Wallace says. "That's one of the surest ways to empower yourself as a consumer."
Wallace is currently working with a business to help get its B Corp Certification, which measures a company's social and environmental performance. Once certified, businesses are legally required to consider its impact on workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment.
"It includes pretty rigorous assessments often on the ground or in the local place where the product is grown, where it's shipped from or where it's supplied," Wallace explains. "There is a group of people that are double checking these claims to say, 'We really did see that the cocoa is shade grown naturally in this place.'"
KOTN is one of 3,132 B Corp Certified companies worldwide. It can take around a year to go through the process of getting the certification. Helali jokes it's quite an invasive assessment.
"They look at your HR policies and internally how you structure your team and how you treat your own people," he said. "They really ask for backup … they really dig deep."
Wallace notes there are plenty of companies out there that do not have certifications, but have sound sustainable practices. She says legitimate companies are transparent about how their products are manufactured and should be open to answering questions. That information should be easily accessed on a company's website, social media and packaging.
She also suggests researching products and businesses before going shopping so it's easier to stick to a list and not get roped into impulse purchases.
Not sure where to begin? Try your garbage can
Stores like Logan & Finley do the research and curate products so shoppers know everything for sale meets a certain standard.
Knowing where to begin, and wondering if you're making a difference, can be overwhelming.
Skirving says looking in your garbage can is a good place to start.
"See what you throw out a lot and figure out, 'What can I do every day?' Things that we do every day do actually have an impact," she says. "Find one thing that you can do. I think it's more powerful than people realize."