Looking for a socially conscious holiday gift? You may have to decide between principles and price.


This article originally appeared in The Washington Post, on December 21, 2018

This Christmas, Mariah Byrne was set on buying a hammock for a college friend. Preferably, she’d find just the right one from an environmentally conscious outdoor retailer.

She checked REI. Too expensive. She looked at Patagonia. Also beyond her budget as a graduate student.

So resist as she might, Byrne, 26, settled for a much cheaper option on Amazon that also came with free shipping.

“That for me is the toughest part: balancing wanting to be socially-conscious with being realistic about my budget," Byrne said.

Byrne’s conundrum is one shared by shoppers wanting to support eco-friendly, social-justice oriented or politically-savvy brands without breaking the bank. Especially around the holidays, retailers make a point of promoting themselves as companies you can feel good about supporting. Maybe they’re sourcing products from recycled materials; maybe they’re donating a share of Black Friday sales to charity. Maybe they’re teaming up with nonprofits and taking a stance on a charged social issue.

It’s an appealing pitch, especially to shoppers who increasingly wish to support companies that share their ideals or values.

But practically speaking, higher-income shoppers are often the ones who can afford to weigh those options in the first place.

“The climate has caused people to want to care, and I think that has caused people to be more aware,” said Alexis Desalva, a retail expert at Mintel. But still, “the price is always going to be the motivating factor. I don’t think that’s going away.”

Among older shoppers, it may be an added perk if, for example, a holiday gift was cruelty-free or fair trade, said Steven Barr, consumer markets expert at PwC.

“For prior generations, it was more 'oh, well, it’s kind of a bonus to make me feel good about a purchase I was already going to make," Barr said. “Now it’s the primary driver.”

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That means retailers cannot win customers over with their products alone. They also must convince shoppers that by making a purchase, they’re supporting some greater good. Madewell, for example, encourages customers to “shop for a cause” through its “Do Well”campaign. Fifty percent of the retail price from “Do Well” products go to charities including Girls Inc. and the Human Rights Campaign.

To cut down on plastic waste, Everlane announced its ReNew collection just before the holidays. The outwear line is made of recycled plastic bottles and kicked off a company pledge for no new plastic in its supply chain by 2021.

And through its holiday Believe campaign, Macy’s aims to raise one million dollars for Make-A-Wish. For every shopper who writes a letter to Santa through the Macy’s website, the retailer will donate $1.

Then there are the companies whose entire platforms revolve around promoting a greener and socially just economy. The national nonprofit organization Green America, for example, curates lists of “Grinch Gifts to Avoid This Holiday," “11 Great Green Gifts Under $100,″ and children’s gifts from green, family-owned and fair-trade businesses.

“Every dollar you spend is a dollar voting for the kind of world you want to see,” said Eleanor Greene, editor for Green America.

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In St. Louis, Byrne scoured local bookstores in search of a copy of “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” for her brother. Out of luck, Byrne decided to buy him a print from one of her favorite artists, rather than order the book online. (Byrne’s dad, on the other hand, was more insistent about the exact gift he wanted: a sports water bottle from Target. He was unmoved by Byrne’s request to buy a different water bottle from a company with an ethically sourced supply chain.)

Celia Strainge is making a point of supporting local small businesses this Christmas. Strainge said she used to do most of her holiday shopping on Amazon but grew worried about reports surrounding company pay and worker treatment. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

For ideas, Strainge has been following the Instagram account of comedian Aisling Bea, who’s been posting her recommendations for socially conscious brands and holiday gifts. So far, the haul has included companies that sell second-hand clothes, a beer company that partners with charities to end food waste, and earrings made by women who survived sex trafficking.