28 January 2009

Valentine's Day Shopper's Guide

It's not on the scale of Christmas, but people give other people a lot of stuff on Valentine's Day. Some of the stuff is problematic just because it's stuff: more consumer goods that the recipient may not want or need, that may spend some time in the back of a closet before it goes the way of the landfill.

But other stuff is problematic in other ways having to do with war and slavery and pesticides. Here's a run-down of some of the major problems, along with a few solutions.

Conventionally grown cut flowers use tremendous amounts of water. If they're grown in drought-prone countries like Kenya, then the water they're watered with is not available to local folks who need it for food and washing. If they're grown in Europe or North America, then there's a lot of energy used to heat greenhouses, in addition to the water consumption. Moreover, since flowers aren't food, the use of pesticides to grow them is unregulated -- but it poisons the people working in the flower farms and runs off into the streams and the groundwater. A good roundup of the issues, with more detailed, was published by Treehugger.

Then there's jewelry. Diamonds are forever --from an ecological standpoint, what could be better? The problem: as the United Nations reports, diamonds are funding war. In Angola, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, rebel soldiers have used diamonds to buy weapons and prolong civil conflicts costing millions of lives. Similar problems are on-going in other African countries. Governments have proposed a certification process that will allow consumers to be sure they are buying diamonds that have been mined and sold legitimately, but diamond retailers have not followed the process universally or consistently. Gold mining also uses noxious chemicals to separate the gold from the surrounding minerals, at a hazard to the miners and to the environment.

One alternative: Green Karat, which recycles gems and metals, including gold and titanium, and also uses created stones.

Chocolate? Nearly half the world's chocolate is produced in the Ivory Coast, and various human rights organizations have reported on child slavery there and in other African countries that produce chocolate.

Chocolate produced without slavery is becoming increasingly widely available. Trans Fair USA is a major certifier of chocolate and other products such as coffee and tea, sugar, and herbs and spices. Look for the "Fair Trade Certified" logo when you buy chocolate for your sweetie this year.

While you're at it, switch over to fair trade coffee and sugar. Sip your morning brew relaxed in the knowledge that it wasn't produced by child slaves -- and that the farmers who grew the beans or the tea leaves received a fair wage for their labor.