Christopher Gray

This holiday season, as we all gather to celebrate the things that truly matter—friends, family, and many other blessings—let us also remember an equally important responsibility that we all share: the continued health of our planet.

The holiday season may seem like the perfect time to take a break from worrying about things like climate change, biodiversity loss, the destruction of our oceans etc., but in all reality, we are entering a time period that amounts to our movement’s ground zero.

While total holiday spending varies from country to country, consumers across North and South America, Europe, and the Middle East are preparing to enter the year’s most important month for consumer spending. Americans will complete an estimated 20% of their annual retail spending this holiday season; a consumer spree that the National Retail Federation believes will end up representing a $616.9 billion financial windfall for product manufacturers and retailers.

Numbers of this scale illustrate why the holiday season has long been considered to be a critical time for the global economy, but they also illustrate a tremendous opportunity for concerned citizens to apply pressure on the market to develop products that are environmentally friendly.

So, as you shop for that perfect gift for your loved ones this holiday season ask yourself: What do I know about this product? Was it manufactured in a green building? What does this toy cost, not just in terms of what’s on the price tag, but what will it cost my children once they have grown up? If the owner of the company that makes this toy or this smart phone was standing in front of me right now, what would I say to him or to her about my environmental values? How would I like to see these values enacted in the products that I buy?

Why does ‘Greening the global supply’ chain matter?

New forces like economic globalization and technological development have offered significant benefits to a large number of people across the world, but they have also had some very serious environmental impacts. For one thing, the fact that many products such as consumer electronic devices now contain materials that are extracted, manufactured, and assembled in multiple locations, and even time zones, presents a series of unique challenges to the environment. What this process means is that many of our modern day amenities have an impact area that  exceeds the location where the final components are eventually assembled.

So how does the built environment fit into this challenge? Many manufacturers are choosing not only to green their corporate headquarters, but are also focusing attention on their manufacturing plants, warehouses and distribution centers. This is an essential step that more companies should be taking to help mitigate the environmental effects of globalization. This is also one of the demands that consumers can and should begin making to their favorite companies in an effort to create a more sustainable economy.

The power of consumer movements

Consumer movements have a long and powerful history of producing change for important causes, and they have racked up an impressive array of victories against powerful forces that were, at one time, considered almost intractable. Many Indian historians consider Gandhi’s boycott of British manufactured salt and cloth (see the Salt Satyagraha and the Swadeshi movement) as the turning point in his 30-year struggle for Indian independence. Most point to the Montgomery Bus Boycott as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement

There are also contemporary examples of how consumer pressure was able to change conditions for the better, even in the age of economic globalization. The 1990s and early 2000s saw a massive proliferation of human rights activism around things as diverse as improving factory conditions in developing nations, ending child labor, and practicing fair trade. Most of these movements proved highly successful, many of them in a very short period of time.

The reason that these types of consumer movements tend to have so much success is fairly simple—companies rely upon happy customers to stay in business, and they are, therefore likely to listen very seriously to the concerns of their customers.

It would be easy to assume that little to nothing can be done from an individual’s point of view, after all, we are talking about modes of production that have been accelerating for decades, and which many people in many governments, corporations and communities across the globe are tremendously invested in. But consumers actually have a tremendous amount of influence to wield, and, if we work together, we can collectively serve as a major catalyst for change. 

Here is where it makes sense to return to that list of questions we suggested that you ask before you make your Christmas shopping choices. If past is prologue, history suggests you will find some powerful answers to these questions. All you have to do is ask.