by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & Y & lt;/span & ou want simple? Imagine what it was like to go holiday shopping in the old Soviet Union. All the store's shelves lined with thousands upon thousands of the same box, stamped with whatever Cyrillic symbols spell out "gift." No choice, no angst -- and you would have known for sure it was made in the good, ol' USSR. ("By our comrades in Siberia.")
OK, I know, the Soviets were godless commies, so they didn't celebrate Christmas, but I'm trying to make a point here. Maybe they had it right: After all, we have so many choices here in America that it can be stifling. And what about all those dirty little secrets we're learning about global trade? Some toys are painted with poison; others just have the date-rape drug on them. Then there's the video of tiny fingers stitching name-brand clothes in some back alley in Calcutta. Or that Ohio Art Etch-a-Sketch you loved as a kid? They don't make them in Ohio anymore; those jobs are all in China now.
If you're not careful, you might just find yourself unwrapping a big box of guilt come Christmas morning.
Another problem if you're a typical American is that over the past few holiday seasons, you might have already bought everything -- an iPod for every kid, a cell phone that's a camera and a toaster, a Wii, an Xbox, a $20 DVD player, one of them Thighmaster thingies. How do you know when you've accumulated enough useless crap that you can declare victory and sit this one out?
Don't get me wrong: This is in no way a subversive, unpatriotic attempt to get you to spend less this holiday season. By all means, spend more than you can afford -- that's the American way. No, I'm just saying that in the frenzy of it all, try to spend a little more wisely.
For every "Made in China" gift you buy, match it with something made locally, made by hand or fairly traded. (OK, maybe just try to buy one gift that's made locally, made by hand or fairly traded.)
Knowing where stuff comes from and what will happen with the money you spend on it are the two nagging questions that led to the fair trade movement in the first place. Best known for labeling coffee beans of uncertain origin, the fair trade label is landing on more and more products all the time. If you buy fair trade, you'll know that the people who made it are getting a fair deal and you'll know that the middleman is not exploiting anyone.
Spokane's Barb Novak is co-owner of Far East Handicrafts, and she makes a six-week trip every year to meet with her suppliers in Nepal and Vietnam, among other places. Far East Handicrafts sells traditional Nepalese singing bowls and handmade journals along with Vietnamese soaps at a retail shop in Seattle and at fair trade fairs at churches.
"It's just something you do because you care about people," Novak says. "It makes the planet seem a lot smaller."
A portion of Novak's profits help put some of the craftspeople's kids through school, and they even fund cataract surgery for Nepalese villagers. Many Fair Traders are doing similar work that goes beyond the usual buy/sell relationship.
"Fair Trade is swimming against the tide," admits Novak of all the choices people have in this country, "but people want new traditions. People want to make a difference in individual lives."
As proof, she points to the wild success of kiva.com, where people can make microloans of as little as $25 to help people all over the world get a business started, or Heifer International, where you can buy a cow or goat for a Third World family. Both have great holiday potential for those people who already have two of everything they'll ever need.
No, the Soviets had it wrong -- mainly because they didn't have any holiday spirit at all. In America, land of the discerning consumer, more choices are good. Now we're finally starting to get some choices that let the sacred act of gift-giving work out for people on both ends of the deal.
You can find Far East Handicrafts on the Web at www.fareasthandicrafts.com. And at Global Folk Art, 35 W. Main in Spokane, there's a Festival of Fair Trade being held all weekend long, Nov. 23-25, from 10 am-6 pm. Call 838-0664.
Gift cards make life a lot easier on gift givers -- and they're big business at holiday time. Americans will spend billions (the estimates we've seen vary from $26 billion to $80 billion) on gift cards in stores and online this holiday season. The National Retail Foundation encourages shoppers to ask questions before buying gift cards. Be sure to check whether they have expiration dates or clauses that charge fees if not used within a certain time period. The federation also recommends buying gift cards from reputable retailers and skipping online auction sites. The federation warns that "there are big differences between store-issued and bank-issued gift cards," according to the NRF. "Card issuers such as VISA and MasterCard are more likely to expire and tack on annoying activation, maintenance, inactivity and transaction fees. In fact some bank-issued gift cards even charge a fee for simply checking the balance."