by ANN M. COLFORD and MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & e & lt;/span & ach year, it seems, the commercial holiday season starts earlier. Big box retailers had their Christmas decorations out on the day after Halloween (which is the second-busiest shopping day of the year for Americans). Mailboxes -- both electronic and physical -- already are stuffed full of catalogs. Advertisers exhort us to buy, buy, buy, to show our families and friends how much we care. And across the nation, we respond.
The National Retail Federation (NRF) reports that 40 percent of Americans began their holiday shopping before Halloween. This year, the average American will spend close to $1,000 -- that's 20 percent more than we spent just five years ago -- on holiday gifts, decorations, greeting cards, flowers and food. The NRF predicts 2007 retail sales for November and December will reach $474 billion, an increase of 4 percent over 2006. Amid the cacophony of cash registers, though, many people are saying, "Enough." More people are looking to simplify, to slow down, to "unplug the Christmas machine," as one recent book title put it. So in that spirit, we offer our own suggstions to having yourself a simpler little Christmas.
-- ANN M. COLFORD
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t sounds like the rustling of leaves. But what I'm actually doing is shuffling across my living room on Christmas morning. Problem is, mountains of discarded gift wrap, ribbons, bubble wrap, cardboard, shrink-wrap and that kind of thick clear plastic you can only cut with a blowtorch are obstructing my path. The gifts themselves have been stacked in neat little piles; the detritus of our Orgy of Unwrapping, however, is strewn waste-high. (Sorry, waist-high.) Only small patches of carpet are visible; everywhere else, crinkly shiny paper fills the crevices between sofas and coffee tables. One gift-wrap pattern features merry little Santas; I'm pretty sure they're smirking at me.
I am caught up in a whirlwind of gift-wrap and packaging excess, and so are you. It's our own fault. We want our goodies secure inside their oversize boxes, but we expect some eye-catching designs on the outside of those boxes, too. My daughter's Barbies arrive with their little necks twist-tied down as if onto tiny restraining gurneys; tiny screws hold bits of the Barbie-mobile secure; from the outside of the box, Barbie herself gaily waves.
Another over-elaborate toy -- you may think the name's not worth mentioning, but dammit, it's the Mattel Hot Wheels Slimecano Playset -- arrived in an enormous cardboard box. Inside, every single one of the toy's 87 molded-plastic pieces was tied, screwed, taped or embedded into its proper place in the rabbit warren of subsidiary cardboard packaging inside the huge outer box, tripling the assembly time required.
Strolling store aisles recently, I noticed two-for-one mascara offers that are blister-packed onto a placard that's five times the size of the mascara applicators themselves. There are booklights (for reading in bed) that you could hold in your palm -- except that the blonde lady pictured beneath the clamshell plastic is luxuriating across some king-size marketing cardboard, beckoning to all you consumer guys out there.
See, we don't just want our toys to entertain us. We want our toys' packaging to entertain us too. From the moment we eyeball the latest TransformerBratzPowerRangerFurby at the department store, we expect to be diverted. But marketing geniuses wouldn't waste time thinking up more and more hyper-clever ways to attract our attention if we made it collectively clear what would catch our eye: lower prices, less packaging, environmental responsibility.
The EPA reports that two-thirds of Americans consider excessive packaging a real problem and would prefer greener methods. The complaints point to packaging that's simply too big, has too many layers, is so expensive that it inflates prices, or contains too many different kinds of packaging materials.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & o what can be done? Yes, you can write the manufacturers and retailers. But here's a more radical proposal: When you buy a particularly egregious example of excessive packaging -- the Slimecano in your life -- disassemble the damn thing right there in the store. And leave all the packaging on the discount table. No, you don't want to register your product for long-term extra service or for any of these exciting special offers. What you want to do is get rid of all the excess crap that comes with the widget you just purchased.
If store employees question your decision to excrete their retail items' packaging in their meticulously organized store, then either smile sweetly and leave it all there anyway -- or else collect all your plastic/Styrofoam/cardboard debris, go to your local post office and mail all that crap back directly to the manufacturer from which it came. Sure, it'll cost a couple of bucks. But it'll be worth it in level of satisfaction.
We could do with less elaborate gift wrapping, too. Just imagine if all the other people who were making leaf-rustling sounds in their living rooms on Christmas morning did the same thing. There'd be leaf-rustling sounds all over the receiving docks of every major manufacturer in America.
Which might postpone our busy-ness long enough so that we could take the time to do one of the simple, pleasurable things in life. Like rustling some actual leaves while strolling through an actual forest.
So you want to give a gift with a small, or even non-existent, carbon footprint? Greengiftguide.com recommends buying gifts made from recycled materials, gift certificates, or an annual pass to a state park. Meanwhile, treehugger.com suggests you give things that you can eat or drink: organic teas, fair-trade coffee, fresh or dried fruits and nuts. Buy a gift made by a local businessperson or make it yourself. Or "offer your services to do a winter's-worth of driveway shoveling or baby-sit while your friend enjoys a cozy date with their partner." Give a charitable gift in someone else's name. Other treehugger.com hints: "Use packaging that will not go to waste. Your packaging may be part of the gift itself, such as wrapping the gift in a scarf. For family and close friends, consider the Sunday funnies instead of commercial gift wrap."
-- MICHAEL BOWEN