FOR some shoppers, it's the hardest item to find on the holiday list -- the spirit of giving. It's no doubt been lost somewhere between ever-ballooning gift expectations and bag-to-bag combat in big-box-store aisles. But just as consumers have flexed their economic clout in the green and organic arenas, many are opting to use the power of their pocketbooks for a more ethical consumerism.
At Ten Thousand Villages, a shop in Pasadena, gift buyers ogle the sinuous lines of a bamboo floor lamp crafted in the Philippines, embroidered pillows from northern India and rootsy Santa Claus gourd tree ornaments from Peru. But what really recharges the Yuletide spirit is that sales at the nonprofit shop help provide a living wage for the workers, mostly women, who make the goods.
"We give so many gifts through the year in this country," says Joanna Mariani, who made a special trip to the store from La Crescenta. "We might as well do some good with it."
A growing number of companies, from small websites to major retailers such as Macy's and the Gap, are giving shoppers like Mariani an alternative with products whose sales fund scarce jobs and vanishing traditions or provide a portion of earnings to organizations on the front line of relief work.
"People are hungry for things to believe in, to feel good about the things they buy," says David Hessekiel, president of New York-based Cause Marketing Forum which connects nonprofit groups with corporate sponsors interested in "doing well by doing good....In the '80s, the focus was on being rich; in the '90s being physically fit. In this decade we're seeing a great deal of interest in showing that people care." And corporate support for such programs is up 20% this year, he says.
"Don't buy more, buy different," says Tex Dworkin, manager of the Global Exchange Fair Trade online store, which is stocked with a host of products, such as Hmong wall hangings and doormats made from recycled Philippine flip-flops, certified "fair trade." That is, they're made for a living wage in safe working conditions. The San Francisco-based company, which also has bricks-and-mortar stores, has been an advocate of ethical consumerism for almost two decades.
The Internet is a driving force of this socially conscious shopping, bringing the global village into your home. Illinois marketing executive Beth Peterson launched her nonprofit site, Haba na haba (Swahili for "little by little"), after a stint in AIDS-ravaged Tanzania with Habitat for Humanity.
"I'm really excited that Americans are looking more globally and seeing a responsibility to the human race," she says.
The proceeds from kuba-cloth and animal-print pillow covers and tablecloths purchased through the site pay a living wage to businesses that train and employ AIDS orphans. Ten percent of earnings go to a Tanzanian nonprofit, the Green Door.
The Internet has also been the main sales vehicle for one of the most ambitious "cause commerce" efforts, Macy's Rwanda Path to Peace Collection, a line of woven fruit bowls and baskets available on the Macy's website and at a few of the company's department stores. The program grew out of an effort by the United Nations Development Fund for Women to find Western markets for survivors of the Rwanda genocide.
Women on both sides of the Rwandan tribal divide weave the products -- 40,000 to date, to support their families and the country. At $40, the floral fruit bowls may be pricier than an assembly-line basket at the usual wicker emporium, but the artistry is exhibit-worthy.
That sentiment is shared by customers like Mariani. "I don't know that I came here just for the charitable aspect," she says. "This is the kind of stuff you find in galleries." Except for the prices. Most items are under $100, with nothing more than $300.
It's not just the cards telling you who made the product that personalize the purchase; the loose, uncanned designs have an ingredient missing from the technological world: authenticity. There's the feel of the elemental, the real, in these items.
Take the cocoa-hued soapstone bowls from Kenya on the Global Exchange site. With their curved handles and a trim of tribal art motifs that zig and zag in splendid unevenness, the bowls serve up an earthy embrace. A timeless weave and vivid colors characterize the site's Guatemalan magazine rack.
Yet how can you be certain that the funds make it back to those in need? Some businesses pledge a percentage of sales to aid organizations; others stress fair trade certification, and still others rely on transparency to show the difference they've made in people's lives.
At Ten Thousand Villages, store manager Sam Bills says fair trade certification, simply designated by a label on the product, is the best insurance that the producers have gotten a fair price for their goods. Willa Shalit, co-founder of the Rwanda Path to Peace Collection, says the answer lies in transparency and sustainable jobs.
"Once a week, rural women bring their baskets to a village to get collected and inspected and get paid in cash," she says. "For many it's the first time they ever had money in their hands. They can buy food, clothing, mosquito netting."
Unlike parachute buys, when a Western firm swoops in to buy a local product once and never returns, dashing hopes and incomes, Shalit says Macy's is committed to the long run. The company has followed up the fruit bowl with a number of stunning Rwandan designs, including traditional cone-lid baskets sublime enough for sales at Sotheby's.
Peterson set up her program so only businesses that train and employ AIDS orphans can sell their products on the Haba na haba site. "We can earmark money for a particular thing," she says. "We designated money for a boy to have surgery. If we can help one person at a time, it makes a difference."
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On a quest for some compassionate gift items? Here are a few websites and stores whose sales support fair trade wages, relief programs or both.
Global Exchange, store.gxonlinestore.org. Soapstone bowls from Kenya, doormats made of recycled flip-flops from the Philippines, Hmong textiles.Macys.com, www.macys.com. The Rwanda Path to Peace Collection of baskets. Also at select Macy's stores.
Haba na haba, www.habanahaba.com. African kuba cloth and other print pillow covers as well as tablecloths.
Ten Thousand Villages, 496 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena or visit www.tenthousandvillages.com. Bamboo floor lamp crafted in the Philippines, embroidered pillows from northern India and tiny nativity scenes inside decorated eggshells from Peru
World of Good, www.worldofgood.com. Handmade items that include bamboo bowls and buffalo horn salad tongs, made by 135 artisan groups in 31 countries.
-- Joe Robinson