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Can you have a Green Christmas when shopping for presents online? Here's what the experts advise

Want to avoid giant retailers and go green this Christmas? It’ll take a little bit of extra research – but it is possible.

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Want to have a Christmas that doesn’t have a big impact on the environment? We’re here to help with a new series, speaking to experts about how to be as sustainable and green this festive season as you can, no matter your budget. Green Christmas is supported by Volvo, a car manufacturer which has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2040.

In the first of our Green Christmas articles, we look at shopping online. Can you do it without compromising your green credentials?

WITH ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS increasingly pressing on people’s minds, a Christmas shopping list can sometimes become an ethical minefield. 

Online shopping poses a particular dilemma. With large companies like Amazon dominating the field, it can often feel like people have little choice when it comes to purchasing presents online.

Yet it’s also hard to ignore the criticism of the company, whether over the amount of tax it pays or the treatment of its workers. 

“I think people have the right to question or not whether they want to use companies like Amazon,” says Tim Hunt, the co-director of Ethical Consumer, which rates companies based on their ethical bona fides. 

But he urges people to do more than question. The internet, he says, offers people a wide array of choices when it comes to shopping greener or more ethically. 

“That’s the beauty of the internet. It is much easier to find ethical alternatives than walking down your high street,” he says. 

In a year that’s seen Greta Thunberg-inspired climate protests around the world or here in Ireland saw the Green Party enjoy a bounce in the polls, it’s no surprise that people are now starting to grapple with the ethical choices of their shopping baskets. 

So what does that actually involve?

Well, it means tracking down companies that make only try and sell ethical products. The Ethical Superstore or the Ethical Shop specialise in these types of products, while the Ethical Consumer operates like an independent arbiter of how ethical various brand are. 

These sites won’t stock everything, of course. But they can offer a good place to start for anyone trying to avoid larger companies when shopping online. 

Books

In recent years, plenty of book-selling websites have also sprung up in a bid to compete with Amazon, such as Hive.co.uk and Wordery. These are all worth a look if you’re planning a bulk-order for books this Christmas. Most Irish book retailers have online outlets, like Eason, Kennys and Dubray Books

The next step is doing some due diligence online. What that means, put simply, is a little bit more research. 

“I think there is an extra step involved if you want to avoid the likes of Amazon,” says Hunt. But it shouldn’t be seen as intimidating, he adds: “You get to know what to look for.”

shutterstock_269516258 Buying books online? There are plenty of ways to do so without buying from major companies like Amazon. Source: Shutterstock/Yulia Grigoryeva

‘Greenwashing’

One of the challenges for buyers is ‘greenwashing’. As consumer demand for more ethical produce has increased, so too have companies’ attempts to rebrand their products. 

This can make things a little bit more difficult for shoppers, who might find themselves investigating claim and counterclaim. 

In the face of a sea of information, Hunt says consumers should try and be a little bit cynical. 

“I would not tell consumers to take anything at face value. It is always worth digging a little bit deeper,” he says. 

“The more transparent the company, the more ethical they’re likely to be.” 

Online shopping dilemmas

But while there are plenty of options for shopping online, it raises another ethical – and perhaps economic – dilemma for shoppers. 

What about the high street?

Caroline Gardner, one of the founders of social enterprise design company We Make Good, says that online shopping is important because it offers more choice for customers. 

“I think we need to offer customers options. Not everyone has the time or inclination to be on the high street,” she says. 

But this doesn’t mean that the end of the high street is nigh. For years, we’ve heard predictions that online shopping could lead to deserted streets and zombie store fronts. 

It hasn’t happened so far, but the threat of online retailers remains a major concern for both small and large businesses. 

“Try and also come to the high street. We don’t want our towns to be full of vacant stores,” says Gardner. 

Shopping ethically online? Here’s what to keep in mind:

If you do want to reduce any pangs of guilt about shopping with large companies, or simply want to support smaller businesses, here’s what you should know:

  • Do some research. Sites like the Ethical Consumer exist to help, but you can also do some straightforward digging. 
  • Don’t aim for perfection. Not everything you purchase will be able to meet the highest ethical standards, so just do your best. 
  • If you must shop online, look for the online version of a bricks-and-mortar shop in Ireland. It’s not just the bigger companies that have an online presence.
  • Do you even need to shop online? If there’s a local businesses in your area that you know that matches your needs, try and support them. Particularly if they offer a greener option when it comes to where their products come from or how they package them.
  • Trust your instincts. If a company is willingly sharing all the information about how their product is made, they’re most likely pretty ethical. If a company isn’t willing to do that, start asking questions. But always be aware of greenwashing – are you being encouraged to spend money on something you don’t need?

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