Turnabout is Fair Trade for Christmas Catalogs

In September, the Center for a New American Dream
sponsored a Carbon Conscious Consumer (C3) campaign called Junk Your Junkmail.
For a $41 fee, of which 1/3rd was donated to nonprofits, I hired a business
called 41pounds.org
to get me off the direct mail lists and cancel my catalogs. Named for the 41
pounds of unsightly paper fat your mailbox consumes per year, they guaranteed  an 80% reduced-carbonhydrate mail diet.

Looking at the pre-season glut, though, I started calling my
own Christmas catalogs. I begin by finding something to praise – something I
like that they're doing or an interesting product. Then I ask how they make
sure that there's no child labor or sweatshop labor involved in making their
products. Do they do unannounced factory inspections, or have an outside agency
that certifies? What about their supply chain – how do they verify that the
cocoa or cotton used isn't harvested by children, or that the mines producing
the metals aren't hazardous to workers or the environment?

I ask them to pass my
questions on to whoever can get back to me, and I give them my contact information.  In the meantime, however, I request
that they remove me from their mailing list. Their products are eye-catching,
and I don't want the temptation, for me or my kids. I say that I can't blame
the mess the world is in on anyone, if I don't care what I'm buying. When I can
maintain a Zen humility, as a fellow-muddler slogging through life, the
responses I get back are gratifying. These are some...

At Limited Too I
talked to a woman from Texas who politely agreed to pass my comments up the chain. Before hanging up,
though, she said it was funny that I called just then. She’d seen a special on
the Gap last night and thought to herself, "I used to shop there." She
was happy to tell management that people cared, because we all have to stick

Unfortunately, the call to get off their mailing list put me
onto their automated telemarketing. It's annoying that they can call you, but
you don't have an option to talk back. To find a real person, I went to their
website, which told me "all our jeans are made with love." Happy to
hear this, I clicked to find out more. Up popped a window with stitching
details. Where's the love? I googled an article called "Justice for All"
on their new Justice brand name signaling a change in strategy. Hurray! That
must mean fair wages and labor practices. No, it means prices that are 20%
cheaper. Where's the justice? I'll tell you when I get hold of a real person to
find out.

At Plow and Hearth,
the rep listened thoughtfully, and said that I was the first person who’d asked
these questions. I told him that over 20% of consumers now base their decisions
on ethical concerns, according to Co-op America.
So I was unlikely to be the last.

At Williams Sonoma,
a mom who's homeschooled five kids mentioned a wooden shelf which brought jobs
to an impoverished area. I said, yes, but...most manufacturing is done in
impoverished areas. Are the jobs fair? She didn't know, but respected me for
asking and would relay my concerns. I also found out that her teenage son bakes
bread to surprise her when she comes home from work – just the kind of guy I wish
my teenage daughter could meet.

I still wanted to try Williams-Sonoma's peppermint marshmallows
that take 3 days to make. Besides their own line, they carry Rubicon Bakeries' from Richmond, CA.  Looking them up on the web, I found they were started in 1973 by people
concerned about the closures of state psychiatric hospitals. Their jobs provide
training, housing, employment, and services to the homeless and mentally
disabled, and they've recently opened a new bakery in Berkeley.  With all this, I was holding my
breath when I called to ask the million-dollar question. How do they know if
there's child labor or slaves harvesting their cocoa beans? Fair Trade
Chocolate! Hallelujah! I'm placing my Christmas orders now.

At Explorations, a catalog of New Age spirituality, I talked
to a woman named Trinidad. She’s certain that
the owners would NEVER source from anyone who wasn’t ethical, but she wasn't
sure how they verify it. However, they’re going to get back to me on a few
specifics – an orthopedic neck rest, a Zen alarm clock, and a statue of Gaia.
She agreed that it would be spiritually disconcerting to meditate with products
made in sweatshops.

To my surprise, James Young emailed me, a product specialist
from Gaiam. I hadn't noticed that
Explorations was theirs. The first two products were made in China, and Gaia was of unknown origin
(created or evolved?). Although he handled organic certification, he didn't
know who certified their manufacturing standards.

Curiously, some user
comments on Junk Your Junkmail
were about Gaiam's excessive cataloging and
selling of their lists. I asked James if he knew how many they sent out, and
who they sold their list to. He thought I should call corporate, where
decisions were made, instead of customer service. When I did, the receptionist first
sent me to customer service, and then back to James. Hopefully, this isn't an
infinite loop.

Title Nine Sports
was also certain that everything was ethically made, but didn’t have any
details. Their products were made all over the world according to different
standards. So, I asked, Title Nine doesn’t have any standards of their own? No,
she was certain they did, but she didn’t know them. If she was a customer,
she’d want to know the same things, she said. But as a CS rep, didn’t she want
to know? We agreed that Title Nine was marketing to young, socially-conscious consumers
and I wasn’t the first to ask. She would pass on my concern. Since then, I read
at StopTheJunkMail.com
that Orvis and Title Nine topped the list of junk mail last month. I hope they
left some trees to photograph with their outdoorsy sports line.

A surprising number of the people I talked to have said they
agree with my concerns. The rest have taken my questions seriously and have
been respectful. The Noble Collection
was an exception. They specialize in upscale movie-theme paraphernalia billed
as "Exclusive Treasures at Uncompromising Value." I asked what their
uncompromising labor standards were for manufacturing. For a specific example,
I chose the $650 18-karat One Ring for control of Middle Earth. "Made in
the U.S.!",
she said. "Do you know where the gold comes from?" I asked. "How
do you know it's not the U.S.-owned Peruvian mine that's killed union
organizers and sent death threats to the priest who represents the workers?"
I mentioned that all of these movies are about the battle between good and evil
– Narnia, Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code. Wouldn't it be contradictory to wear an
icon for the 'good side' that paid money to kill union leaders and priests? Or
that stunted children's growth from lead in the water? As she fumbled to transfer
me, I could hear snickering in the background, and an incredulous, "She
wants to know where the gold comes from?!!" The supervisor was curt in
relaying my request to the product manager, but warmed to the task of taking me
off their mailing list.

If you would like to join Accountability Anonymous, call your
own catalogs and send the results to tereza [at] retrometro.com.
Be polite. Evil may exist, but no one you'll talk to makes enough money. Don't
forget to laugh, and remember that it's getting better. A very literate
receptionist called my question arcane – by which she meant no insult, just
that no one had asked it before. We can't blame the companies if we're not
asking. And finally...may your days be jolly and bright, and the rest of black
Fridays be white.