Friday, November 30, 2012

A seasonal battle with my conscience

Yes, I’ve already done a lot of Christmas shopping on line. And yes, I feel a little guilty about it.

But when I take a closer look at the guilt, it really just serves to remind me that there are very few ways of Christmas shopping that don’t make me feel guilty. The whole concept can just seem so self-indulgent, even if I’m shopping for other people.

At the same time, it’s so satisfying to point, click, and save myself a trip to….well, anywhere. A mall. A superstore. A plaza.

Last weekend, I was lucky to be in Portland for a couple of days.  So, having not shopped at all – on principle and by preference – on Black Friday, I actually did quite a lot of small-scale purchasing on Saturday. But that didn’t seem so bad. A far-reaching public relations campaign had dubbed the day “small business Saturday,” and it felt like that’s what I was supporting: small businesses. Even though I know many of the little unique-looking boutiques in Portland’s Old Port are actually small chains, with counterparts in other boutique-heavy communities like Edgartown, Nantucket, Chatham, and Portsmouth, I still felt like I was shopping the old-fashioned way, ducking in and out of little shops, carrying my purchases by hand rather than pushing a cart, aware that since I was car-free, I’d better not buy more than I could comfortably tote the several blocks back to the condo, on foot.

It did feel like the right way to shop, compared to the newspaper and TV images of people in line at big box stores on Black Friday. But my self-righteousness only goes so far. None of it was really necessary – not the little pieces of Christmas candy for the kids, the token gifts for friends, none of it. We could all celebrate Christmas with no gifts at all. But it was fun, and I was contributing in a very small way to local vendors and artisans, so I mollified myself with thoughts of how I was adding to the city’s economic development.

A few days later, though, I couldn’t resist plowing through most of the remainder of my gift list on line. I still had no desire to get into the car and drive anywhere to shop. And even though it pains my conscience to give so much business to Amazon rather than local businesses, it still doesn’t seem entirely wrong. I was saving carbon emissions by not driving anywhere. And, well, I was saving myself a lot of aggravation, which I would like to think benefits the world in other ways, though that may be a bit of a stretch.

But the reality is, there’s no one answer to whether it’s right or wrong to indulge in holiday shopping, and whether there are right ways or wrong ways to do it. Yes, any shopping supports employees somewhere – whether in Framingham or Bangladesh – who no doubt need the work. No, I still can’t begin to explain how buying stuff has anything whatsoever to do with the birth of Christianity. Yes, shopping on line means avoiding the environmental impact of driving. No, I don’t feel great about the often bizarre amount of disposable packaging in which each small item shipped from Amazon is swathed. Yes, I do understand that those “two-day shipping” promises exact a toll on the overworked employees required to fulfill the orders at breakneck speed.

But in a way, what I was left with was realizing, mostly, that there seldom are cut-and-dried answers when it comes to matters of the conscience. Yesterday on NPR I heard a debate about communities outlawing plastic shopping bags. A great idea, in my opinion – except the other side of it is that people end up buying plastic bags for things like lining wastebaskets and cleaning up after pets for which they previously used their old grocery bags. It’s easy to have strong opinions when you don’t give things much thought.

Last night after dinner, my ten-year-old sat down at my computer and designed a brochure advertising holiday services. According to the full-color printout she gave me, she’s willing to do tasks such as wrap presents, design cards, address cards, and “personalize gifts,” all for less than a dollar. I contracted her immediately to wrap and make cards for any gifts on my list that weren’t for her. It will run me about six dollars. That’s one form of Christmas spending I think I can do with a clear conscience. Possibly the only one, but it's something.

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