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Can Your Christmas List Make A Difference?

Posted: 11/23/07 08:00 AM ET

Until Tuesday, I have never watched a "Favorite Things" episode of "Oprah." Watching with my co-workers, I could not believe the sheer hysteria generated by the audience. I mean, I understand people freaking out over the "Planet Earth" DVD's (because it's awesome unlike anything else has ever been awesome before), but giving them a fridge with a television in it so they could watch it over their Count Chocula? That was a whole new level.

However. I was intrigued by one particular gift that Oprah gave away: Hallmark's Red wrapping paper, which (when bought, not given away) gives 8% of net profits away to AIDS charities in Africa, like Gap and iPod's Red lines. Here in America, we believe in the power of the purchase -- our success is measured by how we spend our earning, our accessories and lifestyle acting like a decoder ring to show "where we belong." The wallet is supreme. But can it be supremely good?

In a drawer (somewhere) in my kitchen, there's a pink chopping knife. I'd needed a knife, and standing in a Bed Bath And Beyond, staring at the fourteen different possibilities, I went for the one that would donate a portion of my money to breast cancer research. Can I say I support breast cancer research? Can someone who orders a particular kind of coffee bean for their latte say they're seriously supporting free trade? Is an executive who buys carbon offsets to make up for that private plane trip to Milan doing something to stem the tide of Global Warming?

Can consumerism act as a form of activism?

Conscientious shopping and boycotting are tools of activism long employed to move dubious products to the backs of, and eventually off, of shelves, but until now they've been just that: tools. Until the advent of promotions like Red, the work of yogurt companies, purchase power has only been one part of larger campaigns based on volunteerism. People in actual action were needed for activism.

As long as companies are aggressive in their giving, and held accountable for the how much they donate, I think people should continue with their "good" shopping - particularly as we head into the Christmas shopping brouhaha. That said, a knife doesn't make you an activist, and a carbon offset doesn't put you in the Green -- let's not confuse lazy activism for serious efforts at revolution.

But we must also remember that there are some issues you can't buy your way out of, like retail therapy. If every caffeine addict in New York, or Duluth or Sacramento or wherever, asked for fair trade coffee beans, we could eventually turn the entire coffee business into a completely fair trade industry -- but there's no special kind of knick knack that you could buy whose profits will get us out of Iraq, no tchotchkey you can pick up for your nephew that is going to eventually ensure a peaceful resolution between Israel and Palestine.

If only.

What do you think about the relationship between buying and giving? Do you think your Christmas gift list can "make a difference"? Tell us in the comments below.