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A Holiday Message

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Soon after I gave a favorable review to Wal-Mart's new sustainability report, a press release arrived via email from the retailing giant. Wal-Mart announced that it will be "open" online on Thanksgiving Day, offering special deals and free shipping on the season's "hottest items in electronics, toys apparels, home." For those who somehow manage to stay away from their computers on Thanksgiving, Wal-Mart is promising to ring in "huge savings" on items like a Polaroid 43 inch LCD HDTV ($798) and a Zune 30GB MP3 Video Player ($98.87) in its stores, beginning Friday at 5 a.m. Think about that for a moment. On Friday at 5 a.m., people will be lining up to shop at Wal-Mart. That is, unless they opt to shop at J.C. Penney, which opens an hour earlier.

Yes, 'tis the season when millions of Americans work themselves into a frenzy by buying things for others (and themselves) that they don't need with money they don't have. In a down economy.

It's a stark reminder that the road to sustainability will be a long and difficult one and that corporate America, without environmental activism and dramatic changes in consumer behavior, won't get us there anytime soon.

The problem's simple: Almost nothing about the holiday shopping season, as it is currently constructed, is sustainable. We're buying (and throwing away) too much. We're driving too far in oversized cars powered by gasoline. We're powering our shopping malls and homes with dirty coal. We're generating too much trash. The bottom line: Until we develop an economy powered by renewable energy and with zero waste--and make no mistake, that's where we must go--companies whose business it is to sell us more and more of whatever it is they make are, unhappily and inevitably, part of the problem.

So what's to be done?

Actually, we've got some options.

For starters, I'm going to "participate" in Buy Nothing Day, an informal 24-hour moratorium on consumer spending this Friday. It's an idea that's been around for about 15 years, and has been embraced by citizens around the world. All it takes is a determination to buy nothing--not a hybrid car, not a CFL bulb, not a carbon offset-for one day. With all the talk about "green" consumption, it's easy to forget that one of the world's biggest environmental problems is the fact that we Americans consume too much. Here's a 30-second YouTube video that makes that very point.

According to Facebook, which is one place where people are invited to join in Buy Nothing Day, some 82,778 people have signed up - and another 128,00 have been invited by friends to sign up, but have not.

Another idea: Take a look at a new organization with the clever name of Changing the Present, whose website can be found at www.changingthepresent.org. The idea here is that, instead of giving a tie or sweater, you can make a donation to a nonprofit, ideally one that's close to the heart of the person you are "giving" it to. (It's not only aimed at holiday shopping--people can create gift registries at the site for weddings or baby showers.) For $25, you can fund a field trip for students at KIPP Foundation schools, an acclaimed group of charter schools. For $50, you can support breast cancer research at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. For $90, you can support the Rocky Mountain Institute's work on behalf of biofuels to replace gasoline. The idea of making donations in place of gifts isn't new, of course, but Changing the Present makes it easy and offers a wide range of choices.

Finally, there's a group I've long admired called the Center for a New American Dream, whose goal it is to encourage Americans "consume responsibly to protect the environment, enhance quality of life and promote social justice." The center's motto is "More Fun, Less Stuff"--a smart message that doesn't guilt-trip people, but encourages us to pursue more of what really matters in life. They've got a brochure and website called "Simplify the Holidays" that offers practical tips for avoiding the December frenzy at the mall, as well as low-carbon gifts, ways to cut holiday waste, how to deal with kids' demands for stuff, etc.

I hope that you enjoy your Thanksgiving, and the holidays ahead. May they bring peace, renewal, fun, good food, time with family and friends--whatever it is that matters most to you.