Christmas gifts capture spirit of conservation

Lawrence Solomon
Globe and Mail
November 20, 1980

“What can I give my husband for Christmas that’s sexier than insulation but still saves energy,” a reader asked me over the telephone. “This year I’m determined to buy Christmas gifts that are in keeping with Christmas values.”

“How about an electric razor,” I suggested. “Electric razors are more efficient than safety razors because they save relatively large amounts of energy needed to heat water.

“No good,” was the reply. “He already has an electric razor and besides, I’m looking for something that’s truly non-commercial. My parents are getting a down-filled comforter and my 26-year-old daughter has agreed to use the bicycle I’m buying her. My family think I’m crazy, but I want to start practicing some of the things I’ve believed in for a long time.”

Although the caller did not know it, she is not alone in being conservation-conscious. According to the Stanford Research Institute in the United States, the fastest-growing sector of the market is made up of people who are guided by energy and environmental concerns in making their purchases. This market, which is already estimated at more than 20 million adults in the United States, has convinced several U.S. retailers to merchandise their wares on the basis of energy efficiency.

In Canada, Eaton’s is the leader in the field, being both good corporate citizens and shrewd marketers by identifying about 75 products in their stores as energy savers – a respectable beginning in a field Eaton’s expects to increase in the next few years. Thomas Gladney, the company’s executive responsible for the energy-saving promotion, looks forward to the day that energy departments are set up in department stores, predicting that “consumers will choose products because of their energy characteristics – energy will tip the balance.”

The energy-saving products Eaton’s has tagged – items like thermally lined drapes that prevent heat loss through windows and electric kettles that switch off automatically when they reach a boil – need not limit Christmas shoppers out to fill their gift list while still husbanding nature’s resources. Energy-saving gifts can be easily recognized even if untagged, and they do more than register a vote for nature. They also provide skilled jobs for Canadians since, one way or another, the excess use of energy replaces some form of human talent.

Handcrafted and custom-designed products should be sought not only because the levels of workmanship are usually higher but also because less energy (and more labour) is employed when mass production machinery isn’t substituted for human skills. Whether jewellery, fashions or furniture, the more human attention a product receives, the less energy it generally consumes. Another way of looking at it is that every dollar that’s spent on human “energy” is a dollar that isn’t spent on coal, oil or electricity.

Not surprisingly, gifts that use even less energy than, hand-made goods are those that are primarily composed of human services. These gifts also tend to be the most innovative, and the most personal, since the services must be cleverly tailored to the people on the receiving end.

Friends of mine who recently moved into a new house were especially delighted with one of the house-warming gifts they received – a sketch of their own home. The couple that gave it unknowingly got great energy mileage out of that gift – about the only energy consumed was in the artist’s transportation to her perch opposite the house. Those same friends one year earlier had given their housekeeper a Christmas gift that meant much more to her than others she might have received – a telephone call to her children in Jamaica, whom she hadn’t seen in two years.

One of the most heart-warming gifts I remember receiving was a “Season’s Greeting” card from CARE, announcing that a friend had made a gift in my name to help the needy overseas. Other charities have similar services, and an advantage to the giver is a tax-deductible receipt, which reduces the cost of the gift by up to half.

Possibly the most energy-conserving gift of all is Energy Probe’s version and it’s the one I best like to give over the Christmas holidays – cards made of 100 per cent recycled paper announcing donations made toward a safe energy future.

There is only one way to do better than buying an energy-efficient gift, and that’s to make it yourself. It’s hard to beat a hand-knitted sweater for energy efficiency or for thoughtfulness.

The material a product is made of is also a major factor in selecting conserving products. It takes less energy to produce glass than iron and steel, something to keep in mind if you’re stuck in selecting between glass and metal bakeware.

But these materials are a conserver’s dream when compared to plastic products. Per pound, plastics require five to six times as much manufacturing energy as glass or iron and steel, ruling out many of the trendy plastics now used in everything from furniture to golf bags. Even plastics, though, look good next to aluminium, which uses 20 times as much manufacturing energy as glass.

Although the selection of energy-efficient goods and services is huge, it is unnecessarily limited by manufacturers’ persistent over packaging – a practice that is both insulting to the 1 purchaser’s intelligence and harmful to the environment. Steering clear of over packaged goods has another advantage as well – more value for your gift dollars as you avoid paying for merchandise that serves no useful purpose.

Where does all this leave the energy-conscious shopper? After you’ve eliminated over packaged products and those made of plastics, and those that are mass-produced, what do you have left to select from?

The answer is just about everything that requires a little extra care in the making, or a little extra thought in the giving.

And that’s a pretty good place to start for anyone who’s concerned about keeping Christmas values during the holiday season.

Mr. Solomon is a writer with Energy Probe.

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