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Hang your stockings with care.

I've been trying to come up with an appropriate Christmas moral for my column this December, but "don't drink bad eggnog" doesn't seem profound enough--even for me. My Christmas-pasts fall into the excessive category, so I don't feel qualified to use this space to launch into a pontification against the commercialization of Christmas and finding the "true" spirit of the season. I have been known to overindulge around the holiday season. I'm shamed by the collection of ugly sweaters I have inflicted on those who love me the most. I must even admit to tuning into "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer" when I think no adults are looking (unless they want to watch with me.)

I am, therefore, woefully inadequate to the task of telling you good readers how to have a politically correct little Christmas this year. Here's what I can tell you: This Christmas season North Americans will spend $53 gazillion on kitchen appliances for bachelor sons that will never find their way out of moldy cabinets (sorry, Mom). We will endure 473,682 television commercials tricking us into buying this season's version of Tickle-Me Elmo. We will survive uncounted admonishments from newspaper columnists, television pundits, and, yes, even spiritual leaders, against succumbing to Christmas consumerism.

It would be easy for me to join this chorus, but you've heard it all before, and I don't know what difference hearing it all over again from me would make. At any rate, I simply don't want to bah-humbug anybody's good time this Christmas season, neither do I feel right about laying a guilt trip on people about the things they buy for each other. By all means, get together and make merry.

But looking over the pile of L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, Marshall Fields, and assorted other catalogs I receive each year, loosely organized under "clothing I can't afford to buy" (why do catalogers want to dress me like a preppy anyway?), I will hazard a small suggestion that, fellow consumer, you can turn your yuletide excess toward a pursuit as spiritually--and materially--uplifting as the common good. Catholic social teaching suggests that commerce can be more than a dualistic exchange between producer and consumer but an opportunity for relationship-building among peoples that captures the complexity and connectedness of the human experience.

This is not as highfalutin as it sounds. You can begin that process of relationship building simply with the gift-buying choices you make this season. Here is what I propose, sans anxiety or guilt: Before you tumble off to the mall on what will no doubt prove an existential-nausea-inducing encounter with way too many merry gentlemen, try a different shopping option, something called "fair trade." Fair trade and alternative trade networks are slowly emerging as a viable alternative to the anonymous production and consumption model we experience today. They account for only a tiny portion of the world's trade--about $3.6 billion--but their small achievements in turning the tide of human deprivation and creating connections between producer and consumer are real.

What these networks share is a commitment to redirecting as much of the profit from such ventures back into the communities where the products or commodities originate. By retaining more of the profit from the goods, crafts, and commodities they produce, people in developing regions are able to invest more not only in their personal lives, but also in the lives of their communities. For many, fair trade offers a trickledown effect of better education, better health care, and the economic liberty of remaining in their communities, not driven off by poverty to seek a precarious future in the economically "advanced" world.

Here are some places to begin exploring the world of opportunities that fair trade offers: SERRV International (www.serrv.org): call 800-723-3712 to receive a free catalog or e-mail info@serrv.org. With Catholic Relief Services teams up with SERRV to offer the Work of Human Hands catalog. Call 1-800-685-7572.

Mennonite-sponsored Ten Thousand Villages (www.villages.ca; phone: 717-859-8100) markets thousands of items from communities around the world. Peoplink (www.peoplink.org; phone: 301-949-6625) connects consumers directly to indigenous producers over the Internet. E-mail them at peoplink@peoplink.org.

The Fair Trade Federation can answer general questions about the fair-trade movement, and their Web site--www.fairtradefederation.com--includes many links to fair-trade outlets throughout North America. For a free copy of their guide to fair trade, call 717-334-5583, or e-mail ftfok@fairtradefederation.com. Another great source for fair trade info and links is Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.org): phone: 415-255-7296; e-mail: info@globalexchange.org.

There are literally hundreds of other Internet and retail fair-trade opportunities, offering anything from commodities such as coffee (www.equalexchange.com) to handmade clothing, furniture, and craftwork from indigenous communities. These trade networks do not rely on foreign aid, nor do they rely on foreign investment--infantilizing people through bureaucracies or enslaving them to industrial production.

Beyond the economic benefits of these trade networks, and tapping into the new venues of communication offered by the Internet, they create connections between consumer and producer that are absent in the prepackaged, overproduced, and hypermarketed world of "normal" commerce.

And who knows? You may even find something for your bachelor offspring that actually does make it out of the kitchen cabinet.

Visit us online at www.uscatholic.org for links to fair-trade outlets.
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Title Annotation:buy socially responsible gifts for Christmas from the fair-trade movement
Author:Clarke, Kevin
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Dec 1, 1998
Words:886
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