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'It’s as easy as from a big-box retailer': ethical and local options for Christmas shopping

Hilary Osborne
·4-min read

If sustainability, ethics and fairness are on your Christmas list, putting in a bulk order at Amazon is not the best way to tick them off. The world’s biggest online retailer may offer quick delivery and competitive prices, but there are reasons to avoid it. One is simply that it is so big, and as it grows its competition falls by the wayside. But it has also been criticised for the low level of corporate tax it pays, and for its treatment of workers.

One option is to support small retailers, from thebristolartisan.com and communityclothing.co.uk to thecrofthouse.com. “Smaller shops have been instrumental in keeping communities going during lockdown, but they’ve also been hit thardest by the pandemic,” says Mike Cherry for the Federation of Small Businesses. “The windfall from [Christmas] sales could be make or break for some of our members.”

Not all small retailers are necessarily ethical, but most are not run through tax havens, and profits are likely to stay in the UK. Choosing a local shop keeps the money even closer to home, as it is likely to spend at least some of its profits with other local businesses and services, too. It may also be easier to get information on sourcing than from a bigger retailer.

“During the crisis we’ve seen a shift to online and this trend is going to be on steroids this Christmas,” says Tim Hunt, co-editor of Ethical Consumer magazine. “You can find a whole raft of small, ethical, independent shops online. It’s as easy to buy from them as from a big-box retailer.”

The first lockdown in spring forced many small businesses to gear up into local or even national delivery, so if you have independent shops nearby, there is a good chance you will still be able to buy from them even if their physical space is closed. Small businesses can also be found on well-known platforms, such as eBay, and sites that showcase their wares, such as Not On The High Street, Etsy or Trouva, which lets you shop from independent boutiques in the UK and Europe. A new site called The Chuffed Store has gifts from a range of tiny British producers – from Yorkshire-based textile artist Kitty Pennybacker to Paper Jungle, a puppet maker in Stroud – including bags, stationery and jewellery.

For books, Hunt recommends Better World Books, which sells new and secondhand editions, and donates a book for every one you buy. Elsewhere, Bookshop lets you support independent sellers while ordering online – for each book you buy, your local shop receives the full profit. It’s a great alternative to Amazon, but no substitute for visiting your local shop when you can.

Larger shops such as John Lewis and Marks & Spencer are also struggling, and by supporting them you could be helping to sustain them for life post-coronavirus. Ethical Consumer is a good place to check out the credentials of brand names – both retailers and products. Its magazine and website features ratings, some behind a paywall. Top of its ranking of ethical high street retailers is the beauty brand Lush.

An employee holds a “New” shampoo bar on the production line at the Lush Cosmetics Ltd. hand made cosmetics factory in Duesseldorf, Germany, on Tuesday, July 19, 2016.
Lush: top of the ethical high street retailers. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Charities have taken a huge hit since the pandemic started, with fundraising events cancelled and shops forced to close. Many of the larger ones have online stores worth checking out – Sue Ryder has a big collection of new homewares, kids’ stuff and wooden Advent calendars, while British Heart Foundation sells through eBay and offers secondhand items including games consoles and mobile phones. Amnesty International and Oxfam have good choices of Fairtrade and ethical products, from chocolate to furniture.

The Good Things website lists products from firms and small charities that are focused on helping people and the planet, and gives 20% of its profits to charity. Another site, Brilliant Little Brands, runs virtual charity fairs where good causes get 10% of the proceeds from purchases from small suppliers. For a whole range of gifts, including jigsaws, craft sets and socks, Ethical Consumer recommends New Internationalist’s Ethical Shop.

Of course, if you are shopping online, someone has to deliver it. If you buy locally, the retailer might deliver itself, and in a city it could even be by bike. Otherwise, you won’t usually get to choose who delivers to you. There are some green options: Ethical Superstore runs a scheme where you can add £1 to your order to support a tree-planting charity to offset some of the emissions from your order, and Etsy says it offsets all of it deliveries. Happy Christmas shopping!