Green? Red? White? Walmart?
// Lindsay Flynn

From the practical (socks), to the not so practical (personalized finger puppets), to the ridiculous disguised as practical (think Shamwow), there are a myriad of ways one could go about choosing Christmas gifts for loved ones.

Perhaps you want to jump on the green wagon and buy sustainable, eco-friendly gifts for your family. But what does that mean? The question of what an ethical shopper is has its problems. Is it best to buy from a local source? How about the materials that an item is made out of? What about its carbon footprint? Workers rights? Fair trade? Organic? The list goes on …


a In Vancouver, there is a prevalent community participating in creating alternatives to the traditional shopping mall trip. In the buildup to Christmas, there are a number of events happening around the Greater Vancouver Area, such as the One of a Kind Show Vancouver, happening December 8-11 at the New Vancouver Convention Centre, and the Portebello West Fashion and Art Market at the Creekside Community Recreation Centre, November 26 & 27 and December 10 & 11.

A quick Google search reveals that there are dozens more different craft shows happening in Vancouver, with literally thousands of artists and designers featuring their work. The importance of these markets are that they give many designers the chance to get their start at building a client base, while allowing shoppers to explore the culture of locally-made fashion and handicrafts.

“Oftentimes, artisans and designers are focused on making their art and don't have the time or finances to really reach a vast audience of shoppers,” says Ally Day, show director of One of A Kind Vancouver. “Since many don’t often have the means for a retail space this is a wonderful avenue for them to explore and meet their customers face-to-face. One of the most rewarding parts of our job is promoting our artist's work to the rest of the country.”

Day believes in the integrity that goes along with shopping locally, and acknowledges that some of her artists have no desire to expand. “[The] quality of work gets lessened with the more people that get involved. We recently had an extremely talented ceramics artists turn down a considerable commission for a very well established hotel chain because she didn't want to lose the authenticity of her work being handmade.”

Despite this, Day believes that local artisans are open to fixing and replacing defective products – one of the benefits of big business offers. “[The artists] take great pride in their work, so if it is damaged they are passionate about not only repairing the piece, but also repairing the experience the consumer has had.”


Shopping locally is a good alternative to buying imported products from big companies that have a large carbon footprint. But beyond the impact on the environment, there are also the realities of the working conditions of the people who make imported items. By shopping locally, or buying directly from the designer, consumers can ensure their purchase was produced in humane working conditions.

However, there are many organizations, such as the International Labour Organization, Oxfam, and China Labor Watch, that are involved in monitoring and advocating for ethical working conditions in countries across the globe. According to the International Labour Organization, more than 215 million children work full-time around the globe, most of whom are doing so in questionable conditions.

China Labor Watch, founded in 2000, is a nonprofit organization that collaborates with unions, trade organizations, and the media to investigate working conditions for Chinese suppliers of everything from bikes and books to clothing and electronics for larger US based companies. According to CLW's website, they “create reports from these investigations, educate the international community on supply chain labor issues, and pressure corporations to improve conditions for workers.” In addition to that, they work locally in China to help educate workers about collective bargaining and legal rights. They have successfully been reviewing and bringing attention to the labour practices of companies such as Adidas, Timberland, and Puma.

A 2008 report on the Dongguan Surpassing Shoe Co. Ltd, where Puma shoes are produced, described devastating conditions. The online report states, “Workers are forced to work overtime, working about 12 hours a day on weekdays, [and] at least 11.5 hours and sometimes even overnight on Saturdays. Workers are paid 64 cents an hour for each regular hour. Excessive fines are in place; workers could be fired and given a $43.35 USD fine if they refuse to work overtime up to three times.”

Despite the appalling business practices of some large companies, brand name products still dominate the fashion world. In the digital age, bloggers are often given samples of new products, with the opportunity to try them, review them , and create buzz on the web.

“Larger companies have larger marketing budgets – they can afford to reach out to the tastemakers of media and get their products pushed,” says fashion blogger Kathryn Anne Flynn of ellegentsia. com. “That's not to say those products [from larger companies] are unethical, they've just got more money behind them.”


But here on the West Coast, once-upon-a-time start-up companies are now finding ways to expand their business, and tackle the issues that come with importing their finished projects.

Maha Devi ( is a Vancouver-based label founded in 2007 by local artists Freyja Skye and Julie Emmerson. They design and produce clothing made out of sustainable fibres like bamboo, organic cotton, and hemp. Initially producing their product in Vancouver, they have recently outsourced production to China.

“It's very important to us to be as sustainable as possible” says Emmerson. “We've tried to order fabrics from Canada that are sustainable, but we find that they don't have the lasting quality that the fabric supplier overseas has … Eventually when you get to a certain point you have to outsource it.”

Emmerson doesn't see producing Maha Devi clothing locally as an option any longer, simply stating, “It's not possible. We would need to have our own factory. The cost would have to go up. People would have to pay much more for our product. Because it's a global industry, and because big companies like Lululemon, just as an example, are having their stuff made [overseas], we can't compete with the prices.”

But there is good news – they are happily supporting a factory in China that is well on its way to being certified fair trade. It's a small factory, but the eco-friendly material provided is some of the best Emmerson has ever worked with. “Unlike other suppliers, the material lasted [much longer]. Buying sustainable clothing is great, but if it falls apart, then you have to buy three times as much sustainable clothing, and that's not sustainable either.”

Emmerson feels confident in the direction of her company while acknowledging the concerns she and her partner believe their clientele has. “The place that we have that makes our fabric in China is doing all of our sewing, and also our tags and everything else, so in a strange way our carbon footprint is actually going to be a bit smaller, and we're going to be more effective streamlining, bringing our cost down for our customers and making things a little more accessible.”

After five years, Maha Devi continues to grow, and their values and commitment to ethical clothing is resonating with their customers. “We make it personal. Our clothing is who we are … people can relate to us. We're not just there for sport, it's a lifestyle choice. And I think when people wear our clothes they know there's something special and different … that's often our biggest compliment, that we're different. I think that's because we continue to make things from our hearts. It really is a reflection of what we want to wear and what we want to see in our clothes.”


There appears to be a prevalent bias against hemp clothing as being made for hippies by hippies. On Oct. 5, 2011, Jon Stewart suggested on The Daily Show that the credibility of Occupy Wall Street protesters was in question as many of them “smoke and wear pants made out of pot.” Stewart is a funny guy, but since hemp and marijuana are not the same plant, the question has to be asked: where did this bias against hemp come from?

According to the website, hemp has been cultivated by civilizations for over 12,000 years. The website goes on to state that there are over 25,000 uses for hemp, from clothing to bio-diesel. Hemp fuel burns clean and does not destroy the ozone layer or cause acid rain as fuel derived from oil does. The list of ethical and logical benefits to hemp goes on, and according to the website, apparently even the American declaration of independence was signed on hemp. Up until the earliest decades of the last century, hemp was known as a cash crop, which is a crop produced in industrial quantities for its commercial value and use, like coffee and cotton.

Between 1916 and 1937, William Randolph Hearst and Pierre DuPont succeeded in their campaign to outlaw hemp in America by drawing a correlation in the minds of the public to hemp's evil cousin marijuana. Under this prohibition, many of the products that were previously made from hemp needed to be made from trees and synthetic materials. Interestingly, Hearst was a major investor in lumber and paper mills; Du- Pont in synthetic fibres and petroleum.

While China is the leading world producer of hemp in 2011, it remains illegal in the United States, whereas the Canadian ban was lifted in May of 1998. It is at this time, according to Health Canada, that the Canadian government began issuing its first licenses for the growth of industrial hemp for commercial use.


Louis Seguin, one of the co-founders of Nomads Hemp Wear (, laughs off the notion that hemp has hurt their product: “The fact that our clothing is green and [made out of] hemp is just a bonus.”

Selling his products to certain smoke shops, such as Puff, he acknowledges he does come with certain biases, but the Nomads line is increasingly finding a home in eco-shops where the hemp factor is getting attention for its sustainability rather than its association with marijuana.

“Hemp clothing is probably the oldest clothing that's been around. It hit the mainstream market again 15, 20 years ago, and that was when it was really rough. It's merged with new technology, which is helping, because now we have really nice fabrics,” Seguin says.

On the subject of environmental impact, Seguin encourages people to take the eco aspects and environmental impact of Nomads for granted: “We want you to like the style. We're focusing much more on the design and the fabric. It has to be comfortable, and people have to like it. People want to buy something that's green, but they want to buy something that they like first of all. [People] will buy something not because it's green, but because they look good in it. As we started we wanted to be green, but as we move along we're keeping these values but things evolve.”

From shopping locally, to buying sustainable fabrics or Fair Trade Certified products, there are dozens of concerns shoppers can bring to the table. It is not simple enough to accept that because something is labeled organic, it is going to be more ethical than other products. As the world moves towards more sustainable practices, it is important to always ask questions along the way. One thing to remember is that consumers drive change – just look at the organics section in Walmart – and that social media is powerful for a reason. Making your desires known will deliver results that last long after your Christmas list has been crossed off.

//Lindsay Flynn, writer
//Illustration by Alexandra Gordeyeva

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