Dear Family, It's November. Which means my birthday is this month, and Christmas is next month. It's present-buying season! I'm probably writing this a little bit too late to have an effect on how you shop for my birthday. (Well, for you, Mom. You probably bought my present this summer, as you do. I know, Sister, that you will probably get something at the last minute. Which is fine, of course.) Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about the issue of presents. This is a fraught one for us--for everyone, actually. But us especially, because buying presents for a sustainable living freak is not easy. I will admit that. You must know that my relationship with personal belongings is a bizarre mixture of Buddhist non-attachment and borderline-obsessive identity formation. Part of me is disdainful of shopping. As a past time, I think it is shallow and damaging to both our psyche, the environment, and people in developing countries. I do not wish to participate in the massive industrial complex that supports malls, strip malls, Walmart, TJ Maxx, Gap, Forever21, and all the other amoral corporations who have their business models built on unsustainable consumption. I also consider myself a minimalist, constantly donating, recycling and giving away anything that does not reach the very high bar of my standards for being occupying space in my home. On the other hand, my personal belongings are also a very important part of my identity. When you walk into my home, I want every object to tell a story, to say something about me. If you were to point to every single item in my living room and say, "Tell me about it," I want to be able to proudly tell you where it came from. Oh, that couch I got at the ABC Warehouse Sale--did you know that ABC sources its furniture and wares sustainable and ethically? This bluetooth speaker is made from bamboo in the USA. That blanket is alpaca and made in Peru, those artsy magazines are about sustainable fashion, the ice box is an antique passed on to me from you, dear family, and the jewelry box where I keep my business cards was my Nana's. Add into the mix the fact that I live in a tiny, six-floor-walkup apartment in New York and don't have a car, and unnecessary presents become outright exasperating. Unless you have experienced the 15-block Goodwill Schlep, you will never understand why I might heave a sigh when I open up a present to find an enormous coffee table book. I pick it up, and imagine the journey I will take to carry this out of my building, to the subway, up subway stairwells, then a 15-block walk. I can feel the sweat prickling underneath my collar, and the handles cutting into my hands or shoulder as I endlessly shift my burden around trying to make it there. And then to finally heaving it onto the counter of The Strand in the hopes they will pay me 10% of what you paid for it in Barnes & Noble. Now, you could chalk this up to greed or entitlement. Can't I just be grateful for whatever I'm given? But it's not the thought that counts here. It's the toxins released into the environment, the carbon expended, the below-living wages paid to the person who made it--that is what counts. I'm just one person, but if you add up all the environmental damage and wasted money that goes along with bad and not-quite-right gifts every year in the U.S., well, I bet you could hit the U.S. carbon target and fix the issue of saving for retirement, just by figuring out the solution to this one problem once and for all. More importantly, I do not want to be the reason some child in Bangladesh worked overtime inhaling toxic fumes in a leather tanning facility. On the other hand, these high standards don't feel very fair to you, my family. After all, I spend my career researching stores and brands that make and sell ethical stuff. Yeah, it's work. (It shouldn't be work, but that is a topic for another time.) Should I really expect you to get me the perfect thing, and sustainably to boot? No, no I shouldn't. I've try to make your job easier, because I know I am annoying. Here is what I've tried: 1. Nothing. Which means you completely ignore the fact that my entire career is based around sustainable and ethical living, and I am presented with an item whose only merit is that it's "cute." Then I grapple with the question of what to do with it. Do I A. Keep the item, knowing that it is made in a way that I strongly disagree with? B. Tell you that ethically I don't agree with how it was made, thus preserving my integrity but hurting your feelings? C. Fudge the truth and tell you that it doesn't fit or doesn't work for some other reason? Or D. Keep the item for a year trying my best to integrate it into my lifestyle and wardrobe, before finally giving up and donating or consigning it? I have done all four of these, and none of them feel satisfying. 2. Passed along my Pinterest board. This is pretty helpful. (Thanks, Aunt Lisa, for the wooden pencil highlighters--I use them all the time!) But this isn't a perfect solution. I often pin items that I think my readers would like, but aren't necessarily something I want myself. Which means I've gotten things that are ethically-made, but I end up never using and then finally donating them. It's just as wasteful. 3. Made a very specific request for an item that I need in my life. This way, I know I would have gotten the thing anyway, so it's useful to me. But often, you don't nail the style and it's unethical, and I end up replacing it within a few months. Again, I realize this is not fair to you. You really are trying your best. 4. Requested you donate to charity. When I did this, it was somewhat honored. But then there are all the "other" presents that show up under the tree anyway. Which I feel like misses the point. But I get it--my reaction when I open a card that says, "I donated $50 to charity" will never be as rich and satisfying as opening a box and saying, "Oh my God, you got me cashmere? I'll wear it everywhere! It's the perfect color! It fit wonderfully." Etc., etc. Donating to charity isn't fun.