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Five Ways to Take the Corporate out of Christmas

To start, why not brighten a neighbour's spirits and buy local?

By Jesse Donaldson 2 Dec 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Jesse Donaldson is an author, journalist, photographers, and one of the founding members of the Dependent Magazine. His new book, This Day in Vancouver, is published by Anvil Press. Find his previous articles here.

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Give simply, humbly, locally this holiday season. Gift photo via Shutterstock.

Okay, we know what you're thinking: give multinational corporations a break. After all, they've had a tough couple of years. Whether it be the 2008 global financial crisis, Walmart's widespread bribery of Mexican officials, the recent "London Whale" scandal, or simply minor little gaffes like this one, large companies have been on the receiving end of considerable public ire for quite some time.

But we here at The Tyee simply can't resist playing the Grinch to their corporate Whoville one more time. So to kick off this holiday season, just in time for Buy Local Week (Dec. 2 to 8), we present the five best ways we can think of to keep with the yuletide spirit of giving, while at the same time making the season marginally less jolly for the wealthiest one per cent.

Because when it comes down to it, the holidays are all about family and friendship. And friends don't let friends shop at big-box stores.

1. Buy the calling birds locally

Perhaps the single easiest way to make multinationals cry "humbug" is to shift our purchasing habits and buy from the businesses in our own backyards. The impact of local purchasing is hardly news; it's been well-known and discussed for over a decade.

A 2009 study by the New Economics Institute in London found that twice the money stays in a local economy when people buy locally, and in 2010 the Harvard Business Review published findings which indicate that fostering the development of local businesses is a more effective job creator than offering incentives to large corporations to attract them to the area.

The same effects hold true in British Columbia: a wider Civic Economics study conducted in 2013 found that local B.C. retailers and restaurants distributed approximately 2.6 times the amount of money locally than did their multinational counterparts. In the case of office supplies, a local company (Mills Basics) was found to have recirculated 33.1 per cent of revenues back into the local economy, compared with between 16 to 18 per cent by multinationals (OfficeMax and Staples, in this case).

According to the study, commissioned by local business alliance LOCO BC, shifting just 10 per cent of spending to local businesses could create upwards of $6 billion in local economic activity.

"It's not just about the one shop you go to," explains Maureen Cureton, community investment manager at Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (sponsor of the upcoming Buy Local Week). "It's about how that business or shop interacts with other local businesses. And how we're supporting each other to strengthen our local economy. Because we can't do it alone, and particularly the little guys: it's hard to compete with the big stores. But we can achieve economies of scale by collaborating with each other. It's the idea of replacing large, monolithic corporations with a web of local producers."

Buy Local Week, which started in the region last year, now includes businesses and BIAs throughout the province, though most are still concentrated in the Lower Mainland. With events held citywide, including the Commercial Drive Good Money Mob, the week aims to encourage businesses to forge lasting relationships on both the business and the personal level.

"I get excited when I go into Rocky Mountain Flatbread," Cureton continues. "They're not only a local, family-run business, they're also a business that's committed to other local businesses. They buy from local farmers, they run a zero-waste operation. If you go into their Kitsilano restaurant, they have these wonderful toys for the kids to play with, made of natural wood, which are themselves made by another local business called Natural Pod."

"We want people to localize their supply-chains," explains LOCO BC's executive director Amy Robinson. "But we also want to make sure that every small business doesn't have to reinvent the wheel. Every restaurant, every coffee shop, every retailer, every service provider is out there trying to figure out their own accounting system, their own website. Small businesses have a lot to share, and they don't always have a lot of opportunity to share it. That's one of the key things that businesses get to do through our network: they get to share resources, and make connections, and we encourage them to work with each other. And that strengthens our local economy."

2. Skip the five gold rings

It should come as no surprise that the month of December coincides with the greatest spike in consumer spending. According to a Statistics Canada retail trade survey, Metro Vancouverites spent $2,775,494,000 in December, $2 million more than the second-highest spending month, May.

It's estimated that British Columbians will spend more than $1,500 per person on gifts and entertainment over the holidays -- more than any other province in the country, besides Alberta. Much of this money goes straight into the pockets of large retailers and service providers -- everything from cheap "Secret Santa" gifts, to the latest iGadgets, to long-distance phone calls, to airfares.

Countrywide, this increase in spending also corresponds with a massive increase in holiday-related waste. Last year, an estimated 300,000 tonnes were added to landfills in the month of December alone. Unwanted gifts, wrapping and packaging, marketing and promotional material -- all of it thrown onto the dump heap.

So what's the easiest way to both reduce waste and support your local economy? As Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie puts it, it's simply a matter of outlook.

"The idea is to get people to rethink the kind of Christmas gifts they're giving," Brodie explains. "To think about the waste they're producing, and to reconsider their approach. Instead of something that creates a mountain of garbage, why not give theatre tickets or spend some time with someone? There are so many different ways to celebrate."

Brodie is chairman of Metro Vancouver's Zero Waste Committee. For the past several years, the district itself has undertaken an extensive advertising campaign urging Lower Mainland residents to give experiences over gifts. Other parts of the province have noticed: according to Brodie, as a result of the campaign, more than one-quarter of surveyed Metro Vancouverites modified their approach to holiday gift-giving.

"People need to consider how they can give services, or smaller gifts, or give something in an envelope instead of a big, fancy, plastic-wrapped package," Brodie says. "That will make a dramatic impact on the amount of garbage that's generated."

3. Make sure the French hens are built to last

Planned obsolescence has been a staple of manufacturing since the age of the bicycle. While widely popularized during the early years of the auto industry, the idea has been around for far longer, factoring into everything from disposable razors, to computer software, to women's nylon stockings.

"In the present inadequate economic organization of society, far too much is staked on the unpredictable whims and caprices of the consumer," complained economist Bernard London in a 1932 pamphlet urging a government-mandated shelf-life for all consumer products.

"Changing habits of consumption have destroyed property values and opportunities for employment. The welfare of society has been left to pure chance and accident... People everywhere are today disobeying the law of obsolescence. They are using their old cars, their old tires, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected on the basis of earlier experience. The question before the American people is whether they want to risk their future on such continued planless, haphazard, fickle attitudes of owners of ships and shoes and sealing wax."

It's a trend that has continued unabated. In journalist Vance Packard's 1959 book The Waste Makers, the author describes engineers at large corporations intentionally reducing the lifespan of their products, including mainstays such as cars and light-bulbs.

Today, planned obsolescence has been adopted with vigour by the technology industry. Apple releases a new version of the iPhone every one to two years, and the Intel corporation is known for starting production on its next generation of computer chips before marketing for the current generation has begun.

That said, there are certainly companies bucking the trend. Local mainstay Mountain Equipment Co-op is well-known for its policy of replacing any product, regardless of time frame or condition. Worldwide, other mid-sized companies are selling everything from knives to umbrellas, to socks, to luggage designed to last a lifetime -- or at the very least with lifetime warranties. There are even Reddit threads specifically dedicated to singing the praises of products that last.

So before you pick up the latest iPhone, consider Moore's Law, an accepted doctrine in the technology industry (and coined in 1956 by Intel founder Gordon Moore). It states that the number of microprocessors on a computer chip will double approximately every year and a half for at least the foreseeable future, a declaration which has remained true for close to 50 years. Which means that if you hold out for a few extra years, you could upgrade straight to the iPhone 13 by 2020.

4. Give away the turtle doves

The big retailers would have you believe that it's buying your partner that brand-new flatscreen that'll foster feelings of goodwill over the holidays. But of course, it's actually less about the gifts and more about the act of giving itself.

Multiple studies have also shown that the act of giving leads to greater overall happiness and satisfaction -- and it isn't tied to the size, type, or value of an object. It's the very act of giving that generates an emotional reward, even children as young as two.

Not only that, but charity also begets charity. Research conducted in part by the University of British Columbia indicates that a single act of charitable giving is statistically more likely to lead to an increase in charitable behaviour in the future.

As one final lump of coal in the corporate stocking, it turns out that in terms of overall life satisfaction, neither financial status nor material possessions seem to play much of a part at all. According to multiple studies, the greatest generators of lifelong well-being aren't video games or home theatre systems, but strong friendships and the respect of one's peers.

In short, giving not only makes us feel good in the long term, but makes us more likely to give again. And best of all, the goodwill fostered over the holidays has almost nothing to do with the stuff we buy.

5. And a partridge in a pear tree

Because nothing says Christmas like non-migratory members of the pheasant family nestled into pomaceous fruit-bearing foliage. [Editor: This last entry may have been written under the influence of locally-produced hooch.]

Happy holidays!  [Tyee]

Read more: Local Economy

This article is part of a Tyee Presents initiative. Tyee Presents is the special section within The Tyee where we highlight contests, events and other initiatives that are either put on by The Tyee or by our select partners. We choose our partners carefully and consciously, to fit with The Tyee’s reputation as B.C.’s Home for News, Culture and Solutions. Partners do not have editorial control over articles within Tyee Presents initiatives. Learn more about Tyee Presents here.

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