U.S. citizens will average $770 in buying Christmas gifts in 2012, according to Gallup.

While some may choose to curb the amount spent on gifts, it seems unlikely that celebrating the season by exchanging gifts will disappear.

Nor am I suggesting that this is the goal toward which one should aim. There is nothing inherently wrong with giving and receiving gifts now or throughout the year.

Therefore, what is perhaps more important to reflect upon – both now and throughout the year – is the ethics of our shopping practices.

Shopping ethically involves being aware of the effects of our purchases, which means being aware of the total costs of items, which looks beyond the price we pay at the register to consider the environmental and social costs.

While grocery items may not be on most Christmas wish lists, a look at the hidden costs of food can be insightful with regard to understanding an item’s total cost versus the cost at the register.

In February 2012, the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, a research center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published several articles distinguishing an item’s price tag versus its “cost tag.”

The price tag is what you pay at the register; the cost tag includes hidden costs like food miles, product diversity, social costs and environmental impact.

What is true of food is true of every item we purchase. The cost tag for our clothing, technology, vehicles, housewares, furniture, printed media and so on is always greater than the price tag.

This is where ethics intersects with, and ought to influence, our shopping practices.

When we shop, we should consider not only an item’s price tag, but also its cost tag.

This means considering the means and methods of production – working conditions and pay for workers, sourcing and sustainability of materials, byproducts and energy usage, as well as a product’s ability to be repurposed (that is, recycled) when it is no longer functional.

Since most of us, myself included, will not have the time or resources to investigate the cost tag of all of our purchases, we can identify items that have been researched and approved by organizations focused on cost tag.

Such organizations have given rise to terms that have become part of our contemporary parlance – the most common of which are organic, fair trade, eco-friendly and sustainable – many of which overlap in qualifications and purpose.

While these may be widely known, they are likely not widely understood. This means definitions are needed for us to practice informed, ethical shopping.

Organic. The U.S. Department of Agriculture manages the nation’s organic food industry, setting standards for organic certification and screening products for adherence.

While recent news reports have suggested that organic foods may not have any higher nutritional value than non-organic foods, it is the human health and environmental benefits of producing and consuming foods without synthetic chemicals that advocates of organic food see as the primary benefit.

Fair Trade. The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) defines “fair trade” as “a trading partnership based on dialogue, transparency and respect that seeks greater equity in international trade,” and offers 10 guiding principles further explaining the qualifications for products to receive a fair trade certification logo.

U.S. consumers will be more familiar with the Fair Trade USA certification logo, which follows similar standards to WFTO.

Eco-friendly and Sustainable. This is the most ambiguous category, as there is no single organization that certifies a product as “eco-friendly” or “sustainable.”

Without a standardized set of qualifications and logo certification, it is difficult for consumers to distinguish between products that are actually eco-friendly or sustainable and those that are pretending to be.

This means it is largely up to the consumer to research the products for their environmental impact.

The good news is that some products are certified by organizations focused on the environmental impact and “sustainability” of a product’s production, such as Rainforest Alliance, Green Seal, Water Sense, Energy Star, Forest Stewardship Council and others.

In the United States, to advertise “eco-friendly” products, manufacturers must follow Federal Trade Commission guidelines, which can help consumers better understand claims on product labels.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also published a “green living” guide to aid consumers in making informed purchases.

While this information can be overwhelming, becoming informed about the issues surrounding our purchases is the best way to begin thinking ethically about shopping practices during the holiday season and throughout the year.

As you become more familiar with certifications, claims on product labels and issues associated with them, you will find yourself asking important questions about your purchases.

â— Where are these products made?

â— What are the working conditions?

â— Are employees paid a fair wage?

â— Where and how are a product’s materials sourced?

â— What is the environmental impact of production?

â— Are there harmful byproducts from production or usage?

â— Can the product be recycled or repurposed?

These are important questions that arise when we become informed and reflective about what we buy, and they help us to become more ethical shoppers.

Zach Dawes is an ordained minister who lives in Austin, Texas, having served churches in Georgia and North Carolina. He blogs here.

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