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They're dreaming of a green Christmas

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 9, 2004

A few years ago, Bill Cooke was mulling over ways to make his Christmas greener, more environmentally friendly, when he discovered he could buy a ton of air pollution.

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"It was just like a light bulb went on," says the Sloansville, N.Y., resident. "I'm thinking: How come it took me so long to realize I could do this at Christmas?"

Thus it was that along with toys, games, and other gifts beneath the Cookes' tree, there appeared a "clean air certificate" citing the elimination of 2,000 pounds of sulfur-dioxide emissions. Cost: $50. (See sidebar, page 16).

Mr. Cooke's wife smiled supportively, as he recalls. But "the kids were a little young to really get it."

Welcome to the new world of "environmentally conscious" holidays. Once again this year, "green" gifts like Cooke's will be swamped by a national tidal wave of toaster ovens, ties, video games, and battery- powered kiddie cars - all encased in packaging bound for the landfill. But along with the 5 million extra tons of trash generated between Thanksgiving and New Year's, there are signs, too, that the environment will be getting its own kind of Christmas bonus: Many people want to "go green."

Some are primarily interested in helping the environment; others want to simplify their lives.

"There is a growing concern that the holiday season has gotten just so wasteful," says Betsy Taylor, president of the Center for a New American Dream, an advocacy group for voluntary simplicity. "People are not comfortable with the feel of it."

More than half of Americans say their lifestyles produce too much waste and that more recycling, energy, and water conservation - and less packaging - are needed, the center's polling shows.

While Americans are less enthusiastic about activities such as home recycling and saving electricity, a rising number of people say they would pay more for products that cause less pollution, a 2002 Roper poll found.

Sales of "health and sustainability" products grew to $138 billion in 2003, up 7.6 percent over 2002, according to figures cited by the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) in Harleysville, Pa. During that period, sales rose in categories such as natural and organic foods (up 11 percent), energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs (6 percent), hybrid cars (45 percent), ecotourism (60 percent), and goods from recycled materials (10 percent).

"This is a very environmentally conscious group," says NMI marketing consultant Gwynne Rogers of the 55 million consumers who make "green" purchases. "They are interested in where the product came from, how it's going to be used - the whole product life cycle. They're not going to forget these values at Christmastime."

There is also a mainstreaming of environmental values among consumers, Ms. Rogers adds, with many organic and other products appealing to people "who aren't crunchy-granola Berkeley types."

Two forces - voluntary simplicity and environmental concern - are boosting the market for alternative holiday gifts. For example, sales at have grown 25 percent over last year, says Lawrence Comras, president of the five-year-old ecogift company.

"People are more anxious to feel part of the solution, not part of the problem," he says. "We're like little elves running around scouring the country for ecofriendly products, getting them all under one roof, and making it easy for people to act on their good intentions."

Hot ecogifts this season include LED outdoor holiday lights that use 1/50th of the electricity and last 20 to 30 years. At $10 to $15 a string, they cost about five times as much as regular lights, but they save money in the long run, Mr. Comras says. "And they're prettier."

Other popular buys include heavy canvas shower curtains, handbags made from recycled rubber tires, and organic textiles including hemp and organic cotton.

Consumers also are helping the environment by pursuing simplicity. "My husband and I have been working over the past few years to simplify Christmas, both for our bank account and our environment," writes Melissa Podeszwa, a resident of Auburn, Wash., in an e-mail.

Two years ago she and her family capped per-person spending at $100 and cut it to $50 last year with the proviso that everything fit in a stocking. Gifts include family members' time - giving a trip to the zoo, for example - handmade cards, ornaments, and recycled bags decorated with holiday stamps and stuffed with symbolic gifts. A homemade sun ornament represents a solar-panel donation, honey sticks show regard for bees, organic milk-chocolate coins for cattle, and so on. Cost: $5 each.