Consumers: What's on your yuletide agenda?

Activists ramps up efforts for various causes this season. Success levels vary.

John Kehe - Staff

When Debra Bercuvitz goes Christmas shopping, she does more than seek out perfect gifts. She protects her neighbors' jobs, fights corporate greed, and preserves the character of small-town New England.

That's how the Leverett, Mass., resident views her commitment to buy primarily from local merchants – the likes of whom live nearby and sponsor her children's sports teams – rather than from national chain retailers.

"I'm trying to support those businesses that are on the edge, where there's not massive executive compensation, and where they put in 70 hours per week in their own store," says Ms. Bercuvitz, a social service project administrator and part-time chicken farmer. "They need it even more right now" in a tough economy.

'Tis the season, it seems, for giving every purchase extra purpose. For some consumers, Christmas isn't complete until they have also advanced their personal agendas for making the world a better place.

For years now, consumer activists have been turning up the heat at this time of year when shoppers bundle up and hit the malls. Jewelers receive preprinted cards urging them to stop selling gold from irresponsible mines. Stores that wish everyone "Happy Holidays!" get boycotted for failing to acknowledge Christmas explicitly. In Canada, Mennonites and others behind the "Buy Nothing Christmas" movement keep all purchases to a minimum in order to underscore the perils of excessive consumption.

"We're seeing across the entire area of consumption, at least in North America, a move from an amoral stance – where we aren't considering the ethical ramifications of what we're buying – to much more of a moral stance," says Robert Kozinets, associate professor of marketing at York University in Toronto and co-editor of "Consumer Tribes." "This is all part of a much larger pattern of people connecting with one another and starting to inquire about the consequences of being members of a consumer society."

As these movements mature, some Christmas-season activists seem to be making an impact while others have yet to realize much progress. Results apparently depend on more than grass-roots passion. Having an organized campaign with money, paid staff, and a modest set of goals enables some to claim far more success than others.

Some of the most influential campaigns have come from social conservatives. Groups such as Focus on the Family, Liberty Counsel, and the American Family Association have developed "naughty & nice" lists to help shoppers avoid retailers who don't use the term "Christmas" in marketing materials and to support those that do. The AFA takes credit for having convinced such firms as Best Buy and Kmart/Sears to trade neutral "holiday" language for more "Christmas" language in recent years.

Costco now knows the pressure, too. This year between Dec. 1 and Dec. 8, Costco President Jim Sinegal received e-mail from 124,000 AFA members who objected to an alleged Costco policy to avoid the term "Christmas" in promotions. By Dec. 10, an operator at Costco headquarters in Issaquah, Wash., was answering all calls with a "Merry Christmas!" greeting. "They recognize now that these advertising yuppies out of college were steering their companies wrong," says Randy Sharp, AFA director of special projects. "I believe we're beginning to win the war [for] Christmas."

Costco did not respond to requests for comment.

Other campaigns haven't done as well. Mr. Kozinets has been watching data related to the "Buy Nothing Christmas" campaign for the past 15 years and has seen no impact on consumer spending.

Meanwhile the "No Dirty Gold" movement, which promotes environmentally and socially responsible mining, has seen mixed results from its yearly pushes at Christmas and Valentine's Day. JC Penney, Wal-Mart, and other companies that the movement deemed "laggards" in 2006 have since pledged support for higher mining standards.

Wal-Mart, however, has gone further in a way that troubles activists. This year, it released a "Love, Earth" jewelry line that traces gold to mines operated by firms that have, according to Wal-Mart, "demonstrated environmental and social leadership."

But No Dirty Gold says Love, Earth is using gold from a Nevada mine responsible for high mercury emissions and a Utah mine that's been the source of groundwater pollution.

Wal-Mart has "probably gotten [Love, Earth] off the ground prematurely," says No Dirty Gold Campaign Director Payal Sampat. "They might have waited until they were actually able to remedy some of the environmental and social problems at those mine sites before they launched."

Wal-Mart says it will continue to work with nongovernmental organizations concerned about mining issues. "We are committed to sourcing gold and other metals produced under the highest social, human rights, and environmental standards," says Wal-Mart spokesperson Linda Brown Blakley in an e-mail.

For consumer movements, Kozinets says it helps to have an organized effort with a public relations arm, but that doesn't tell the whole story. A grass-roots base must be motivated, he says, or else even the slickest of campaigns won't take off. He says communications technologies, especially those tied to the Internet, have enabled grass-roots efforts to coalesce and undergird the range of enduring movements that have emerged in recent years. "Movements are about emotional energy," Kozinets says. "If you can't motivate a hard core who's going to exemplify that emotional commitment, then you're not going to be able to drag the mainstream along. Somebody has to show that they're really living the sacrifices."

Some success stories stem from the combined efforts of motivated consumers and business interests. This dynamic has emerged in more than 60 communities across the country where Local First initiatives have cropped up in recent years to encourage patronage of locally owned, independent businesses.

In these movements, consumer activists don't have to foot the bill directly for high-profile campaigns. At Local First West Michigan, for instance, 450 businesses pay membership fees, which help sponsor awareness-raising programs. In this penny-pinching year, the group has grabbed headlines by selling coupon books worth as much as $6,000 in savings at member businesses.

The impact of these "buy local" initiatives has been measurable. From 2006 to 2007, independent retailers saw holiday season sales jump by 2 percent in communities that had a Local First initiative, according to the California-based Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. That's compared to a mere 0.5 percent increase in cities and towns with no such initiative. In Bellingham, Wash., 58 percent of residents say the Local First program has made them more deliberate about buying from local merchants, according to 2008 survey conducted by Applied Research Northwest, a Bellingham-based research firm.

Still, sustaining consumer passion from one holiday season to the next can be a challenge. Pioneer Valley Local First in western Massachusetts this year discontinued its annual shopping contest, which used to furnish $1,000 in gift certificates to the shopper who collected the most receipts from local merchants. The event used to catch media attention, but it never attracted more than about 35 participants. Now the contest is gone, and so is some of the local media coverage.

"I always thought there would be more people playing" in the contest, says Daniel Finn, a Pioneer Valley Local First volunteer. "But it took a lot of legwork and became tough to sustain."

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