Break out of the Heart-shaped Box this Valentine’s Day: Be Creative and Think Green

The best thingsOrganic chocolate heart_14feb12 (Photo by Susan Chambers) in life are free—except in the middle of February.

Valentine’s Day often feels like an odd “holiday” to me. It’s supposed to be a celebration of love, a gift that is freely given, yet we’ve been convinced that we have to spend a small fortune one day a year to show how much we love someone. Saint Valentine’s Day allegedly started as an observance of two martyrs, both named Valentine, who sacrificed their lives to help others. The observance had no connection with romantic love prior to a poem written by Chaucer in the fourteenth century. By the late fifteenth century, the emphasis of Valentine’s Day was on exchanging tokens of affection between lovers within the upper classes, the nobility, with no mention of the martyred saints.

I’m all for expressing affection for our loved ones. It would be a much kinder world if we practiced the underlying premises of Valentine’s Day—occasionally putting another person’s needs before our own and showing our loved ones that we care about them—every day instead of just one day out of the year. What leaves me increasingly cool towards Valentine’s Day is the excessive hype and commercialization that has transformed it into one more opportunity for an economy hooked on consumer spending to rake in billions of dollars[1].

The ability of the advertising industry to foster unrealistic expectations—not to mention anxiety about choosing or paying for the “perfect” gift—through carefully crafted story boards that depict ultra-romantic date settings and couples lavishing expensive gifts on each other is disconcerting. Yet even when we realize this, we don’t always know how to increase our immunity to the commercial hype and shut out the siren songs of our consumer culture. I don’t know about you, but I’ve realized, over the years,  that as much as I appreciated them the gifts or the dinner dates given from a sense of obligation just aren’t as sweet as the unexpected gifts or spontaneous expressions of affection.

Considering that love is supposed to be freely given, there is a mighty high price tag attached to proving—er, I mean demonstrating—our feelings for our nearest and dearest on February 14th, and I’m not referring just to the financial cost of buying presents or paying for an extra special date night[2]. How many of us stop to think about the environmental and social costs attached to many of the Valentine’s Day gifts that we buy?

Make Valentine’s Day planet friendly and fantastic: Give gifts that are fair trade and Organic.Roses in Allahabad (Photo: Susan Chambers, December 2008)

What with the cards, wrapping paper, flowers, clothes, electronic gadgets, chocolate, and jewellery, Valentine’s Day has big feet in terms of the carbon and ecological footprints it leaves behind. The social costs—economic inequalities, health problems, and social injustices—associated with producing many of the traditional Valentine’s Day presents(e.g., chocolate and flowers) are also sobering. The darker side of cacao farming has been well documented by Carol Off in her book Bitter Chocolate.

It isn’t just cocoa production that is plagued by distasteful labour practices. Many of the labourers in the floriculture, textile and mining industries also endure poor wages, unsafe, and unfair working conditions. Low wages, long hours, and no consequences for failing to provide appropriate safety equipment for workers translate into lower production costs that allow the owners of the production facilities to make a profit and still offer their goods at affordable prices for those of us in the Global North so we can buy chocolates and flowers to show much we love another person. Yet, it isn’t exactly showing a lot of love for our fellow beings on the planet when we benefit economically at their expense, is it?

The good news is that it is possible to celebrate Valentine’s Day in a socially responsible and environmentally sustainable manner—without decimating your personal long term financial sustainability. In order to raise awareness about fair trade and help people locate and purchase fair trade items, organizations such as the Canadian Fair Trade Network (CFTN) and Fair Trade Vancouver have launched “Be my Fair Valentine” campaigns over the last few years.

Both the CFTN and Fair Trade Vancouver websites include information about why it’s important to buy fair trade chocolates and flowers, and where you can find other fair trade items, including jewellery made from fairly mined metals and gems and fairly traded handicrafts from around the world. The CFTN also lists sources for eco-friendly clothing, if you’d rather buy clothes as a gift. A note on choosing eco-friendly fashion gifts: According to a seamstress (She owns a company called Conscious Elegance and custom makes eco-conscious wedding dresses) whom I recently interviewed for a book project on socially responsible micro-entrepreneurs (Small Business, Big Change: The Microentrepreneur’s Guide to Social Responsibility), you may want to consider both the sustainability of the plant and the process used to convert the plant into material when assessing the overall eco-friendliness of various fabrics.

In Vancouver, where I live, Fair Trade Vancouver and Oxfam Canada—a long time advocate of fair trade—teamed up for a flash mob in the downtown shopping area, earlier this month, to promote Fair Trade Vancouver’s “Be my Fair Valentine” campaign and Oxfam’s Unwrapped campaign. Rather than giving into the demands of consumerism, and spending money on “stuff”, consider donating money to programs that empower individuals in developing nations to break out of the poverty cycle, either through providing individuals with the resources (e.g. a goat or a beehive) that can generate an income or a micro loan to start a small business. I’ve focused on donation programs that are tied to social justice and economic equality, but you could just as easily make a donation to support the costs of maintaining a sanctuary for animals from neglectful or abusive environments, or to an environmental organization.

Here are a few other ideas for having a sustainable and happy Valentine’s Day:

  • By-pass the greeting cards. If you want to send Valentine greetings to your near and dear ones (including family and friends), send e-cards. If you feel really compelled to send a greeting printed on paper, consider making your own cards from 100% recycled paper. The best example of reducing and reusing comes from a news story I read yesterday: One married couple in Britain has apparently been exchanging the same Valentine’s card back and forth for the past 70 years.
  • Skip the wrapping paper and choose a reusable gift bag. Better yet, wrap the gift in a cloth bag.
  • If you want to give a gift, consider choosing a service (e.g., a meal preparation service or a spa treatment) that the recipient might appreciate more than “yet more stuff”.
  • Stay at home and cook a meal from local, organic, or fair trade ingredients.
  • Break out of the heart-shaped box for two. Express your appreciation and affection for all the people in your life and throw a party for your friends.

I’ll leave you with the following radical invitation from the Daily Good and encourage you to have fun creating earth friendly and inclusive ways to celebrate the power of love.

[1] Valentine’s Day spending amounts to billions of dollars each year. Retailers anticipate a grand sum of just over $17 billion on Valentine’s Day spending this year.

[2] According to the National Retail Federation’s 2012 survey, roughly $ 4 billion will be spent on jewellery, $3.5 billion spent on dinners at restaurants, $1.8 billion will be spent on flowers (mostly red roses), and $1.5 billion will be spent on candy this year.

February 14, 2012 · Susan · 2 Comments
Posted in: Social Justice, Uncategorized

2 Responses

  1. Pam Sourelis - February 15, 2012

    Thank you for the reminder, Sue, that expressing love is not about stuff and that we need to express our love for the world community and the earth as well as the beloveds in our everyday life.

    I LOVE the idea of exchanging the same valentine year after year. This made me laugh out loud. What an incredibly beautiful tradition.

  2. Susan - February 15, 2012

    Hi, Pam. Thanks for commenting. I also had a chuckle about the couple that have been exchanging the same card year after year. That is one well preserved, durable greeting card! Apparently there are also cards out there now that contain plant seeds, so once you’ve read and admired the card, you plant the whole thing and add some more greenery to the planet.

    On the theme of expressing love for the world community (and the folks in our local community), this morning I came across another interesting challenge/campaign on the Daily Good: Change Valentine’s Day to Generosity Day and hold Generosity Day every day. You can find a short video and a discussion of the idea here:

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