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11 Jan 2019

Expert comment: The questions we need to be asking ourselves about ethical gift giving in 2019

photo of Dr Petros Vourvachis Dr Petros Vourvachis

It’s a new year, and many of us use this as an opportunity to make changes in our life and set goals to better ourselves.

Many people will have made resolutions earlier this month such as ‘eat more healthily’, ‘incorporate more exercise into daily routines’, or ‘take up new and exciting opportunities’.

It will also come as no surprise, given the continuous climate warnings by scientists, that numerous individuals will have set goals that encourage them to be more environmentally-friendly.

Maybe they’ll look to reduce single plastic use, say no to fast-fashion, or opt for walking to work instead of driving.

Dr Petros Vourvachis, a Lecturer in Accounting at Loughborough University’s School of Business and Economics, has a research focus on corporate social responsibility and environmental accounting and has suggested one easy resolution everyone can make that will benefit the planet and people living on it: committing to ethical gift giving.

He discusses below how we might want to consider the ethics of gift giving in the future and reflects on the recent festive period.

Gift giving is important, not only during the festive period but to celebrate birthdays and other occasions too, writes Dr Vourvachis, and lots of people depend on producing and selling gifts for their economic survival. This also indirectly benefits communities and governments.

From an economic perspective, whole industries depend on gift giving and of course this generates jobs, pays taxes, and contributes to community wellbeing. The more gifts we give the better – although this does damage our savings and potential consumption after Christmas (especially as we all eagerly wait for the January payslip).

However, from an environmental point of view, there are detrimental impacts as a result of consuming potentially scarce resources to produce gifts which can directly and indirectly contribute to climate change. To some, this would be enough to suggest we shouldn’t be giving any gifts at all.

A benefit of gift giving is that it arguably contributes to social wellbeing; we feel good buying gifts for those we care about and we also value receiving them too. We just need to consider the dangers of overdoing the exchanging of presents. 

People need to consider the ethical implications. Can we guarantee the product was not produced by incriminating human rights such as child labour and bribery?

We should also consider the ethics behind consumption too. Consider the marketing tactics and psychology used by organisations to encourage people to over-consume, and the stress people feel to buy more and more presents, and to make sure they are the right ones too.

Who is responsible in ensuring we can be more ethical in our gift giving?

Arguably it is everyone’s responsibility to drive ethical gift consumption, including governments, corporate organisations but particularly, individuals.

Corporations have a big impact on our consumer routines and patterns, and they certainly have a great role to play towards driving ethical gift consumption, assuming they too realise the potential benefits of doing so.

From a corporate responsibility perspective, companies (and individuals) have three primary reasons for engaging in more sustainable practices:

  • Because they believe it is the right thing to do;
  • Because they have been forced to do it (by regulation or social pressure); and
  • Because they see a personal benefit from it.

From this, we can see individuals play a significant role in pressuring organisations to change by choosing to gift ethically.

Companies are likely to eventually back down to meet demands, especially as they also economically benefit from the change by attracting more ethically driven customers and employees, building a social image and strengthening their brand.

How to buy ethical gifts

It’s difficult to define when gift giving becomes ethical or unethical. We should not be providing gifts that endanger the social, environmental or economic sustainability of future generations to meet their needs.

When buying we should all consider social, economic and environmental perspectives.

Asking yourself questions like the below might be a good starting point:

  • Do they meet environmental standards?
  • Can the materials be reused or recycled?
  • Is the product fair trade?
  • Will this contribute towards helping the living standards of the producer?

Sonja Peacock, Environmental Management Assistant from the University’s Sustainability Team, shares a few ideas of what an ethical gift could be:

“To avoid material goods, you could gift a subscription to an online magazine, enrol someone onto a course for a skill they’ve always wanted to learn – such as piano lessons – or even give them an experience, such as afternoon tea or tickets to a show.

“You can also consider buying second-hand from charity shops, or mending or repurposing something broken that means a lot to a loved one.

She continues: “There are lots of options, but giving your time to spend with someone doing an activity you’ll both enjoy is probably one of the greatest gifts you can provide.”

More information on how to reduce and reuse in everyday life on campus can be found on the Sustainability webpages.