Shopping For Sustainability Dec. 21 is one of the biggest shopping days of the year. As Americans shop for gifts, they now say they prefer products made ethically and sustainably — and companies market accordingly.

Shopping For Sustainability

Shopping For Sustainability

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Dec. 21 is one of the biggest shopping days of the year. As Americans shop for gifts, they now say they prefer products made ethically and sustainably — and companies market accordingly.


Today is one of the biggest shopping days of the year, coming just before both Christmas and Hanukkah. And as NPR's Alina Selyukh reports, Americans shopping for gifts say they want products that are made ethically or sustainably or with less packaging.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Story goes in 1946, a woman named Edna Ruth Byler traveled to Puerto Rico. And she visited a women's sewing group run by a Mennonite organization. She was taken by the beautiful embroidery and upset that the artisans weren't making more money from their craft. So she brought the textiles back to Pennsylvania and sold them from the trunk of her car.

GORDON ZOOK: From there, the organization grew. And we purchase from 30 countries and support about 20,000 artisans.

SELYUKH: Gordon Zook is the CEO of the nonprofit retailer spawned by Edna Byler's trip. It's called Ten Thousand Villages. And its creation is credited as the start of the fair-trade movement, which promotes the idea that when companies buy products from small-scale farmers and makers around the world, they should pay a fair price. Years back, this used to target a somewhat niche shopper. But lately, more and more people say they care about the values represented by things they buy.

ZOOK: What we're noticing is a broader interest in ethics and how products are produced and how they're marketed.

SELYUKH: And this kind of attitude, this interest in more virtuous consumerism is showing up in all kinds of gift-buying guides. Things like metal straws, recycled wrapping paper are turning up in popular magazines and TV programs, like ABC's "Good Morning America" suggesting a way to cut back on plastic waste in the kitchen.


TORY JOHNSON: These silicone lids - so instead of using aluminum foil or...

ROBIN ROBERTS: Oh, love this.

JOHNSON: ...Plastic wrap.

SELYUKH: Lots and lots of companies are staking their marketing on this appeal toward sustainability and ethics. That includes the historically environmentally focused outdoor brands like North Face, REI, Patagonia...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Meticulous attention to detail and a commitment to save our home planet

SELYUKH: ...But also a new generation of startups and sellers on Instagram and YouTube promoting refillable lipstick, reusable rubber cotton swabs, ethically sourced handcrafted felt beds for cats.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And made from all-organic and all-natural wool in Kathmandu, Nepal.

SELYUKH: In a way, all this is a bit of a paradox. Companies are pushing people to buy more stuff by saying it's better for the environment or local communities when every single new item has to be manufactured, packaged, shipped - things that are inherently not better for the planet. But lately, shoppers are saying that not only do they want to buy these types of products, they're even willing to pay more for them.

ROD SIDES: Two-thirds of shoppers are willing to pay extra for sustainability. And it is driven by younger shoppers.

SELYUKH: Rod Sides leads Deloitte's retail business. He's talking about their recent survey.

SIDES: Gen Z - about 84% of respondents said they are willing to pay more. Millennials is about 80. We go all the way down to seniors, we find that regardless of the age cohort, it's above 50% who are willing to pay a little bit more.

SELYUKH: To be fair, this is a tricky thing to survey people about. When someone asks you if you'd rather buy an ethically manufactured T-shirt, of course you're going to say yes. And it's one thing to say you're going to pay for and act on your values and another to actually do it.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

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