5 of the Most Unethical Gifts and Some Great Alternatives

After a Black Friday of shootings, fisticuffs and other violence at stores and malls across the United States, Americans have certainly shown the world how not to shop. Reports of people being pepper sprayed and arrested or pulling out a taser in a fight over a shopping cart may have left more than a few of us with a strong desire not to shop, or at least to get near a store, at all.

One recent study has found that those with a materialist ethos — who equate buying “stuff” with being happy and fulfilled — end up being more miserable and stressed in other aspects of their lives.The researchers also found that materialists attitudes are “closely linked to self-esteem and death anxiety.” Another study (pdf) has found that materialism is linked to feelings of loneliness. Getting and spending can lay waste to our powers, to paraphrase the poet Wordsworth.

All giving, and even getting, doesn’t have to be so negative. Donations to organizations that feed, clothe and assist those in need more than serve a purpose. My son’s teachers always appreciate the plate of brownies we’ve occasionally sent in.

There are plenty of things not to give (and plenty of less than desirable ways to go about acquiring gifts). There are certainly things that can brighten up the recipient’s day and all the more so if you, the giver, know that they’ve been created in an attentive and mindful manner. Some unethical gifts that it would be well to pass over and some that (one hopes!) might be the proverbial gift that keeps on giving.

1. Animals as Gifts

Unethical: The thought of seeing a yapping puppy or ferret burst out of a box and a smile light up a child’s face when the ribbon’s undone may seem irresistible. Giving a live animal as a present is just not a good idea. Animal shelters are filled with rabbits, guinea pigs and cats bought as gifts without people first thinking through the responsibility of caring for another life.

Ethical:  Instead of adding to the population of animals in shelters, consider sponsoring a shelter pet or a rescued farm animal or one who had been forced to perform in circuses in the U.S. or in a country such as Greece, where there are far fewer resources for rescued animals. If a family member is certain that she or he must have a pet and will care or her or him, consider a gift certificate to an animal shelter, after clearly explaining what’s involved in caring for an animal.

2. Edible Gifts

Unethical: If you’re planning to give food gifts, take the time to do your research and make sure that any sweets you give is not “blood chocolate, made from beans harvested by children who’ve been forced to work.” Planning to bring wine as a hostess gift? Make sure it’s not a vintage whose production is leading to adverse effects on wildlife or the destruction of majestic redwood trees.


Ethical: It is the case that fair trade and organic products can be more costly, precisely because they were made with respect for workers’ rights and care for the environment. Why not spend a bit extra for ethically made candy, some vegan wine and coffee that is friendly to birds and was made by keeping the needs of people first? Or (if you have the time!), consider baking or making your own holiday treats as gifts, using ethical products, of course.

3. Jewelry

Unethical: Too often, diamonds are no one’s best friend, as recent reports have revealed. Two-thirds of the world’s diamonds originate from countries — Angola, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic – where wars and bloody conflicts have too recently occurred, or are occurring. Even if the materials that a ring or necklace is made from were not mined by people working in slave-like circumstances, the items themselves could be made under sweatshop conditions and sometimes by child labor.


Ethical: Be wary of buying an item from a big retailer who can’t tell you precisely where, how, from what and by who an item was made. Seek out independent artisans who make, and sell, their own items on sites such as Etsy.

4. Electronic Devices

Unethical: Tablets, computers, TVs, kitchen appliances: many an item powered by electricity and batteries has been asked for, and will be given, this holiday season. But does someone you know really need to have an iPad Mini on top of an iPad, a smart phone and a laptop? The average U.S. household contains some 25 gadgets that consume 10 to 15 percent of your annual electricity bill, Ecowatch points out: do you need to add five more?

Ethical: If you must give an electronic device, consider giving one that is energy efficient. Seek out devices (TVs, computers and more) that are labeled as Energy Star Most Efficient and internet-ready; a laptop  has been engineered to be energy-efficient to keep its battery going as long as possible. Gifts like a smart power strip, rechargeable batteries or LED light bulbs are a bit mundane, but they are “gifts that keep on giving,” as they’ll give the recipient a little nudge to watch out for their energy use and, in the process, lower their energy bills.

5. Clothing

Unethical: As with edible items, it’s more than worth it to think quality over quantity in giving an item of clothing, a bookbag or other item rather than one made in a garment factory half the world away. Major retailers offer temptingly low prices and, on their websites, may claim that their goods are made by workers in decent conditions. Whether a shirt is from India or Italy, exploited workers laboring under slavery-like terms may have made it. Do you really want to give someone a piece of clothing that was made in what’s really a sweatshop?


Ethical: The internet has made it far easier to find clothing and related items that are ethically made, from sustainable, eco-friendly materials. A number of sites such as Moorbi specialize in selling such goods as well as those that are fair trade and/or made from upcycled, recycled or vegan materials. My own preference is to, as much as it is possible, to purchase items from the makers themselves like Moop (who  shows you just where and how and by whom their bags are made); the White Ribbon, which makes women’s shoes from upcycled materials (Aurora Shoes makes shoes for men, too); wooden toys made from organic materials from Little Sapling and many other independent makers. By getting something from them, the money you’ve spent goes right to the person whose hands made it.

Photos via Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

I crochet for a living. Most of my gifts are homemade, and any treats are made from scratch or bought from whole foods

Donna Ferguson
Donna F4 years ago


Gloria picchetti
Gloria picchetti4 years ago

Most shelters screen well so that pets are not gifts but clothing, jewelry, and electronics are standard Christmas gifts. I would not refuse aTV.

Siets Dijk
Siets Dijk4 years ago

It's good to be more aware of what you're gifting

Star M.
Star M4 years ago

i appreciate this article

Beverly C.
Beverly C4 years ago

Thanks for the important information.

Dytayja Cohen
Dytayja Cohen4 years ago

thank you

Robert O.
Robert O4 years ago

Definitely something to think about and keep in mind while shopping this year and every year!