Valentine’s day is not a favorite day among my more cynical friends. They complain that the holiday has been overly commercialized and they certainly are right about that. It’s downright gross how the local stores devote whole aisles of shelf space to red plastic heart shaped stuff, often starting as early as December 26th, as soon as they clear away the red plastic Santa shaped stuff.
But, as I tell my friends, we don’t have to buy into that. We can think for ourselves; we can create our own traditions. We can use that day (or any day, really) for a little extra celebration of those we love without trading in our hard earned cash for more stuff. In my household, we make homemade valentines out of the previous year’s colorful calendars. One year we melted crayon stubs which were too small to draw with in little heart shaped muffin tins and gave all my daughter’s classmates rainbow colored, heart shaped crayons. No purchase necessary.
Of all the holidays that promote consumer spending, Valentine’s Day may be the most important to opt out of the shopping spree because the specific stuff heavily marketed as symbols of our love are among the worst consumer products out there: Flowers, Chocolate, Gold and Diamonds. How ironic that the very items we’re told best symbolize love are linked to terrible environmental destruction, worker rights abuses and even brutal wars.
Chocolate: While chocolate may be a treat to receive, it’s a nightmare for many of the workers. Child labor and even slavery is commonplace in the West African cocoa plantations which supply most of the world’s chocolate.
Flowers: Most cut flowers in the U.S. come from South America – especially Colombia and Ecuador. Like chocolate, the cut flower industry has been linked to forced and child labor and, not surprisingly since those flowers have to look flawless, massive pesticide use and worker poisoning as well as a hefty carbon footprint since they have to be flown thousands of miles.
Gold: Gold mining is also linked to forced and child labor, uses toxic chemicals including mercury and cyanide, and creates huge amounts of hazardous waste. Mining the gold to make one ring leaves over 20 tons of waste behind! Gold is mined mostly in Africa, Asia and the Americas and over half of all gold come from indigenous peoples lands. About 80 percent of gold is used in jewelry, and Valentine’s day is a prime time we’re told to indulge to demonstrate our love, while the true cost of gold is kept out of sight and out of mind.
Diamonds: Ever since the Hollywood movie Blood Diamonds, there’s been growing awareness about the link between diamonds and violent conflicts and human rights abuses. Blood diamonds – also called Conflict Diamonds – have funded brutal conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Côte d’Ivoire that have resulted in the death and displacement of millions of people. The international process set up to track diamonds and ensure conflict-free sources, has so far proved ineffective.
The Solution: Get involved!
The good news is that we’re not helpless here. We can make a difference, both by refusing to buy into these Madison–avenue hyped symbols of love and by advocating for change in the rules that guide these industries.
Join a campaign!
The best way to make change in the world is to join with others doing the same. Then you’re voice is louder and you’ll have more fun.
Just this month, Change.org launched a campaign to get 1-800-Flowers, a huge flower retailer, to offer fair trade flowers. After receiving just 50,000 emails, the company just agreed to provide exploitation-free flowers.
There’s still plenty more that can be done to support the workers in flower plantations. The Fairness in Flowers campaign has information on many ways to get involved, from online networking via Facebook to organizing your friends and family to pressure local flower sellers to writing to Congress to oppose exploitative trade agreements.
If the incredible destruction of gold mining fires you up, contact the No Dirty Gold campaign which organizes citizens, shoppers and concerned jewelry sellers to clean up the gold mining sector.
If, like me, chocolate is the hardest thing on this list to pass by, join groups working to make chocolate production safe, healthy and fair. The Fair Trade Cocoa Campaign has lots of ways to get involved.
By exposing the hidden underside of today’s Valentine’s Day stuff, I am not joining the ranks of Valentine’s Day-cynics myself. I am all for demonstrating our love this Monday and every other day of the year. But real love doesn’t trash the planet and force children to work in mines or fields. I’m convinced that talking about – rather than ignoring, or worse, hiding – the reality behind our consumer stuff, can shift both cultural norms about how love is expressed and these very industries making our stuff. There’s no reason that jewelry, chocolates and beautiful flowers have to take such a heavy toll on the workers, communities and the environment around the world. I just know there is a better way. And we can make it happen if we opt out of the shopping and opt into making some change this Valentine’s day and every day.