The best ways to support worthy causes by shopping.

Advice on how to make the world better.
Dec. 22 2009 12:59 PM

A Socially Conscious Christmas

The best ways to support worthy causes by buying cool products.

Just because you've waited until the last minute to begin Christmas shopping doesn't mean you can't give your loved ones environmentally and socially sound gifts. In a June My Goodness column, Sandy Stonesifer recommended several online retailers and charitable organizations that funnel proceeds to worthy causes or are worth supporting themselves. The original article is reprinted below.

Dear Sandy,
I would love to buy gifts from organizations that support worthy causes. Is there a Web site with a comprehensive list of organizations that support fair trade, women in business, charities, etc.?

—Allison

Sandy:

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Allison, my mom and I already confessed our love of shopping, so it should come as no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed researching your question. I'll start by saying that while I know you can always give a donation in someone's honor (or even give them a gift certificate to make a donation to their charity of choice), sometimes nothing beats a big present with a bow on top. It's not as efficient as a direct donation, but as long as you're buying a gift, why not make it a "gift that gives back"?

I know that the number of so-called charity products on the market can be overwhelming. So, in the interest of brevity, I'm going to focus on two specific ways of buying good gifts.

First, you can buy regular products for which a percentage of the proceeds go to charity. These include items such as Product (Red) iPods ($10 to the Global Fund), Lush's cocoa butter body lotion (100 percent of the retail price, minus taxes, donated to environmental and humanitarian organizations), and pink playing cards (10 percent of sales donated to breast cancer research).

There are also Web sites where you can buy everything from ink cartridges to wedding dresses and direct a portion of your purchase to charity. One of the best-known is GoodShop, the sister site to GoodSearch. With more than 1,000 stores and 80,000 charities and schools, it's hard to imagine you won't be able to find a gift for everyone on your list. (GoodShop is a portal: You ultimately shop directly on the retailer's site.) Nonprofit Shopping Mall is similar. Shoppers can choose from more than 70 well-respected charities and 200 retailers (Target, Amazon, etc.). You pay the normal price, and retailers donate some percentage of the proceeds to charity. Forgetful shoppers can download an EZ Shopper Widget to make sure your favorite charity gets paid every time you shop on one of the designated retailers' sites.

Giftback sells products from 11 different stores on its own site. It has a standard 10 percent donation rate for all products and allows shoppers to choose from more than 200 charities.

The second type of "gifts that give back"—and a model I find more exciting—are from companies or nonprofits that have figured out how to use commerce to further the greater good. Whether it's empowering women artisans or providing needy kids with shoes, these are innovative and sustainable business models that have great potential.

TOMS Shoes is a company that sells super-simple canvas shoes. For every pair of shoes purchased, its nonprofit partner organization Friends of TOMS gives a pair of shoes to a child in need.

Nest is a nonprofit that provides microcredit loans to women artists and designers in the developing world to help them create their own businesses. Nest then sells the clothing, accessories, and home furnishings on its Web site and plows the proceeds back into microcredit loans to other businesswomen.

The similar Aid to Artisans is an international nonprofit committed to promoting economic development by connecting artisans to new markets, and vice versa. They sell online and wholesale and work with importers.

EBay's do-good site, World of Good, sells products from thousands of "eco positive" and "people positive" retailers. You can even sort by products' "social impact profile" and see their "goodprint." This baby bib from Peru was made in a producer-owned cooperative, supports clean water and sanitation, creates employment for women and marginalized ethnic groups, and is made from 100 percent sustainably harvested materials. The signature line Original Good has its own site as well.

Global Exchange calls itself "your online source for socially conscious gifts." This international human rights organization started fair trade stores in order to market products made by artisans in more than 40 countries and raise consumer awareness about the importance of economic fairness, mutual respect, and understanding.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Sandy will try to answer it.

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Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

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