Group champions less as quite enough

Holiday: A nonprofit encourages people to consume responsibly

a prime target is three months of Christmas marketing.

October 26, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

TAKOMA PARK - It's not yet Thanksgiving - it's not even Halloween, for goodness' sake - but Christmas displays have already popped up in discount stores, vying with mountains of toy pumpkins and candy corn for shoppers' attention.

After years of watching this ever-expanding holiday blur, the Center for a New American Dream says enough, already.

The Montgomery County-based nonprofit group, whose slogan is "More Fun, Less Stuff," encourages people to consume responsibly to protect the environment. It believes Americans, swayed by skillful marketers, overindulge on products they don't really need, such as Christmas goodies in October.

Among other peeves, the social-environmental group doesn't like workaholics, junk mail, gas-guzzling vehicles and nonrecyclable containers. And it can't abide elongated, heavily commercialized holiday seasons running from pre-Halloween through New Year's Day, a stretch when it believes shoppers' sensibilities get warped by unremitting advertising.

Diane Wood, a former Peace Corps volunteer who is executive director of the 6-year-old group, has posted a greeting card on her office bulletin board depicting a mock race of a Halloween pumpkin, a Thanksgiving turkey and a cartoon Santa Claus.

"Happy Whatever," the card says.

"The holidays are an incredible microcosm of a larger problem," says Betsy Taylor, the center's president and founder. "They are supposed to be about family and faith and community.

"Instead, it has become a time when people grossly overspend and grossly overeat. And it seems to be happening earlier and earlier."

Exercise in excess

Sounding an alarm on premature holiday hucksterism, the group is appealing to its Web site visitors across the country to write in with reports of "marketers who push the consumer frenzy to an extreme" by peddling Christmas wares as autumn leaves are falling.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is among the businesses named on the group's "frenzy" list. At least a few of its Maryland stores have their Christmas displays up, as do some other chains.

Wal-Mart is merely responding to demand, says spokeswoman Danette Thompson: "On core things like outside decorations, customers start asking for them early. So we put them out, and you'll see that our competition does the same thing."

The center doesn't focus just on alleged Christmas excesses. It says it can't help but notice that Halloween, too, has become a multibillion-dollar boon for retailers.

Consumers anticipate spending an average of $41.77 apiece this year on Halloween decorations, costumes, candy and greeting cards, according to a survey conducted for the Washington-based National Retail Federation.

As a remedy, the center suggests making costumes at home instead of purchasing the ready-made variety in stores. One suggestion in the center's fall newsletter, Enough!, is to dress up like a tourist: "Wear khakis, a Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses, a straw hat and sandals with socks. Randomly take pictures ... and ask where the bus stops."

The national organization arose out of a 1995 conference of environmentalists, academics, religious leaders, government officials and others in Virginia. It was sponsored by the Merck Family Fund, a Massachusetts-based foundation that aids environmental causes.

Many in attendance wanted to start an organization dedicated to shifting consumption patterns, which they believed were at the root of many environmental and social problems.

Based in a high-rise office building, the center has 21 employees and an annual budget of $2 million. Rather than simply nagging people about their spending habits, its employees try to practice what they preach about consumerism and waste.

Wind power and yoga

They print on both sides of their paper, work with a print shop that uses wind power, place compost bins in their kitchen, subsidize yoga classes for the staff and have a four-day, 32-hour workweek. They are supported by grants, contributions and by 4,500 members, most of whom pay $30 in dues a year. Tens of thousands of others are active in the group's programs.

Among other activities, the center conducts research and holds community events in Takoma Park and cities around the country. The events include "alternative gift fairs" at 13 sites across the country where people are taught about charitable giving.

The center has no paid lobbyist but acts as an advocate to change corporate behavior - for example, writing letters encouraging businesses to use environmentally sound products.

The center is especially busy during the holidays. Taylor says it doesn't want to halt holiday spending, just bring it under control.

Holiday spending is an important cog in the national economy. Some retailers accumulate 40 percent of their annual sales at Christmastime. The National Retail Federation says an earlier shopping season also helps consumers who want to finish their gift-buying before bargains and inventory run out.

But Taylor says that "many people report waking up after the holidays feeling depressed and completely out of balance financially. It's too much. There is more trash generated during the week of Christmas than any other week during the year."

The center is a perfect fit in this liberal Washington suburb, which has long been a hotbed of peace activism and global causes. The city has declared itself a "nuclear-free zone," prohibiting city contracts with nuclear weapons producers.

Wood says a key to the center's success is not taking itself too seriously.

"I think people are already being bombarded with so much guilt, so we don't want to add to it," she says. "We try to be irreverent. If anyone starts to be righteous, we get on them."

One thing the group can't stomach is sport utility vehicles. No one on the staff drives one.

"There are really some wonderful people who drive SUVs," Taylor says with a laugh. "But that's one place where we kind of draw the line."

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