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Your Holiday Guide to Avoiding Slave Labor

The easiest way to ensure that your gifts were ethically produced is to buy locally.

(Photo: David Leggett)

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Pope Francis got into the holiday spirit this year by calling on shoppers not to buy products made by modern-day slaves.

This is, of course, excellent advice. Odds are, most of us — whether Catholic or not — would love to take it.

But how? Most products don’t come with tags specifying whether or not slave labor was used in their production.

There are a few agricultural products in particular — including many popular stocking stuffers — that are notorious for using slave labor. Fortunately, you can avoid buying them with a little bit of thought.

Take chocolate, for instance. In 2012, CNN reported that half-a-million child slaves work on cacao plantations in the Ivory Coast, which supplies nearly 40 percent of the world’s chocolate.

I did buy fancy truffles for a number of people on my gift list. Maybe you plan to as well.

The good news is that avoiding dubious chocolate sources is easy: Simply opt for Fair Trade-certified chocolate. The certification process ensures traceability and responsibility in the supply chain, and it means slightly better prices for cacao farmers.

Then there’s shrimp. Earlier this year, The Guardian reported on widespread modern-day slavery in the Thai shrimp farming industry. Shrimp sold in the United States comes from domestic and foreign sources, both farmed and wild, but Thailand is a major supplier.

You probably didn’t plan to put any shrimp under your Christmas tree, but if you’re considering serving shrimp cocktail at a holiday party, check the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide to find a responsible source. (Or just serve something other than shrimp, because many sources of this popular seafood are, quite frankly, disgusting.)

Another item that comes to mind is palm oil. And there’s a good chance — whether you realize it or not — that you’ve slipped a palm oil product into a loved one’s stocking.

Palm oil is found in a large number of processed foods, cosmetics, and even candles.

It can be produced ethically — and some brands, like Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, source their palm oil responsibly. But in far too many cases it comes from plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, where deforestation from palm oil production endangers orangutans, tigers, and a magnificent rainforest ecosystem.

Yet this is a haphazard and likely incomplete list of products to avoid. The easiest way to ensure that your gifts benefit your community and the workers who produced them is to buy locally.

That can mean purchasing handmade, unique products from Etsy, shopping at local stores or craft fairs, or giving loved ones experiences instead of things. A trip to see a musical or a sports game is a great gift, especially for a kid who already has more toys than he or she could ever play with.

One of the best gifts I’ve ever given was a set of “coupons from Santa” for my then-boyfriend’s kids to do things like stay up late, pick the movie the family would watch, or choose what we had for dinner. It cost nothing to write them up and drop them into the kids’ stockings, and they absolutely loved them.

As we thoughtfully buy gifts for our loved ones in festive stores this season, it’s hard to remember the people who make the products we buy — especially given the lack of transparency in the supply chain. But a bit of extra thought can help us take the Pope’s advice, without sacrificing the quality of gifts we purchase.

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