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The Gifts of Giving by Nel Downey

I could begin this piece with exacerbations about the trials of 2020. The pandemic alone has presented new challenges to us all. However, despite having plenty of reason to be pessimistic this year, I’ve tried to train myself to acknowledge the problem but to focus on the solution. So, instead of waiting for better times, I think a great way of combating anxieties you may have about anything in the future is to concentrate on living ethically today.

There are countless studies on the benefits that altruism and mindful living can have to your mental health, but I’m not here to lecture you. This is coming from an English student who has no experience in this kind of psychological and sociological research! So, my advice comes from my qualification as a top-rate worrier as the overthinking that I participate in has provided the perfect experience to devise some distractions from the anxieties.

small but achievable goals...

One technique I’ve found to really work for me is to invest my time into shopping as ethically as possible. When global problems become overwhelming, concentrating on supporting brands who advocate for workers’ rights and reducing environmental impact are a small but achievable goal. I don’t claim to have the perfect shopping habits at all, and I wouldn’t expect you to, either. Furthermore, I agree with the numerous groups who argue that the blame should be placed on the large companies who sell products made through unethical methods. However, by rejecting this in your shopping, it really does increase the profile of these issues. If more people avoid particular products or companies altogether, the message will get across.

The pandemic has taught us that small decisions can have a drastic impact on others. Abiding by the safety guidelines like washing your hands can increase the safety of those around you as well as your own. Shopping ethically could have similar results. Although the outcome of social distancing is largely unseen by the individual, it has become apparent that if many refuse to acknowledge the rules, it can have devastating effects and can rapidly increase case numbers of COVID-19. To quote my Mum, “if everyone thinks like that, we’re buggered” i.e. this cycle will be never-ending. Similarly, if everyone ignores the moral failings of suppliers, how will the issues ever be resolved?

As cliché as it sounds, I’m trying to say that you should focus on the present; meaning both the current moment and a gift (English students need a pun in every essay, it’s the basis of our degree). December is a time of many festivities, and whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or other holidays, you will likely participate in a few present swaps. Consider investing your money into ethical products as the gifts of your giving are the kindness you show to the receiver, the workers, and the planet!

So, I’d like to give you a few recommendations. These are a great start, but of course these pointers can be applied when buying any product. However, if you can’t buy ethically due to financial reasons or other, please don’t feel guilty! Everyone’s situation is different. As sustainability activist Jen Gale says,

“The whole ethos is sustainable(ish). It means working out what works for you.”


Don’t put pressure on yourself and just concentrate on what you can do! Replacing one product with another, more ethically sourced product is a great step to take!

For the sweet tooth

For many, sweets and chocolate are a staple to any celebration! A fab way of making your choices more ethical is to consider the impact on human rights. According to the ‘Cocoa Initiative’, an estimated 1.56 million child labourers in cocoa in the Ivory Coast and Ghana. So, one great thing to do is to support a chocolate company that campaigns against this.

They work with companies in Ghana and the Ivory Coast to provide better working conditions and to eradicate child labour

Green for environmental concerns and black for the pure cocoa, this company places the environment at the forefront of their product!

A company whose truffles tick two boxes as their entirely vegan range is both free of animal cruelty and more eco-friendly as a result.

· Exeter local!

Chococo: Locally sourced ingredients and all their packaging is either recyclable, compostable, or recycled.

For black owned businesses

There is a significant racial wealth gap within the UK and the most successful companies are predominantly white owned. By supporting black owned businesses, you help to reduce this gap. You can find out more about the issue at

· Exeter local!

Sancho’s: Sustainable clothing store. Also, their customers recently donated an incredible amount of clothing to the refugee camp in Moria! IG: wowsancho

Jewellery to “pay homage to West African artistry and cultures”. Buying from UK-based shops such as this is best for the environment as transportation is a major pollutant.

For the fashion lover

When clothes shopping, an easy way of identifying unethical brands is to ask yourself two things; how often do they release and dispatch new products, and what is the clothing made of? If they’re releasing things every month, then they’re likely a participant in fast fashion; a major pollutant to the environment and a method by which thousands of workers are exploited every day. Secondly, synthetic materials like viscose, polyester, etc will eventually become plastic pollution, so opt for organic materials such as cotton or linen where you can.

· Vintage clothes stores:

e.g. and Exeter local ‘The Real McCoy’. Reduce the demand for the manufacturing of new clothes, producing further waste and pollution in the long term.

This company create “handmade, sustainable” jewellery and clothes, some of the proceeds of which are donated to a different charity for conservation and education every month.

Make the classic socks gift sustainable with a great alternative to those made with plastic-based materials; bamboo!

For plastic free products

Plastic pollution is a massive issue when it comes to present shopping. Whether it’s in the product of the packaging, these particles will exist forever. They don’t decompose, they simply break down into smaller particles that pollute their surroundings. Avoid plastic altogether with these products!

Their biodegradable phone cases and accessories aim to combat plastic pollution and also donate money to environmental causes on selected pieces! I have one myself and can confirm that they’re just as protective as the traditional plastic ones.

UK-based charity protecting Britain’s coastlines. Buy shirts, totes etc made from organic materials, made with renewable energy, and delivered in sustainable packaging, which contribute towards campaigns such as beach cleans.

· Exeter local!

Zero: All your zero waste needs; kitchenware, soaps, homeware and more! A great place for gifts and for your daily needs, too. IG: zeroexeter

For the bookworms

A newly established online bookstore supporting local bookshops. Small businesses who aren’t online will have been especially hard hit during the pandemic, so this is a great way to support them whilst adhering to lockdown rules.

A subscription to this magazine will give the top tips for sustainable living.

Despite the slightly alarming title, Matt Haig’s bestseller centre around the most best lesson in kindness; the importance of being kind to yourself!

These recommendations are of course applicable throughout the year, regardless of the occasion! Bonus points if you use recycled and recyclable cards and wrapping paper (skip the glitter!).

Happy kind shopping :)

Nel Downey

I met Nel in my first seminar at university for our criticism module, one that was super confusing and tricky. I loved that class though and always felt it was a safe space because of people like Nel. Her ability to communicate effectively and passionately never dwindled me but always encouraged me to keep pushing to understand, even if it was really tricky. I was struck by her intelligence, but more importantly her kindness. I think Nel is a great spirit to have in your life who radiates and reminds me to keep going and keep practicing kindness.

Nel studies English Literature at the University of Exeter.


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