For holidays tainted by commercialism, Valentine's Day gives Christmas a run for the money—big money. The National Retail Federation estimates Americans will spend $17.6 billion on Valentine's gifts this year, including $4.1 billion on jewelry, $1.8 billion on flowers and $1.5 billion on candy. But for consumers with a conscience, the very things Madison Avenue markets as expressions of love are some of the worst stuff you can buy.
A heart-shaped box of truffles may be a sweet dream for chocolate lovers, but it's a nightmare for many workers. Most of the world's cocoa beans come from plantations in Ghana and Ivory Coast, where a 2010 BBC investigation exposed the widespread use of child labor, human trafficking and even slavery to harvest cocoa.
Most roses and other flowers sold in the United States are imported from Colombia, where the cut flower industry is also known to use child workers and forced labor. Because the flowers have to look perfect, they're treated with immense amounts of toxic pesticides, which contributes to high rates of lung and nerve disease in a workforce dominated by women and children.
Child labor, forced labor and dangerous conditions are well-documented in the mining industry. Gold mining uses mercury and cyanide to separate the metal from ore, and leaves behind mountains of toxic waste—more than 20 tons of waste to make one gold ring. The film Blood Diamond dramatized the role that diamond mining plays in fueling and funding brutal wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola and other African nations that have killed and displaced millions of people.
So should you boycott Valentine's Day? I'm not. I'm all for showing my loved ones how much I care, on Valentine's Day, and every day. A hand-crafted card, a heartfelt note, a home-cooked meal or (ahem) a special favor are all ways to express your love.
And for a gift that keeps on giving you can get involved in efforts to change the way these destructive industries do business. Joining a campaign not only amplifies your voice but brings you together with others who share your concerns.
Last February, Change.org mounted a petition drive that persuaded 1-800-Flowers to add Fair Trade-certified bouquets to its collection and create a code of conduct that prohibits its suppliers from using forced and child labor. Now the Fairness in Flowers campaign is asking consumers to write other major florists urging them to ensure their flowers are not grown and processed with the use of exploited labor or child labor.
More than 100,000 consumers have joined the No Dirty Gold campaign, which works to get jewelers to promise to use only gold mined responsibly. To date, 80 leading jewelry retailers worldwide have signed the pledge. Global Witness, a human rights group that helped bring attention to the bloody truth about the diamond trade, recently pulled out of a flawed United Nations-backed program to certify conflict-free diamonds, but remains active in the campaign to reform the industry.
OK, here's the toughest one to pass by (at least for me)—chocolate. Global Exchange is among the groups working with schools, churches and community groups to get leading chocolate companies to promise that their sweet treats don't exploit or endanger workers on African cocoa plantations.
Real love doesn't trash the planet or force children to work in dangerous mines or pesticide-drenched fields. There's no reason that jewelry, chocolates and flowers have to take such a heavy toll. This Valentine's Day, let's show our love not only to our sweethearts, friends and family, but to the Earth and people around the world.