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Rudolph the Recycled Reindeer

With Eco-ThemedDecorations, More Retailers See Green; $1,300 Santa, Made of Trash

By June Fletcher
Wall Street Journal - November 24, 2006


TRADITIONALISTS MAY BE dreaming of a white Christmas, but this season some retailers are thinking green. Betting that consumers will want to deck the halls with eco-friendly décor—and spend a lot in the process—companies are pitching everything from centerpieces that use found objects to ornaments made out of painted, used tea bags. Catalog company Alsto's is selling $40 tabletop trees snipped from rusted, recycled iron sheets that it describes as "definitely out of the ordinary," while Smith & Hawken is selling a family of three penguins made from reclaimed teak and bamboo roots for $95. The products often come with feel-good pitches. Viva Terra's decorative Twig Letters, for $52 to $89 a word, are adorned with bits of wire, rope and dried flowers. The letters spell out "Peace, Love and Joy," the catalog says, "as you most likely have never experienced them." World of Good's $9 star ornaments, made by Thai polio survivors from old phone books, empower "disabled men and women to earn their own living while helping the environment— wishes really do come true!" Resourceful celebrants were creating Christmas ornaments from found objects long before anyone was talking about reusing and recycling—with wreaths made of rags, for example, or nativity figures made from papiermâché and old bottles. Now retailers are cashing in on the idea, aiming for the same buyers who are spending more on organic foods and furniture made from

Making an Impact
Consumers may not be doing much good by buying environmentally friendly ornaments, despite any good intentions. During the holidays, people often feel "a responsibility on a deeper level" and start thinking more about the environment, says Orli Cotel, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, based in San Francisco. A few things could make a difference, like buying LED (light-emitting diode) lights, which use 90% less energy than regular Christmas lights and can save as much as $50 on energy bills during the holiday season, Ms. Cotel says. Even better: installing energy-efficient appliances or solar roof panels.

Alicia Porter, an avid recycler and hiker, liked the symbolism of two $14 glass globes she recently bought—they are filled with filaments from shredded aluminum oxygen canisters that were discarded by climbers on the slopes of Mount Everest. Still, the broadcast media buyer in Shrewsbury, Mass., thinks the filaments look a little odd, "like long thin pieces of metallic sawdust." She purchased the ornaments from Eco-Artware, an online store founded in 1999. Owner Reena Kazmann says that as her customers have changed over the years, so has her inventory. A few years ago, her biggest sellers were simple items like $9 recycled glass discs imprinted with a Star of David or a Celtic cross, to mostly hippie types. As people have become more aware of environmental issues, she's increasingly targeting professionals and adding items that have more of a story. She added the oxygen-canister ornaments this year, as well as $18 used tea bags, painted and framed by impoverished South African women. They can get much more expensive. Frontgate is promoting a Krash Kringle train and Santa's Jolly Jalopy, tabletop decorations made from items such as broken candlesticks, old balusters and vintage fabrics—at $1,300 each. Brian Kidwell, the McKinney, Texas, artist who creates them, says the cost is justified because of the "time commitment" involved, and because each piece is unique. He's received a dozen orders through the catalog so far, and is busy rummaging through garage sales, flea markets and thrift stores for raw materials. "I'm not above diving into a Dumpster," he

Not So Traditional
Rather than buy a regular wreath for Hanukkah this year, Alan Ross bought a $140 version made by metalsmith Boris Bally. The blue-and-white ring, made from an old traffic sign, now hangs on the inside of his front door. The Bloomfield Hills, Mich., businessman acknowledges he could have spent less, but he plans to reuse it every year. And though friends have called the wreath "shocking" and nontraditional, he doesn't mind. "Art is in the eye of the beholder," he says. Even the most eager supporters aren't willing to go for the total Charlie Brown Christmas aesthetic. Cathy Greene, an agricultural economist, tries to be an "eco-conscious and organic shopper." She reuses gift wrap, sends recycled cards, and chops up her holiday tree each year to mulch her flower beds. She also visits farmer's markets to find holiday decorations for her Vienna, Va., home. But many of the recycled ornaments she sees, made of things like bits of old yarn, "look funky and homemade," she says. The products are part of a growing industry overall. Sales of holiday decorations rose 14% a year for the past two years, according to the National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C. The average family plans to spend $46.50 on decorations this year, according to the trade group, which polled 7,623 consumers. Organic trees are attracting more interest, too. Debbie Milks and her husband run an organic orchard in Lawrence, Kan. Last year, sales rose 20%, to 250 pesticide- and insecticide-free trees sold. At $24 to $40, they cost about the same as regular trees, but may not be so green. (Ms. Milks says some conventional growers spray their trees with dye.) Customers have left the farm empty-handed, deciding to go the regular route after being disappointed in the look of the organic trees. "They say, 'We're not going to eat it,' " she says. Meanwhile, her idea of a green Christmas has nothing to do with chemical-free décor. When all their trees and organic produce have been sold, the couple packs up and visits family in Tucson, Ariz., for the holidays. "We don't do any "she says.

A Fruitcake That Lasts... Naturally
Retailers are stocking a range of eco-gifts this holiday season. Below, four organic alternatives for food and flowers, compared with four standard options. Prices do not include shipping.

The Organic Favorite pears harryanddavid. com, $35 for five pounds The Favorite Royal Riviera Pears harryanddavid. com, $28 for five pounds The organic pears, released for the first time this month, taste and look the same as the convential pears, the company says. The organic fruit has been grown on land unsprayed for seven years and are packed separately from regular fruit. The company says the organic pears' sales are "exceeding expectations," but the non-organic ones are selling faster.

Christmas Cake junetaylorjams. com, $33 for one pound English Christmas Cake vermontcountry store.com, $23 for two pounds Offered for more than a decade, the June Taylor fruitcake is almost all organic; Ms. Taylor says she couldn't find good organic sources for the butter or the brown sugar. Port and brandy preserve the cake, which will last for at least a year unopened. The non-organic cake, imported from England, includes rum essence for flavoring and some preservatives. Its shelf life is nine months.

Holiday Organic Truffles intemperantia. com, $18 for 10 truffles Sparkling Holiday Truffle Gift Box godiva.com, $20 for 10 truffles Imported from Switzerland, the Intemperantia truffles come from unsprayed rainforest cocoa trees. Flavors are limited to chocolate, cognac and caramel. Godiva offers a wider variety of fillings, including gingerbread and hazelnut praline.

Holiday Splendor Bouquet organicbouquet. com, $65 for 24 stems

Laura Ashley Rose and Holly Bouquet ftd.com, $60 for 23 stems

The Organic Bouquet (vase not included) isn't exactly organic. It has a Veriflora label certifying that the flowers were grown with "sound social and environmental practices" that allow the use of low-impact synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. The FTD flowers have been sprayed with pesticides and includes a food packet with a preservative. They arrive in a ceramic vase with a holly pattern. Both bouquets include roses, lilies and greens.
Originally published in the November 24, 2006 issue of Wall Street Journal


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