Drowning Polar Bears: The New Lumps of Coal


Wondering what to get me for Christmas? How about a $1,795 Mexican leather-trimmed wooden rocking horse from, handcrafted by local artisans in San Miguel de Allende? Or maybe a three-foot-tall olive tree, which benefits something called the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, an organization devoted to edible plants?

On second thought, maybe not. I love a toy horse or an edible tree as much as the next guy, and I certainly support the worthy causes they represent, but my little apartment is already full to bursting with all the politically incorrect, nonbiodegradable, non-sustainable stuff I bought myself all year long—which might make you think: OK, instead, I’ll give $10 in Lynnie’s name to the Farm Sanctuary, which will use that money to “provide one month of complete care for a rabbit who was rescued from cruelty or neglect.”

Now here is where I draw the line. A rabbit? Shouldn’t rabbits be perfectly capable of hopping around in the woods taking care of themselves, or, failing that, providing the tasty entrée for a meal in a fancy French restaurant, or even turning up as a nice little muff to keep my hands warm? (No letters, please! I know how you all feel about fur! I even think you’re kind of right, but if I only wear vintage, can’t you please cut me a little slack?)

Of course, there have been politically progressive presents for decades, but this season a veritable orgy of feel-goodism has infected the retail landscape. Suddenly you can order a peace sign from, handcrafted with shore pine needles gathered in the Pacific, or stick your last remaining singles into a $14.95 vegan wallet from, made of canvas and likewise printed with multicolored peace symbols. Here’s a better idea: Get me a Gucci or Fendi change purse instead. They’re only $1,000 or so more, and they too are made of eco-friendly cloth with only the tiniest bit of leather trim to offend. (I’ll deal.)

How about a piece of jewelry? An e-mail with green type that I recently received goes on at great length about the pendants made by Melissa Joy Manning: “[The] primary metals supplier has undertaken efforts to ensure that its products do not harm communities, workers or the environment. . . . Their treatment facility removes all harmful materials from water. . . . No waste water is discharged into the environment without being fully treated beforehand,” etc., etc.

Well, that’s all very nice, but may I remind you that an emerald 1920s Art Deco Cartier bracelet is, likewise, green and recycled, and that whatever wastewater was discharged during its creation evaporated decades ago.

At least the gifts from Heifer International cut out the middleman. At first I thought you purchased an actual cow, goat, or water buffalo (where would it live, the bathtub?), but it turns out that these animals are given to people in far-flung rural villages who can actually use them, and you just foot the bill.

I know, of course, that this would be the right thing to do, but I am spoiled and greedy beyond words, and I want a present! So I head straight to Barneys, whose “Have a Green Holiday” catalog suggests, along with platinum ear bobs and cashmere travel blankets, a $1,595 studded Balenciaga bag, the purchase of which supports Project Thin Ice, an apt description of your financial situation if you persist in buying items like this.

I finally decide to ring up Simon Doonan, Barneys’ creative director, who, in the past, has outfitted his store’s holiday windows with the delightfully blasphemous Hello Kitty nativity, and who, this year, faced the challenge of turning eco-windows into something even vaguely appealing.

Doonan, who, it must be said, is rather elfin himself—assuming that an elf possessed a Goyard tote and a rapier tongue—agrees to give me a tour of the windows, whose main character this season is (guess who?) Rudolf the Recycling Reindeer. “You have to pull something out of your butt,” Doonan sighs, explaining that the lack of existing Green Christmas iconography posed a real problem. “What do you do beyond a drowning polar bear?”

Into this void rushed Doonan’s imagination, coming up with displays featuring Recycling Rudolf rendered completely in soda cans and bottle caps (“Every bar in the East Village has been saving bottle caps for months,” he tells me); a scroll with a reworked “Twelve Days of Christmas” that ends with a Prius in a pear tree; and a massive globe featuring a map of Manhattan made with cosmetics boxes standing in for buildings. “Oh, look, the Empire State Building is melting,” Doonan says when he spies a tilting cosmetics box. “It’s losing its erection.”

Once they buy something, customers are treated to bright green recycled shopping bags that employ what is touted as environmentally friendly soy ink and are printed with legends like “Don’t Panic, It’s Organic” and “Green Is the New Black.”

But not everyone in the Barneys family is so sunshiney. I am happy to report that when I chat with a salesperson about all this, the employee provides a refreshing dose of Manhattan cynicism, as pure and undiluted as a long draft of mountain spring water. “The only green this place cares about is in your pocket,” the clerk fairly snorts. “And those green bags, yuck. They’re oiled with soy paint and boy, do they stink.”