Dear Umbra,

I received a gift card this holiday season from a friend to a company which I generally avoid due to its subpar eco-practices. Since my friend has already given the money to this company, do I forgo my moral objections and use the card, or is there another way I can make the most of this generosity without sacrificing my beliefs?

B.S.
San Diego, Calif.

Dearest B.S.,

Alea jacta est. Your gift card is akin to scrip. If it is not redeemed, the store will be the one receiving a money-for-nothing gift. Which is probably worse than a money-for-something purchase. Your choices are to shop wisely, to regift, to be weasely, and/or to shop under protest.

Register your discontent.

Gift cards are the perfect gift from the giver and retailer standpoint. From a giver’s perspective, it’s like thoughtful cash. Retailers like gift cards as they frequently are either completely unredeemed or partially redeemed. Two factoids from Consumer Reports: unused gift cards amounted to $8 billion in 2006, and in that same year Best Buy estimated earning $43 million from unredeemed cards.

So the first part of shopping wisely at your sub-eco store is to keep its windfall profits down by fully redeeming the gift card. At the store (or online), buy something good. Buy something you need that will last years, contains no poisons or vinyl, maybe something with an eco-pedigree, maybe something to reduce your ecological footprint. Calculate your spending to the penny in order to avoid giving the store extra money above the gift card amount (or see “weaseling,” below).

If you cannot bear to set foot — or internet browser — in this unnamed, offensive establishment (we all want to know what it is!), convert your scrip into a donation to a worthy cause. Regift the card. Give it to a friend who needs it, or to an organization that works with poor families. Or call said organization, ask what they need, and buy it for them using the gift card. A good deed to counter those subpar eco-practices.

Now, because you live in California, you have an opportunity to be slightly weasely. In California, a retailer must refund the remaining balance of a gift card for cash if the value on the card is $10 or less (an option also available in Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, and Vermont, though the minimum amounts vary slightly). If it would give you satisfaction, you can do your ecologically and morally correct shopping and purposefully spend up to $10 less than the amount of the gift card. You then would demand the cash refund, hence diddling the company out of $10. Woohoo!

Here is the protest part: No matter which combination of my shopping tips (or none of the above) you choose, feel free to also write a letter to the company expressing your moral discontent.

Ah, gift cards. Your friend only meant to give you a nice bit of extra “cash,” and look at the dilemma you are in. That’s why I give everyone gold Krugerrands.

Sympathetically,
Umbra