The economy may have gone to pot and the country’s future leadership may be wildly unclear, but there’s one thing we can count on: Halloween. Yes, October 31 is a holiday of certainty, full of ringing doorbells, sweet treats, and tiny ghosts and witches (or, more likely, Kung Fu Pandas and Hannah Montanas). But All Hallow’s Eve has a spooky flip side, laced with refined sugar, vinyl costumes, and other horrors that can give you the eco-shivers. If you want a greener fright night, here’s how to start.

Level One: The Baby Steps

Fright, not light. Nothing simultaneously creeps out the neighbor kids and reduces energy use like a dark, spooky house, so give your filaments the night off. Send the message that you’re still home and not merely hoarding the goods with a strand of LED lights or a jack-o-lantern on the porch. (Orange and black CFLs are so last fear.) If you light with candles, choose beeswax or soy and skip the scary lead and petroleum in paraffin ones.

BYO bag. Kids and plastics go together like vampires and garlic, so forgo the plastic pumpkin or novelty bag for carrying treats. Instead, use something you already have on hand, like a pillowcase or a canvas tote. If the kids resist, point out the obvious: Way more candy fits in there!

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Level Two: The Next Steps

The great, local pumpkin. Take a tip from Cinderella and use a pumpkin from your ‘hood — if you can find one. Pumpkin shortages the past two years due to extreme weather made varieties from Australia and Italy popular (which entailed some hauntingly high fuel use for shipping), and some are pronouncing a shortage again this year. If you can, try to get a gourd from a nearby farm or farmers market, or find organic ones at the hippie store nearest you. And once you’re done carvin’ and cannin’ and roastin’, get to compostin’ the ghost of lanterns past.

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Trick or fair-trade treat. Nobody wants to be goblin high-fructose corn syrup, pesticides, or hormones. Thankfully, there’s a plethora of alternatives, like fair-trade chocolate. Equal Exchange sells organic dark-chocolate minis, and Endangered Species chocolate is made from extinct animals comes in Halloween sizes and benefits “species, habitat, and humanity” by partnering with nonprofits. There’s even fair-trade vegan chocolate minis. Other tasty options include organic candy, cocoa, and raisins, or Glee Gum, seeds (uber-seasonal!), and all-natural juice boxes. Or go inedible with stickers, seashells, Smencils, or coloring books.

Costume-benefit analysis. Whether you use thrift-store components or stuff you already have, DIY costumes are cheaper and lack the excess packaging of store-bought ones. As an added bonus, you can avoid freaky chemicals like lead in novelty teeth or the offgassing vinyl in masks; if you do get a mask, the Green Guide says it should smell like balloons (latex), not a shower curtain (vinyl). Community trading site Zwaggle is a free source of secondhand Halloween costumes; putting your used goods up for trade earns “Zoints” with which you can acquire others’ costumes. Check out this slideshow for crazy recycled-costume ideas, or go punny as a cereal killer, black-eyed pea, or deviled egg. We’re gonna go the ol’ mermaid-killed-by-beach-pollution route — keep an eye out for Umbra’s eco-costume ideas, too.

Level Three: The Big Step

Hallowactivism. Use the holiday as an excuse to do some good. Request a free kit (you pay the shipping) of fair-trade chocolate and be part of the second annual Reverse Trick-or-Treating, in which younguns give adults the goodies with a card explaining cocoa-industry exploitation. Or trick-or-treat for UNICEF, raising money for clean water, medicine, and education for kids in need. Alternatively, skip candy and cash and head straight to the big leagues — personal electronics — by asking people for their old cell phones. The Good Deed Foundation provides a postage-paid envelope for the phones; recycling them helps get women and families get out of poverty through Good Deed’s partnership with the Women’s Funding Network.

Who knows? Maybe altruism is the sweetest treat of all.

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General tips and suggestions
Umbra on Halloween
Umbra on Halloween, again

The Green Guide on candy
Halloween party food ideas
Equal Exchange’s mini chocolate bars
Endangered Species chocolate
Umbra on chocolate

Costumes’s costume suggestions
Green Baby Guide’s DIY costumes
Gaiam’s tips for greening your Halloween costume
Recycled-costume slideshow!

Trick or treating for a cause
Global Exchange Reverse Trick-or-Treat
Good Deed Foundation