Press "Enter" to skip to content
Flowers, chocolates, and jewelry on a pink background. Photo by Grace Reeb.

The ethics of American Valentine’s Day culture

Americans get exposed to Valentine’s Day by elementary school at the latest: schoolchildren exchange cards with their classmates and color in pages about the various legends surrounding St. Valentine. When Feb. 14 falls on a weekday as it does most years, they go to school, and most other Americans are either at school or at work, because Valentine’s Day is not a federal holiday. 

Valentine’s Day happened to fall on a Sunday in 2021, which could mean that more 9-to-5 employees enjoyed time off at home. But it also likely caused more workers in the service industry, particularly the food and retail sectors, to have to work on the holiday (especially with sales for the mid-February federal holiday, President’s Day).

Still, according to the annual survey by the National Retail Foundation, 52 percent of American adults planned to celebrate in some way. The NRF survey focused on the types of gifts that consumers planned to buy and the amount of money they expected to spend on them, indicating the widespread sentiment that the February 14th celebration of love has become commodified in the U.S. (“The Retriever”published two articles in February 2018 that each touched on the subject).

An examination of the ethicality of U.S. consumer spending for Valentine’s Day might reveal truths about American culture, bearing in mind the question: how do gifts (and purchased experiences) reflect the true meanings of the holiday in the American consciousness?

To start, the gifts which the NRF survey reported that consumers most anticipated buying are as follows (in descending order): candy, greeting cards, flowers, evenings out, gift cards, clothing and jewelry. 

It is important to note that analyzing the ethicality of these gifts is complicated, and that individual situations are always just that — never completely generalizable. Many Americans do not have access to gifts that are considered more ethical (including not having time to shop with intensive criteria). This article is meant to inform and to explore the background of current consumer trends, not to shame anyone for any past or future purchases.

The NRF survey did not show any results about when consumers planned to complete their Valentine’s Day transactions, but the preponderance of heart-themed merchandise in almost every essential type of store, from gas stations to drugstores, indicates that they will make purchases whenever they can (and often, likely at the last minute).

The most popular gift, candy, is also a good introduction into American conscious consumption. Chocolate candy is one of the historical hallmarks of the fair trade movement, which began in the second half of the 20th century, because of environmental and child labor concerns. Just last year, in 2020, the National Opinion Research Center (at the University of Chicago) published a major report that found both child labor and hazardous child labor involved in cocoa production in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana had increased from 2008–2019. 

According to a guide by Ethical Consumer, several popular chocolate brands in America do not have sufficiently transparent policies about the labor involved in their cocoa sourcing. Brands create internal policies and efforts with buzzwords like “sustainable,” but do not actually disclose the nature of the actions they are taking.

To help with navigating the various certifications that brands boast, multiple online guides exist for consumers. One such guide by Green America breaks down some of the most common U.S. labels on chocolate and scores many major brands. Another consideration is buying ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate, which generally means that one company controls the entire production process (leading to greater accountability for the labor at all stages). 

So, most of the cellophane-wrapped cardboard hearts sold in America probably contain chocolate with dubious origins – perhaps even purposefully difficult to trace so that big chocolate companies can continue to keep sourcing costs low. 

But simply purchasing chocolate from companies with better practices is not always possible; take, for example, the top three results for a Google search of “ethical chocolate” (at the time of writing). The bars cost $10.00, $5.42 and $4.00 each, respectively, a far cry from just buying a “normal” candy bar or small collection. 

Jewelry and clothing are similar to chocolate in that they are heavily processed goods and have major issues in their supply chains. Diamonds and other gemstones often come from forced and unsafe labor and cause land degradation. Choosing to buy lab-created gemstones and considering the complicated network of supply-chain certifications are both ways that consumers can avoid contributing to these problems. And fast fashion has become such a hot topic that it might not be surprising that much of America’s clothing is created wastefully and is being wasted every year.

Valentine’s Day’s status as a major consumption holiday (the NRF predicted that Americans would spend almost $22 billion on gifts in 2021) makes its associated spending worth examining, and multiple noteworthy cultural trends appear.

First, unethical consumption is the mainstream. American corporations make money selling products without needing to be truly accountable and scrutinized in their processes. Some companies do treat their workers fairly and take measures to sustain the environment, and they usually slap it all over their marketing.

What companies avoid discussing is that they should not be harming people or the planet in the first place. A common argument that corporations cite is that their bottom line is making what customers will buy, thus trying to pass on the blame to consumers but consumers do not make the decisions about supply and production.

This ambiguity can lead to cognitive dissonance over average purchases. Knowing about the ethicality of the plethora of products in American stores (online stores included) takes time and research, and the knowledge does not lower prices.

A cheaper alternative to more ethical consumption is just less consumption. It is clear that brands, which exert heavy influence on American culture, want consumers to buy their products and know how to dress them up for each holiday; thus, there is an argument to stop buying most luxury or celebratory goods altogether.

Few people, however, find much wrong with treating oneself to luxury, which almost always involves spending money in America. And fewer people want to give up gift-giving for their loved ones, as it is a way of showing love.

Amidst these complicated factors, one message does become clear: tradition and novelty both impact American decision-making. The top Valentine’s Day gifts have become traditional expressions of love over the past several decades, and new products are usually innovations of these gifts. It follows that this is the crucial question: what does Valentine’s Day mean to you, and what do you want to be involved in celebrating it?