I’m starting to feel anxious already. The start of the holiday shopping season is upon us, with the stampedes of Black Friday coming up in just a few days, followed by the Internet shopping frenzy of Cyber Monday. I tend to put on my Grinch Face and hide at home during the holiday shopping season. I’ve never enjoyed the crowds and anxiety and Christmas jingles that get stuck in your head through the rest of the winter. And with the growing awareness of how our shopping habits impact the planet, I’ve noticed myself becoming just a little smug about my choice to opt out.
And that’s not fair.
Because there are ways to opt out of the madness and still enjoy the season. And gift giving can be a beautiful thing when you remove all the ulterior motives behind gift choices and concentrate on the happiness of all involved. With that in mind, here are my top ten guidelines for happily green gift giving.
1) Surprise is overrated. As a kid, I used to hunt for and secretly open all my presents before Christmas, careful to replace the tape and wrapping paper so as not to get caught. I wasn’t merely satisfying my curiosity, but I wanted to prepare my face ahead of time for that weird sweater from an aunt or pink gag wig from my dad. Once I’d said my polite thank you on Christmas day, those things would be headed for the back of the closet and eventually the landfill. Nowadays, I’d stand in line to exchange or find a way to donate or re-gift an unwanted present. But how much happier could we make each other if instead of giving what we think the person should have, we make an effort to give what they really want? The greenest gift is one the recipient will appreciate and actually use.
2) Leave the preaching to the preachers. There’s no better way to turn someone off of the green movement than using your holiday gift to send a message about how you think they should live. In her post, 10 Green Gifts That Suck, Lisa from Condo Blues bemoans “green” gifts like compact fluorescent light bulbs and rechargeable batteries (unless, of course, the recipient has asked for those things) that have more to do with sending a message than making someone happy. A stainless steel water bottle in the back of the cupboard is a waste of materials and energy and isn’t doing anyone any good.
3) Value experiences over stuff. I love good food. I’d much rather have my friends chip in and give me a gift certificate to Chez Panisse than individual tchotchkes for my home. And I know people who would enjoy a membership at their favorite museum, movie passes or tickets to a show. These kinds of gifts require no packaging or shipping and leave nothing behind except for happy memories. Just don’t be like Larry David on the show Curb Your Enthusiasm who begrudged his friends the restaurant gift certificate he’d given after learning they used it to take another couple out to dinner. A gift is a gift, after all.
4) Secondhand can be better than new. Secondhand gifts not only create less impact on the planet but can be even better than new stuff if chosen carefully. Consider the sweet little thrift shop dragonfly tea cup and saucer I found for a co-worker who collects any and all things dragonfly. I spotted it while out shopping in June and kept it for months until her birthday in December. The gift was perfect. And how about the beautiful vintage Kitchenaid mixer my friend Jen gave as a gift one year? She found it on eBay in perfect shape and felt good about giving an appliance that was actually made to last and that could be repaired rather than tossed after a year.
5) Give gifts made by hand — yours or someone else’s. Aside from a crazy knitting phase I went through a few years back, I’m not particularly crafty. But I love it if you are! From cookies to bath salts to handmade jewelry, making our own gifts or buying them from craft fairs or online sites like Etsy.com can be a great way to shift our spending away from mass-produced junk, as long as we don’t forget the first guideline on this list: choose gifts the recipient will appreciate. Giving handmade jewelry is no good for someone who never wears the stuff. Bath salts don’t work for someone who only takes showers. Cookies are not helpful to someone limiting their sugar intake. Please don’t buy me a handbag made from recycled juice boxes, unless you want it back under your Christmas tree next year.
6) Donate with care. Around this time of year, my email inbox is flooded with requests from nonprofits to give gift donations in my loved ones’ names. These kinds of gifts can be very thoughtful if handled in the right way. Give to an organization that both you and the recipient feel good about. Once again, refrain from using the holidays as a means to push your agenda. And really think through the appropriateness of your gift. A vegan, for example, might not appreciate a donation to Heifer International.
7.) Offer your skills. Gift certificates to help with cooking, childcare, bookkeeping, gardening, etc. can be great, as long as you actually have the skills to do the job and are willing to follow through on your promise. And make sure the recipient actually needs the help that you offer! Make an appointment so your giftee doesn’t feel awkward about calling to “cash in” on the gift or you don’t end up with a last minute request for babysitting that you hadn’t planned on.
8) Choose greener electronics. Living green doesn’t have to mean living in a cave. While sales of computers, mobile phones, electronic games, and other gadgets skyrocket during the holidays, there are ways to reduce our impact while still having some of the things that make our modern lives better. Check out the Center for Environmental Health’s (CEH) 2010 Holiday Shopping Guide for Finding Greener Electronics (PDF) as a place to start. Consider a refurbished computer instead of buying brand new. Microsoft provides a list of certified refurbishers. CEH recommends Redemtech, which is not only a Microsoft-certified refurbisher but is also an “e-Stewards recycler and a world leader in promoting sustainable computing strategies for businesses.”
9) Think about media types. Books, CDs, and DVDs are just some of the ways we consume information these days. Now, we can also choose e-Books, audiobooks, downloadable music, streaming videos, and probably other types of media I haven’t even heard of yet. Instead of buying a bunch of DVDs that will be watched once and stored on the shelf, why not give a membership to Netflix or other service that lets you stream videos directly to your TV set? A book is great, but not if the recipient never has time to pick it up and read it. Maybe your giftee would rather listen to an audio version downloaded from iTunes or read it on their iPad. Choose the medium that will give your recipient the most pleasure while creating the least environmental impact.
10) Bring Your Own Bag. Many of us are getting into the habit of bringing our own bags to the grocery store, but how many of us think about bringing our tote bags with us shopping for gifts and other stuff? And bags are just part of the holiday packaging problem. Wrapping paper, ribbons, Styrofoam peanuts, cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, clamshells that require special tools to cut into… the waste from holiday gift giving is staggering. Many of the gift ideas above involve little to no packaging waste. We can cut even more waste by requesting that online shippers (like Etsy.com sellers, for example) skip the plastic packaging or supporting programs like Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging, and wrapping gifts in reusable cloth gift bags.
What are your ideas for green gifts that your friends and family will actually enjoy?