The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

November 23, 2010

Green Gifts Don’t Have to Suck

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 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 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?

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Green Bean
12 years ago

YES! The holidays are not the time for preaching. And a huge yes again to 2nd hand. Don’t forget antique stores where you can find unique, one of a kind items that are as unique as the person you are giving them to.

12 years ago

I love these ideas Beth! I often feel grinchy around the holidays because as much as I love my family and friends, I don’t really see the need to spend a bunch of money and waste a bunch of resources for us all to buy presents for each other than we don’t need or want. I love the idea of giving green gifts, especially green gifts that don’t suck that will make everyone happy!

Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green
12 years ago

Thanks for joining in on the carnival.

12 years ago

I love the idea shared about donating to a favorite cause in lieu of gifts. I’ve moved around quite a bit in the past 5 years and am constantly surprised by the amount of junk that accumulates around my apartments. Best to skip purchasing and consuming and giving junk and be more thoughtful!

That said, recently posted a great green gift giving guide. Skip the mall, skill cyber shopping and follow some of these simple ideas: .

LInda Anderson
12 years ago

Great ideas, Beth. I did not know about Amazon’s “less packaging” program. My husband buys a lot of stuff on Amazon and he needs to know about this.

I, too, make reusable gifts bags to support an organization that fights plastic debris in our oceans (Sea of Change). They can be seen at

12 years ago

Love, love, love this post. I actually love gift-giving at this time of year. I don’t feel stressed or any pressure, I just do what feels good to me and try really, really hard to buy something someone will love. There are so many ways to do that and you list many great ideas.

It is interesting that so many people are talking about feeling judged for shopping on Black Friday or not being able to afford all fair trade, handmade gifts for everyone in their family. I wish people didn’t feel that way and hope I don’t come across as judgmental either. If people can, they should. I think the message your post sends and everyone can agree with is to just think first. If there is thought behind the shopping and the gifts, that is all we can ask.

Condo Blues
12 years ago

I finished my Christmas shopping on Cyber Monday. I have a few food gifts I still need to make closer to the holiday so they won’t spoil (or tempt me into taste testing the goodies too much.) All my gifts are meaningful to the recipient. It helps that I do shopping recon for ideas year round. I also buy the perfect gift when I see it. That way I can take advantage of summer craft fairs, etc. for those on my list who like those things (not everyone does.) I also make items when I think about them too. That helps take the focus off the “stuff” and more on the things I really like about the holidays – going to events and putting up the decorations. Many of my decorations are handmade by family or gifts or a reminder of a trip or something special in our life. It’s also a time to celebrate my Danish heritage because we have more Christmas traditions that my Husband’s Scottish heritage.

I also have one craft gift idea – sewing soft sided blocks for my baby nephew for next year’s Christmas.

Oh, and I should add that I gave rechargeable batteries out one year for Christmas. I included them with a battery operated gift. :)

12 years ago

I’m IN the crazy knitting ramp-up to Christmas… every year I promise myself I’ll start early enough that I’m not knitting the whole flight back to visit my folks, but I’m inevitably counting stitches up til the minute the plane hits the gate.

Ever thought about charity gift cards? Check out–the cards hold a donation which you make, and your gift recipient gets to pick which charity the money goes to. The cards are customizable, too (I default to pictures of my cats), and available as e-cards if you prefer.

12 years ago

Great tips – thanks Beth!

12 years ago

The Foods that Make Billions is a documentary that was shown on the BBC this week. It’s about the bottled water industry, and how it has become a must have product for many millions of people all across the world. As someone in the film says, it’s amazing how people can be persuaded to pay for a product that they can get for free. There are now some 30 different bottled waters available, and the manufacturers use every trick at their disposal to make us think each one is somehow different from the others.

It’s the foremost example of how big business and marketing use their dark skills to manipulate us into seeing a product as a necessity. And, as another contributor remarked, “Bottled Water is the most revealing substance, for showing us how the global capitalist market works today.”

It is available to watch on the BBC web site until 14th December, although I doubt you will be able to watch it in America, but it will be available on other sites.

Here is the blurb about the programme:

This major new series tells the untold story of how big business feeds us by transforming simple commodities into everyday necessities and highly profitable brands.

The first episode tells the extraordinary story of how the bottled water industry has grown from nothing to become one of the biggest success stories in the modern food and beverage industry in just 40 years.

With unprecedented access to the world’s largest food and beverage companies, including Nestle and Danone, this is the inside story of how the bottled water business has become emblematic of an age of plenty in the West. With billions at stake, the market is fiercely fought over by the world’s multinationals who promise us health, convenience and youth. It is natural and pure and sourced at minimal cost, its real value lies in the marketing and branding.

Told by the Money Programme team, this film takes us to Hawaii, Japan, North America, France, Switzerland and Scotland to chart what lies behind the incredible success of this industry and explore what it tells us about ourselves.

12 years ago

Besides gift certificates we will give for experiences, e.g., bowling, movies, we did get our twenty-somethings Thermos stainless steel keep-cools for their coke/beer cans. Hoping this will encourage them to buy cans, not bottles, since bottles can’t be recycled around here. And because their drinks will stay cooler longer, maybe less cokes (less $) will be wasted.

12 years ago

I see the point in #2 and I avoid the problem by giving my friends a choice. I offer only one gift each year to all my friends, and they can tell me whether they want it or not. (I’m not gonna demand to know if they used it, though.) This year I’m doing chico repete bags made of recycled plastic bottles. Last year I gave 3b bags reusable produce bags. The year before I offered to sign people up for a service that stops your junk mail.

12 years ago

Great Post!

My parents and I always ask each other what we want. My mother hates things that only gather dust, so I only get her things that are useful. My dad is the same, only a bit more difficult to shop for since he often says he doesn’t want anything (which isn’t true ;-)), but I still need to come up with something that will make him happy and not end up in the trash. My dad usually asks me, then gives me the money for whatever I want – this year it’s something for my bike, and since we don’t live in the same city it’d be stupid if he went out and bought it without knowing my bike well. Everybody is happy that way.

For my friends I’m going to bake cookies and make a sugarscrub that makes the skin nice and smooth – homemade, personal, I invested time and thought, and it can be used up without producing a lot of trash. :)

Vegan Snorkeler
12 years ago

Great post! I agree that experience gifts are much better than “stuff” which I usually just donate anyway.

Sofia's Ideas
12 years ago

Great post and fantastic title!!! Hysterical!

Well, I must say that I have a hard time with giving our homemade goodies to some people in particular because they (children included) have no appreciation no matter what! Take last year, our baskets for the kids included homemade play clay in holiday colors because we know how much they love Play Dough. Well, they thought it was “cheap”. Need I say more?

But, for the 1 out of 5 that don’t appreciate our thoughtful, homemade or second hand gifts, there are the other 4 that do so we will continue giving green gifts that don’t suck! We hope to be 100% handmade next year. Fingers crossed. :)

12 years ago

One of my friends saves glass peanut butter jars and gives her neighbors a jar of delicious dates, the log shaped type that are auburn colored. She lightly slices into the date with a knife, add a bit of peanut butter where the knife scored the date, and sprinkles a tiny bit of sugar on the dates. The jar is full of these tasty yet healthy treats. There’s a ribbon tied around the lid. I love these!

12 years ago

I buy my own gifts. Some people are horrified, but it works well for my husband and me. I can hunt down the Etsy shop and pick out just the thing I want, there’s no guesswork involved, the gift isn’t relegated to the re-gift pile, and I’m not making anyone else’s life overly complicated with my request for handmade toiletries that fit all my criteria.

That’s me. For my family, I do some handmade. And if all else fails, I get the kids involved. Because who can fail to love a pillow that their 5-year-old grand-daughter hand-embroidered? No one, that’s who.

12 years ago

Thanks for visiting to read the post, Beth. Your kind comment made me realize I forgot how your readers would not be used to a long-winded more personal blog–and likely not interested! So here is my summary of the idea at the end of the post, and then what I got!

From the original post:
“. . . And then divine inspiration hit. D and I decided that this year we are going to fill each other’s stockings with things from around the house that represent something we love about the other person or are thankful for in the other person.

This idea represents everything I love about Christmas, and fits our budget! It is unique and memorable. It spreads love. It does not generate waste or add clutter. It is free.
And I think this idea will make filling each others stockings so much more fun–no more feeling like I need to buy something just to fill up the stocking, no more worrying what he will like. It may be an old sock, but it will be full of loving meaning and worth a chuckle to boot. I have a feeling this will be a new tradition, even when we have “plenty” of money for gifts.

I am eagerly anticipating Christmas morning and discovering what “Santa” has put in my stocking.

And THAT”s a good Christmas feeling. ”
The follow-up Christmas day:
“Stockings. I posted a while back about an idea for frugal and meaningful Christmas stocking idea for me and D. Well, in addition to the things I had gotten for my own stocking throughout the year, this morning I also found a spoon, D’s black dress belt, a Native American leather hair ornament that was mine as a child, a colored pencil. They each represented something D loves about me or is thankful for. How I keep the family fed. How I keep him clothed in things he likes and get his clothes ready for work during the week. How we share a fondness for quality, natural things–and nostalgic ones too. And apparently he likes my artistic side, even my little doodles he finds all over the desk (which my hands just naturally do when I am on the phone). D said he could have put so many more such things in my stocking, and thought this was a great new tradition.

I agree. What better way to start Christmas Day, than with warm fuzzies from my life partner. . . “

Beth Terry (the other one)
12 years ago

Great ideas. I like to shop in the “Treasure Recycle” stores – you know, Salvation Army, Savers, Goodwill. And I look in places like Tuesday Morning where they have the last bits of things that were on sale somewhere else. I am also an unabashed re-gifter. If I can’t use it, I still appreciate the givers thought and I “pay it forward.” :-D I also tend to do themes of practical gifts — One year I found everyone socks with cool designs. Another year I made posters out of photos I’d taken. And those online gift cards are very cool.

One quick word of advice about gift cards from stores — some cretins are using their cameras to take pics of the back of the cards while they hang on the display. Then they check back to see if the card has been activated. Once you activate that card, they clean out the account before your giftee opens the present. So always ask for a “fresh” card from behind the counter.

Wishing all a Happy Thanksgiving and wonderful Holiday Season!

Kathy G
12 years ago

Thanks for the great ideas.

Two years ago we started a new family tradition with the extended family. Instead of getting presents for each other, we buy one $10 gift for a Rob Your Neighbor game. I spend much less time and money, and I’m not trying to guess what my teenaged nieces and nephew want.

Sandra Lee
12 years ago

Hey Beth, I would love a gift certificate to Chez Panisse too! :) Except I don’t live in the Bay Area. Darn!

I love these suggestions and ideas. And I really got a chuckle out of your childhood story of sneaking peeks of your gifts. Thank you. You always provide so much value in your posts.

12 years ago

My fave gifts are those that I make… albeit I bought my mom a kindle this year, I made the holder for it. That and I am about to bottle my home brew vanilla. And I made vanilla sugar this year as well. For my friends, they can expect an assortment of home made cookies given in chinese take out containers- all paper -no wire or plastic lining.

12 years ago

Since I was little, my family would give gifts to the grandparents and they in turn would give gifts to the grandchildren. It’s something that I stick to as my husband has a million relatives. I usually give our parents a gift certificate to something that they like and my brother gets one as well since he’s single. Our parents usually give us gift certificates or money. Everybody’s happy. We can use the money on things we need (or bills to pay) instead of getting junk that we’ll never use. Nobody is unhappy with this arrangement. The rest of the relatives don’t complain and we don’t expect anything from them (although a few of them send money anyway).

12 years ago

My husband and I have made donations in the name of family members and friends in lieu of gifts for some years now, that is until last year when we discovered TisBest gets around the problem of choosing a charity that the honoree would really like to support. Instead, you make to donation to TisBest and they issue a claim number that you give to your loved one. The loved one then gets to choose which organization the donation gets sent on to. And with a choice from over 250 organizations there is something for everyone.

Studies show that most people would like to give more to charity if they had the funds. So the gift will be appreciated. And it is a great way to teach even younger children about the gift of giving.

Ther eare even two completely plastic free ways to deliver you gift (i.e. the claim number) to your loved ones!

12 years ago

I am very happy about gifts this year because my husband’s family has decided that he and his siblings (all 4 of them) will no longer give gifts to each other and spouses – just kids. This will save us money, and from having a few unwanted gifts at the end of it all. For my husband’s family, we try to give wanted or useful gifts, experience gifts, or gift certificates to avoid giving things people don’t really want. My family isn’t into gifts, which is nice because there’s no pressure. And when I give or get a gift for someone in my family, it means a lot more since there is no gift obligation.

12 years ago

I was at first inspired by last year’s post about “Buy Nothing Day” on Black Friday, but this year as i think about it, the idea leaves a self-righteous bad taste in my mouth. If people are shopping wisely for things they really do need, and that day has the best prices of the year, then it is more frugal to go ahead and do your shopping that day. So the people who can stand back and scoff at those who need to watch every penny and shop the mall sales are being a little elitist–honestly, it is a priviledge in this country to purchase plastic free and as green as possible. I try to put my money where my mouth is and shop with awareness, but it is an often daunting and very expensive task.

So all of you who can afford to buy green and plastic-free and fair trade sweatshop free and made in the US, please do so! Please, because stores won’t carry that good stuff unless there is consumer demand for it. I would love for those standards to end up being the consumer norm here in America. But I am no longer going to judge those who still do their Christmas shopping on Friday, and I will refrain from sending messages with my own Christmas gift-giving. : )

Christmas is about LOVE, and I thank you, Beth, for being generous in spirit and reminding all your readers that sometimes there are things more important than plastic.

(Which I will try to remember when my kids get more plastic gifts from the grandparents. Sigh. But every year it gets better, less crap, more gifts bought with the needs of interests of the family in mind! So anyone else frustrated out there, don’t give up on well-meaning but thought-less family members. It might take a few years, but with loving acceptance and a few wise words here and there they just might start to do better)

Lastly, I can’t remembered if I shared this idea with your readers last year or not, so pardon me if I am repeating myself. But last year my husband and I started a perfectly green and frugal solution to filling one another’s stockings, and it might give your readers similar positive ideas! (Which I hope they will share)

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Pat Gorham
12 years ago

greenlifesavor offers fun and meaningful gifts made out of repurposed coffee burlap sacks! We have jackets, hats, and home goods. Our burlap signs havwords that remind us of the SIMPLE PLEASURES in life and are made locally at a vocational workshop for adults who have disabilities. ALL MADE IN USA. Recycled burlap thanks to Dough at Renovos!

Judy Levin
12 years ago

Thanks Beth for pointing to the Center for Environmental Health’s holiday shopping guide for greener electronics. CEH’s e-waste page,, offers both the holiday shopping guide and other helpful tips on things you can do at home, at school and at work to reduce the health and environmental impact of your electronics

And while you are on the website, enter our contest to win a free refurbished laptop. The drawing will be on December 9th and if you end up winning, that’s one great gift that you won’t have to buy.

And here is a really great idea: Offer to offer to take the e-waste of your friend, family member or neighbor to an e-Stewards recycler on their behalf. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t like that drawer or closet full of e-waste gone to a environmentally responsible recycler. Since it is so hard to tell which recycler is doing the right thing, we recommend only using e-Stewards recyclers who have committed to no export of hazardous waste to developing countries, no landfill or incineration, no use of prison labor, protection of worker health and protection of private data. . For a list of e-stewards recyclers:

Paula Hatak
12 years ago

We offer a great solution to the green gift that sucks! Our
Natural Aromatherapy Candles are a great gift for ANYONE on your shopping list. visit us today. We even have 100% natural candles for your die hard naturalists and vegans! Check us out @ and support an American small business.

Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green
12 years ago

My brother and I for the last several years have donated to causes in each others names for Christmas in place of gifts. My best friend and I for the second year are going to go out of town for the day and spend time together instead of buying gifts. And my family went to a Flaming Lips concert for New Years last year as part of our Christmas.

I think that kind of stuff has more meaning than some gift cards. :)

BTW I’m having a green holiday blog carnival this would be great for *wink wink*.