How to Spread Holiday Cheer Without the Waste Pt. 1: Sustainable Gift Giving

sustainable holiday gift

By: Malyce Collins

This is the first part of our series on reducing holiday waste. This post focuses on gifting!

The holidays are a time for joy, love, laughter, and giving. As we decorate our homes, buy gifts for friends and family, plan our holiday meals, and map out our travel routes, we can continue making environmentally friendly choices. Unfortunately, the holidays can create lots of waste from uneaten food and wrapping paper going to the landfill to significant amounts of energy being used to power lights and other decorations. 

On average, a single American produces about 1,700 pounds of trash per year, resulting in an average of 254 million tons produced by the nation in one year. The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve alone accounts for about a quarter of that waste generation. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, if each American family wrapped just 3 gifts in reusable materials (or skipped the wrapping altogether), then enough paper would be saved to cover 45,000 football fields. Plus, nearly 35% of Americans have an unused Christmas gift that’s been hanging around in their home for years! That’s over 114 million people in the U.S. with at least one gift someone got them that they’ve never used. 

In addition to landfill waste, the holidays can lead to an increase in carbon emissions. Emissions often come about from powering lights, flying and driving to visit family, and from the mass amounts of food processed and shipped across the nation during this time. 

The good news is, we can make a positive difference! We can still soak in all of the love and joy of the holidays while being a little gentler on the environment. Below are some tips to make your holidays more sustainable. You don’t have to do EVERYTHING. Just making a couple of the changes suggested on this list can make a significant impact, especially if you encourage friends and family to make the change with you!

Let's jump into how to reduce waste with intentional gift giving: 

1. Skip the wrapping paper 

There are many ways to cut down on the amount of wrapping paper you throw away during the holidays! One method is to put everything in gift bags. Not only are they reusable, but they’re also easy- no wrestling the the gift wrap and using 50 pieces of tape to wrap that awkwardly shaped gift! 

Another method is furoshiki, the Japanese art of gift wrapping. This method makes use of fabric, which include anything from traditional furoshiki wrap to silk to bandanas and towels, to wrap gifts. No tape necessary! And the wrapping itself can even be part of the gift (or you can take it back to reuse again later). There are a number of how-to videos, including ways to decorate the wrapped gifts, such as by using other pieces of fabric, leather, and pinecones. 

Finally, another super simple method is just not wrapping the gifts at all! Okay, okay, I know that’s part of what makes gift giving so fun, but hear me out. This method is especially great for kids who believe in Santa Claus, like myself when I was little. My parents would wrap their gifts to me and then leave Santa’s gifts unwrapped, just placing them under the tree on Christmas Eve night so I wouldn’t see them until the following morning. And honestly, I think I liked the surprise of that more than the surprise from opening gifts. Give it a try! It’s cheap, super easy, fun, and sustainable! 

2. Give experiential gifts or money/gift cards

Experiences or gift cards make great gifts and reduce the risk of you getting someone something they don't love or need.

Think about it: tickets to see their favorite band play, a gift card to a restaurant, or some money to help them take that road trip they’ve been dreaming about would all be fantastic gifts. And don’t think about this as just you giving this sort of gift to others. You can also ask your friends and family for these things instead of material goods, especially if there are certain individuals who aren’t particularly skilled in gift-giving. 

3. Donate to charity in the name of a friend/family member who supports that organization

Consider donating to a charity in the name of a friend or relative who supports that organization. For instance, if you know they care about animals, then consider donating to the World Wildlife Fund in their name. Often times, these organizations will send a thank you card, or even some other gift, which you could give to them. Decreasing waste, giving a meaningful gift, and doing good! That’s a win!

4. Make your own gifts (ex. crocheting, baking, woodworking) 

Not every gift has to bought! Homemade gifts are much more meaningful because people know that you must really care about them to put in the time, money, and effort it takes to make a scarf, quilt, wooden pens, baked goods, or whatever it is you like to make. I have a friend who made Christmas snacks for everyone as a gift because she didn’t have much money, and people loved it! The next year, she was happy to have the money to buy people gifts, but they were disappointed when they got to her present and it wasn’t something delicious that she made! So think about giving gifts that you poured your heart and soul into rather grabbing it off the shelf. 

5. Support local artists, craftsmen, etc. 

So many of the items we find in stores are shipped from thousands of miles away. That doll you got for your niece was made in China, that shirt for grandpa from India, and that necklace for mom from Thailand. Shipping these items results in a tremendous amount of carbon emissions. So instead of getting that necklace thousands of other people are getting, consider supporting a local artist or craftsman. Often times, their products are unique and there’s only one of it’s exact kind. Also, they aren’t producing or shipping on a massive scale, so buying from them helps to reduce your carbon footprint while also supporting your local economy and giving a one-of-a-kind gift. 

6. Give gifts that are durable, energy-efficient, recyclable, or made of natural products

So, you got this gift for your little cousin because it was super cute. He opens the gift and immediately loves it. But after just a couple of days, it breaks and is thrown away. Gotta love cheap plastic…

When buying gifts, try to find ones that are durable. Whether it’s made of a thick plastic or more sustainable materials, you want it to last! Gifts made of natural products are also great gifts! Energy-efficient gifts, such as those with rechargeable batteries or powered by solar, are a great way to help the recipient reduce their carbon footprint and help them save money. And of course, if the product is recyclable, then that’s one less thing to be sent to the landfill! 

We hope you'll incorporate sustainability into your gift giving this year and join us for rest of our series on reducing holiday waste this month! 

Check out Pt. 2 on Decorating, Pt. 3 on Dining, and Pt. 4 on Shopping and Travel