8 Ways to Gift Sustainably and Ethically This Holiday Season
A guide for those who want to be more environmentally friendly this Christmas.
Christmas as a child can feel like such a magical time. You’re on winter break, you wake up to gifts under the tree, and nothing can beat the ambiance of Christmas decorations.
The holidays represent something different for all of us. But once you get older, you realize that Christmas has major effects on the environment. Gifts have been the emphasis of the holiday season and that is not without its consequences whether we are aware of it or not. Landfills are filled with 25% more trash during the holiday season compared to the rest of the year and that’s in the U.S. alone. That’s an additional 25 million tons of waste during this time whether it be from ribbons, holiday cards, gift wrapping, and gifts.
While we may see these as innocent Christmas traditions, we can no longer ignore what excessive consumerism can do to our environment.
Knowing this, the meaning of Christmas has definitely changed for me over time. I went from being excited to receive and give gifts to explicitly telling my loved ones and friends that I do not want any Christmas gifts. Yes, you read that right. Maybe it’s because of the minimalist in me or because I learned about the environmental impact and ethical issues of fast fashion and consumerism.
Because of this uncommon decision, I’ve been in a number of awkward situations when I tell people that I don’t give or want to receive any type of gifts (with some exceptions). At the end of the day, I think it’s more important to start the conversation surrounding our choices as consumers than to be afraid of what people will think. We all live on the same planet and we have to start taking care of it. Individual change is more impactful than you think.
Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.” — Dalai Lama
If you are new to the world of sustainable and ethical shopping or just don’t know where to start, here are a few things to keep in mind. While both terms might be interchanged with one another, they mean completely different things.
What It Means to Shop Sustainably
When you shop sustainably, it means that the materials and methods in which they are produced are environmentally friendly — whether that be from choosing recycled or natural materials to using solar energy. Usually, companies explicitly state on their website if they are a sustainable brand and will indicate what makes them sustainable on their FAQ page.
What It Means to Shop Ethically
When most think of shopping ethically, it usually applies to how workers are treated in the production of these products. But there is an additional way to shop ethically (and sustainably, too) that many may not know of.
The first, most known form of ethical shopping is making sure that the people behind the products are being treated well — meaning they have a safe work environment, receive decent pay, and are treated fairly as employees. You can watch “The True Cost” for free on Tubi for more information about why sustainable and ethical shopping is important. It really opened my eyes to see how the people behind our clothing are being taken advantage of so that we have access to cheaper products.
The second form of ethical (and sustainable) shopping that is not commonly discussed is making sure products are vegan and cruelty-free. Products that do not fall under these categories not only exploit animals, but a study found that materials made from the bodies of animals such as leather, silk, and wool happen to be 3 of the 4 most detrimental materials for the environment.
In addition to using animals in products, there is also animal testing to consider before buying an item. Not only is animal testing inhumane but it is bad for the environment as well. It has been found that animal testing uses up resources, creates unnecessary waste by killing millions of animals each year, creates pollution from the toxicity of the products tested on animals, and so on. Most may not be aware that it is not only mice, rabbits, primates, or farm animals that are tested on but also dogs and cats who are the most common companion animals in the U.S. There are other methods that are more accurate than animal testing and it’s important that we transition to these methods for the sake of the environment and animals.
To figure out if you are buying vegan and cruelty-free products if shopping in-person, look out for logos such as those below. These are a few of the logos that indicate that a product is vegan or cruelty-free. The logo on the left certifies that no animal testing was done for this product. The logo on the right certifies that no animal ingredients are in the product.
If shopping online you can go to the company’s FAQ page or look in the description of the item to see if it is labeled as vegan and cruelty-free. Most will say if their products are vegan and cruelty-free but some might be discreet about it. If it comes to it, you can google search if a brand is vegan and cruelty-free. You can also email the company themselves if necessary.
How to Gift Sustainably and Ethically This Season
Maybe you want to have an eco-conscious Christmas but don’t like the idea of ditching gifts altogether. Here are a couple of tips you can use to make your Christmas a little more sustainable.
1. Shop for gifts at a thrift shop
This may be the most sustainable, affordable, and ethical option. If you want to get gifts for your loved ones but don’t want to hurt the environment in the process, this is your best option.
With thrift shopping, there are no new resources being used to produce an item making it ethical and sustainable. It is also way cheaper to buy something thrifted than to buy something new.
If thrift shopping in person sounds intimidating or isn’t your thing, you can also shop within the comfort of your own home. There are various online thrift shops like thredup.com that can make thrifting more convenient.
When you thrift, you can confidently know that you aren’t impacting the environment and are picking the best possible option.
2. Buy from sustainable and ethical brands
If you are a germaphobe or don’t like the idea of buying something from a thrift shop, this option is for you.
While one may see that buying from sustainable and ethical brands do come at a higher price point, it is important to first acknowledge why unsustainable brands are so cheap. First, they use cheap material. Second, they don’t treat their workers right — low pay and dangerous working environments. That is why fast fashion seems so much cheaper than sustainable brands.
But with sustainable, ethical brands you can confidently shop knowing that better, ecological materials were used and that workers were treated fairly. This means you can help a company striving to do better — providing alternative options for those who can afford it. After all, the longer a piece of clothing or object lasts, the fewer things you need to replace and the more money you can save in the long run.
Don’t forget to look out for items that aren’t vegan and cruelty-free such as leather bags, certain makeup products, and jackets with wool.
3. Buy useful things
Do you ever get a gift from someone that is generic and something you wouldn’t use? As much as I want to say that it is the thought that counts, there comes a time when we need to think of the environmental impact of our choices — especially when we buy gifts that are not customized to the person we are giving a gift to.
If you don’t like thrift shopping and you need a more affordable option than shopping sustainably, you can’t go wrong with buying something useful.
Maybe your loved one has mentioned something they want that you know would be put to good use. Whether it’s something simple or it seems silly to give as a Christmas gift, it might surprise you how much it would touch them. Not only will they see you as thoughtful but also as a good listener.
4. Suggest doing Secret Santa
Secret Santa not only embraces the surprise element of gift-giving but it also heavily reduces the stress and money spent on gifts for multiple people. It takes away the pressure to buy a gift for everyone in your family or friend group. It’s a nice surprise to not know who you are getting a present from. Additionally, it greatly reduces the waste that would end up in landfills.
5. Ask for someone’s wish list rather than buying something random
I live with my relatives and packages from Amazon started pouring through after Thanksgiving. I watched my auntie try to figure out what gift was for who as she bought many items using people’s Amazon wish lists.
While I personally don’t want to promote or encourage you to use Amazon as it takes away profit from small businesses and furthers our expectation of convenience and fast shipping (which is bad for the environment), I couldn’t help but think that it would be smart to try and replicate an Amazon wish list.
This can be done through Google docs, or something similar, where others can see a wish list someone has. Once someone buys an item, they can remove the item they bought for you from the list so there are no repeat gifts. This way that person will still be surprised at who got them what and you can get them something they absolutely want and will put to good use. It also takes away the stress of trying to figure out what to buy for someone.
6. Wrap gifts and send holiday cards consciously
It’s also important to think about the way we wrap our gifts. You can either reuse various things around the house or you can choose recyclable wrapping paper. As for holiday cards, there’s nothing wrong with sending digital cards. After all, we do have the technological advancement to do so now.
7. Gift an experience
This is another great way to give a gift without any environmental impact. Maybe you know someone who loves to watch movies. You can take them out or pay for a drive-in movie experience (a safe way to social distance during the pandemic). You can get really creative while also giving a meaningful yet environmentally friendly, non-wasteful gift.
8. Skip the gift-giving. Donate to a charity or volunteer your time.
If gift-giving is just not your thing like me, you can just skip gift-giving altogether. Make sure to have an explicitly clear conversation with your loved ones so they are fully aware of what would actually make you happy during the holidays.
Another alternative is to participate in some Christmas spirit and either donate your time or money. This can be a different way to celebrate Christmas that I hope we can teach to younger generations.
Maybe you can donate to a cause that your loved one is passionate about or take them to an event where you can both donate your time and truly engage in the Christmas spirit.
While Christmas brings about a certain joy and ambiance, it can also come with some guilt, stress, and pressure that no other time of the year can bring. Although it is consumeristic by nature, we can still participate in Christmas traditions in a more sustainable way. Celebrating and gift-giving doesn’t have to be unsustainable but we do have to start making smarter choices for the environment and our future.
Whether you shop for gifts at a thrift store, purchase more sustainably, or skip gifts altogether, you are making a difference. Now that you know the abundance of options you have to make this a more eco-conscious holiday, start the discussion with your friends and family by incorporating these ideas into your yearly traditions.
Together, we can make the holidays a less stressful and more environmentally friendly time of the year while also showing love to those we care about.