For people who are concerned about the impacts of consumption, this time of year is extremely painful for both us and our families and friends. Here’s why, along with a few things you can do to help ease the holiday-induced pain.
For the low-consumption human, undesired and unnecessary gifts remind us that the world is designed for consumption, and we see the hidden impacts of human labor, ecological damage, and prolific waste that go into making more and more stuff.
Check out these images on how Christmas decorations are made for in a small town in China for a small taste of what flashes through our minds as we unwrap a gift.
Of course, this is usually not fun for the humans who are (out of love or sometimes social norms) offering up the said gifts. They often feel somewhat annoyed by the low-consumption humans’ reactions to the offering. Every year, despite the requests and pleas for “no more stuff,” someone still manages to give you a thing of some description that was purchased on your behalf as part of a very well orchestrated stuff-buying frenzy, despite you not wanting any more stuff!
So what to do? Aside from hiding out and avoiding people during the holidays (the plus side of which would be not having to listen to carols…the downside would be missing out on all the hugs), you could instead offer some kind and gentle suggestions to the humans around you, whom you love, on how to give gifts that are more about memories and less about more stuff.
Why do we give stuff?
The essence of giving gifts is to show admiration, love, care, and respect to those around us. Sometimes it’s about some weird power plays and hierarchies, but let’s just stick to the Hallmark version of gift giving, which according to some researchers is mainly to the psychological benefit of the gift giver.
Yet the harsh by-product of all of this “showing-love-through-giving-things (especially ones that are not needed, badly made, or environmentally disastrous)” can sadly have far-reaching negative impacts on the planet and throws up all sorts of questionable labor practices for the mad rush to stock shelves for the Christmas consumption binge.
Human generosity is an amazing thing, but nowadays we are so inundated with quick and easy consumption choices that are marketed to get us to part with our money in exchange for products that come hidden with unintended consequences.
From swapping stuff for experiences to getting crafty, there are many ways to give gifts that don’t buy into the hyper-consumption frenzy that the holidays bring us. Here are five simple ways to disrupt the consumption status quo this holidays:
1. Purchase Practical Things
If you are going to buy an object, at least make it immediately usable. The stereotype of yet another pair of socks from your aunt isn’t exactly exciting, but let’s be honest — practical gifts are way more effective than unnecessary things! The trick is to try to find out what your gift recipient is in need of and what their actual tastes are so that you get a gift that’s useful, desirable, and practice. I was recently gifted handkerchiefs (which I had never used before) and was instantly converted to them — you save money on tissues, and they feel way nicer on your nose.
2. Give Experiences
This is especially beneficial for adults who probably already have most of the things that they want or need. Not only do experiences create fun times and guaranteed memories, but they also boost the local economy, allowing the experience provider to benefit as much as the gift recipient. Instead of a material good that has crossed the sea, opt for a gift card (you can even hand make a super cute one for that special someone) for a local massage, a beautiful dinner, a performance, or even a budget-friendly adventure like a hike or treasure hunt. I once made a “Pick Your Own Adventure” book that mapped out all sorts of local fun things to discover.
3. Create a DIY Activity
Every year, I challenge myself to find new fun ways of coming up with a gift that I can make with my growing nieces and nephews. My most popular DIY gift was a blank card game that my nephew got to design (the main rule being that he always wins!); another year, I made a kit for magic making that included lots of fun things to make magic with. A creative idea and a few base materials can go a long way with kids! This also works for adults; perhaps you can design a game or activity that you play together over a meal as your gift offering?
4. Make it Yourself
Okay, not everyone is “crafty,” but even a box of handmade chocolates or a massive jar of your secret-recipe pasta sauce is a thoughtful, economic, and unique gift. From potting plants to knitting, to penning a song — the DIY movement is strong. You can find an online video tutorial for pretty much any project, and with a bit of forward planning, make uniquely-you gifts for your loved ones that are unlikely to end up in the garbage! One year, everyone in my family got macrame plant holders that I made thanks to a few handy YouTube videos.
5. Start a Re-Gifting Box
It’s inevitable that you will receive a gift that is not quite “you” or is something that you already have. Instead of throwing it in a cupboard, or even worse, the trash bin, start a regifting box. Pop a note on the gift to remember who gave it to you and what year you received it (so you don’t accidentally re-gift it back to them — awkward!). Your re-gifting box will come in handy next holiday season, or you can even plan the perfect gifts in advance for people’s birthdays or other events. I have a box full of random things still in their original packaging that have been gifted to me over the years, and they are perfect save for that quick birthday gift you are socially obligated to provide!
Don’t forget about the wrapping
These starter tips (here are some other great ones) will help you become a more sustainability-savvy gift giver. And since one of the special things about gifts is the unwrapping part, I have one more tip — find a unique way of wrapping it to reduce the mounds of paper waste from piling up. What about the paper bags you have from shopping? Old newspapers or catalogs? Maps from your last trip both look fantastic and tell a story. Perhaps even try the Japanese tradition of cloth wrapping? There are many imaginative ways you can reduce the environmental impact of Christmas.
Sustainability is all about making sure that the decisions we make today — no matter how insignificant they seem now — don’t negatively impact the ability for future generations to live prosperously. Many of the products we buy are made with very little consideration of their future impacts and are just momentary things, quickly destined for the garbage.
Starting to make change is easy — you just need to be creative in your thinking and ready to be a little bit different. It’s all about making new normals, changing the rituals, and finding uniquely-you ways of sharing love and friendship this holiday season.
Want to check out stats on the magnitude of the Christmas waste issue? Here are a few articles for your holiday consumerism reading pleasure:
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Leyla Acaroglu is a Melbourne designer and sustainability innovator. In December 2016, she received a ‘Champions of the Earth’ award, the United Nations’ highest environmental accolade.