This time of year is tough. Consumerism is at an all-time high, and we know a lot of well-intentioned gifts are going to end up in a landfill – some quicker than others. In addition, the U.S. sees an estimated 25% increase in trash produced between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. One million extra tons of garbage per week! On one hand, we don’t want to contribute to the pollution of our planet, but on the other, the spirit of gift-giving to the people we love is a tradition we treasure. We’d wager we can do better by both, and it all starts with shifting the way we think about holiday gifting - away from obligatory and towards opportunity.
Sure, giving an eco-conscious gift to help a friend or family member make better choices is great. (We don’t need to go into options here; there are a million lists a simple Google search away.) But if it’s not something they’d actually use or appreciate, is it just going to end up in the back of a closet and eventually the trash anyway? We’d argue that the most impactful change we all could make is just to give more thoughtfully. There’s no better feeling than when someone is still wearing/using/loving a gift you gave them years later. Except for the feeling that you’ve also done right by the planet in the process.
You can think this way for secret santa, white elephant, and rob your neighbor gift exchanges, too. Even with an under $20 or under $10 limit, and yes, even without a specific recipient. The key is considering usefulness. Sure, that (insert cheap plastic gag gift here) is funny, but it’s going to end up in a landfill, probably in short order. And honestly, no one needs another coffee mug, kitschy as it may be. In these cases, consumable goods are always a safe bet – you can rarely go wrong with nice coffee or booze. Seek out a store that sells specialty or imported goods, if you want to take things up a notch. Or pre-load a gift voucher to the corner coffeeshop or a place co-workers like to lunch or happy hour. This is a great way to approach stocking stuffers as well.
For family, follow the “one big gift is better than three small, cheap gifts” rule. Consider things that the recipient uses and cycles through in daily life, and buy them the last one they’ll ever need. Things like coolers or travel mugs, kitchen tools and appliances, well-made outerwear, a wallet, or work bag are all things that many of us say “this will do” only to replace a year or two later. Many companies design these types of items to be used for life. For kids, there are open-ended toys and playsets created to grow right along with them.
Experiences make great “consumable” gifts as well. Concert tickets, photo sessions, a class, a race entry, ski passes are thought starters – what are their interests, and what’s an event that allows them to pursue that passion? And if not a specific event, IOUs still have merit – whether you complete them yourself or hire a service. Things like cleaning, meal service, and babysitting are all 100% going to be redeemed – the more specific to their needs or something they mentioned off-hand, the better.
On a related note, gift cards often get a bad rap for being last minute or impersonal, but they become incredibly so when they demonstrate a knowledge of the recipient’s habits or daily rituals. Take the extra step to do some sleuth work on their favorite coffee stop on the way to work, the take-out staple they order once a week, or the salon/barber shop they’ve been going to for years. Additionally, these kinds of gifts take on a special meaning in 2020, supporting businesses and real people that may be struggling during a year of shutdowns. (Helping people and the planet is kind of our thing, after all.)
Similarly, DIY gifts can seem lofty or cheap, but these always seem to be the most meaningful, don’t they? Remember, DIY doesn’t have to mean craft projects! Think about repurposing materials from a special place, such as a family home, old school, or favorite bar – inquire about any renovations to source supplies and even hire someone to help you make something new, if needed. Or replant cuttings from the garden of a loved one, allowing friends or family to bring a piece of, say, Grandma’s garden to their own homes. These are the kind of gifts that get the tears, guys.
If presents have always been a big thing in your family and expectations are creating a “buying to buy things” mentality, consider setting up a new standard. “If we don’t have a good, meaningful present to give now, we wait until we do.” Receiving a holiday present in July or a birthday present on a random day, out of the blue, is actually quite fun. Plus, it means so much more when you open a gift to realize someone remembered a recent conversation, saw something you posted on social media, or was just something that made them really, truly, think of you. This won’t work for everyone on your list, of course, but you might be surprised how many it will. We’d suggest starting with adult siblings and friends. If you do a name draw, consider picking names at the actual party and then having all year to send a gift when the inspiration strikes. This has the added value of reclaiming the holiday as being a time of togetherness, centered around sharing a meal or drinks, and the focus off the physical presents. These types of habits can be particularly helpful to model to the next generation, as well.
If that seems extreme, consider setting up a new, fun tradition that sets some parameters for a type of gift. One of our Junes carriers shared that her mother has always put underwear in her family’s stockings since she was a kid. Since she knew she’d always get them around the holidays, she didn’t need to buy them at other points in the year – and the rest of her family developed the same habit. Any year is a perfect year to start a tradition of your own and a great way to add some fun to usually boring, essential purchases.
One last thing: no matter what you decide to give this holiday – reconsider how you wrap. Newspaper, old magazines, or cloth – thrifted scarves, cotton tea towels, or fabric scraps are all great for upcycled, reusable options. Google “Furoshiki” for cool wrapping techniques. Or consider packing into a reusable shopping bag that can be put to another use. (Not saying it has to be Junes, but we do have options. ;) )
Remember, the point here isn’t to say that gifts are bad. Gifts are fun, and it’s special to give to the people you love. The big idea, as always, is to think about both people and the planet. How can you celebrate the holiday while spreading the most joy and also having less impact on the environment? The ratio won’t be the same for every person and every family, and that’s where the real work comes in – figuring out what works for you and bringing the people you love along with you. Sure, it requires a bit more thought and effort, but most good things do. But the result just may be your best and most meaningful holiday yet.