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The Dos and Don'ts of Sustainable Gift Giving

Marley Flueger
November 23, 2022

Gift-giving is one of the oldest human traditions. Giving makes us happy and strengthens social bonds. The feeling of watching a friend or family member unwrap the perfect present? There’s nothing like it. Unfortunately, when the holidays roll around and retailers start pressuring us to “Buy! Buy! Buy!”  our planet gets caught in the crosshairs. 

How does holiday shopping harm the planet?

Over 60% of global emissions are linked to the production and use of consumer goods, and we consume a lot more during the holidays. During the peak hours of Black Friday, Americans will spend an astounding $12 million every minute. Increased consumption is always rough on the planet, but the holidays are uniquely troubling. 

The fact is, we’re not as good at gift-giving as we think. Americans spent over $15 billion on unwanted gifts in 2019 alone. Whether they wind up tossed in the trash or tucked in the attic, the result is the same: we waste the precious resources it took to produce them. 

Gift-giving isn’t inherently bad; it’s often beautiful. But with the average shopper planning to spend upwards of $800 this holiday season – we’re all accountable for how our choices affect our environment. 

6 Ways to Gift More Sustainably

Heartwarming gifts don’t have to heat up the planet. Build a sustainable gift-giving practice by keeping these six simple tips in mind. 

(1) Give a Memory

Material presents aren’t the only way to show we care. Simple, thoughtful gestures can be just as meaningful to the people we love most.

  • Write it Down: Reflect on the joy your relationships bring you and share your appreciation with a heartfelt letter or handmade card. 
  • Lend a Hand: Offer to shovel snow all winter, watch the kids for date night, handle doggy duty for a month, or make their favorite meal while they kick back and relax. 
  • Gift Experiences:  From foraging classes to salsa lessons to axe throwing, research shows we enjoy experiences more than material gifts. Since you’re not creating physical waste, it’s usually better for the planet, too. Browse Airbnb experiences in your city to find fun adventures close to home. 

(2) Give Sustainable Gifts

There’s nothing wrong with buying a few physical presents during the holidays. But when we do, we should do our best to keep our footprint low. 

  • Thrifted and Vintage: Extend the lifetime of existing goods and avoid new consumption by shopping secondhand. Explore local consignment shops or apps like Depop and 1stDibs to score beautiful, unique gifts for your favorite people. 
  • Locally-Made: Products made close to home rack up fewer transportation emissions  than those sold by big box retailers. Plus, you’ll support small businesses and keep more money in your own community. 
  • Handmade: Whether you make DIY gifts or support an Etsy artisan, handmade items are almost always more sustainable than mass-produced ones.
  • Sustainable Brands: If you have a certain type of gift in mind, buy it from an eco-friendly brand. The Good Trade has great sustainable gift guides for every person on your list. 
  • Eco-Lifestyle Gifts: Help your loved ones live sustainably long after the holidays with gifts like Stasher bags, S’well water bottles, and countertop composters (or compost subscriptions). 

(3) Give a Healthy Planet

Instead of buying presents that generate waste and drive up global emissions, give the gift of a healthy planet. After all, nothing says “I love you” like the gift of a liveable future. 

  • Donate: If you know they’d appreciate it, donate to an environmental organization in your loved one’s name. We personally love the idea of giving to nonprofits that support civil engagement with climate action, such as 350.org, Sunrise Movement, and Extinction Rebellion.
  • Carbon offsets: Carbon offsets are another great way to help counteract the adverse impact of the holiday season while showing your family and the planet love at the same time. Unfortunately, finding quality carbon offsets can be challenging. That’s why we’ve done the research for you. As offset skeptics, we meticulously analyze every project in Commons’ Offset Portfolio to ensure they actually remove and reduce the carbon they claim to.

Gift a carbon offset with Commons →

(4) Avoid High-Emission Gifts

While sustainable gifts are best, at the very least, we can avoid products with the worst environmental impact. Some of the worst offenders to avoid: 

  • Fast Fashion Apparel: The fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions. Fast fashion retailers are the worst of the worst, churning out poorly made, high-emission clothing designed to make a beeline for the landfill. 
  • Electronics: We generate 50 million tons of electronic waste each year, the equivalent of 1,000 laptops every second. Instead of gifting the latest gadgets, get their existing devices repaired or purchase something refurbished. (Bonus: it’s easier on your wallet!)
  • Plastic Toys: We all want to spoil our little loved ones, but plastic toys are one of the least sustainable gifts we can purchase. About 8% of the world’s oil is used for plastic production, and these toys can take generations to break down after kids outgrow them. Gift enriching books, family-friendly experiences, or a fun skill-building class instead. 

(5) Avoid Excessive Shipping

Global online spending is expected to reach $910 billion this holiday season, with 85% of consumers planning to buy at least some gifts online. Fortunately, e-commerce tends to have a lower carbon footprint than in-store shopping; but it depends on how we shop.

  • Shop Early: Most online purchases hitch a ride on existing mail routes, saving you the emissions of driving to the store. But rush deliveries make a special trip to your doorstep, and erode this benefit completely. 
  • Bundle Your Buys: If you can, try to knock out as many gifts as you can from one online shop so they can make their way to you in a single shipment.
  • Be Intentional: We’re three times more likely to return online purchases than in-person ones. Save your loved ones the transportation emissions (and headache) of returning unwanted gifts and only order what you know they’ll like. 

(6) Use Sustainable Gift Packaging

A beautifully-wrapped present is a sight to behold. Unfortunately, the satisfaction is short-lived, and the environmental consequences are long-lasting. That’s because most store-bought wrapping paper is lined with plastic, which makes it virtually impossible to recycle. 

You don’t have to skip the gift wrap altogether (and it doesn’t have to be ugly, either!) Here are a few sustainable, stylish solutions:

  • Tie up items in a tea towel or scarf and make the packaging part of the present.
  • Cut up and decorate old newspapers and paper bags to make DIY gift wrap.
  • Put gifts in reusable shopping bags (handy for trips to the grocery store!).
  • Use green materials like paper tape, twine, and dried flowers instead of bows and ribbons.
  • Lead by example and open your own gifts carefully, saving the packaging for a second use. 

Inspiring others to live more sustainably is the greatest gift of all

Studies show climate awareness is contagious, which means our choices have an impact beyond our personal carbon footprints. By taking a little extra time to find the perfect sustainable gift, chances are you’ll inspire others to do the same. 

Nearly 60% of consumers say social media will influence their holiday shopping patterns. Even if you don’t want to post about specific gifts, talk about the environmental impact of holiday consumption and the sustainable alternatives you’ve discovered.

Marley Flueger
November 23, 2022
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