This is a tricky time of year for those of us who want to reduce our planetary footprint. Manic consumption is essentially the opposite of what we need to be doing. But we don’t have to go crazy.
Just ask people what they want
The easiest way to avoid gifts going to waste is to give people something they really want. While the element of surprise can be part of the fun, it’s also a major cause of waste, as it’s not always easy to guess someone’s tastes, and these are the gifts that end up stashed guiltily in bottom drawers for the rest of the year.
If you think your recipient wouldn’t mind, why not ask them to give you a clue about what they want? It doesn’t have to be super-specific – one year my brother just asked for a T-shirt, and I chose the design.
Do you need to buy for quite so many people? And do you need to buy so many things for each person? Some people receive more soaps and smellies than they are likely to use before next Christmas, and these are the types of things that contain palm oil. One year I was given so much chocolate at my job that it lasted me until the end of January. Much as I love chocolate, I am surprised that my teeth survived the experience, and all the cocoa and palm oil that goes into chocolate is not great for the environment. And do you need to buy presents for those who don’t realise it’s Christmas, such as very small children and pets?
Handmade gifts are a popular choice for many zero wasters. Certainly these are fun to make and lovely to receive. But they will only be better for the environment if the ingredients, materials and methods used have less impact than their shop-bought equivalents, which is kind of hard to know. Recently I had a go at making tomato jam, but after boiling a huge pan of tomatoes and sugar for more than an hour I started to have my doubts as to whether this was the most eco-friendly choice of gift. I really have no idea how much fossil fuels were consumed in the attempt. A better option might have been to buy relish from Rubies in the Rubble or the Wonky Food Company, as these are made from surplus veggies and are probably more efficiently produced.
If you like to give handmade gifts, see if you can make use of anything which is currently going to waste. If the process requires heat, choose methods which use the minimum amount of energy (making jam in the microwave, for example, is more efficient than the oven). Also go easy on homemade beauty products made from coconut oil, as this is as harmful for the environment as palm oil.
This is another popular choice among zero wasters, although clearly this only works if the experience has less impact on the environment than a physical gift. Perhaps don’t buy anyone a voucher for two at the local steakhouse, or any experience likely to involve travel via high-carbon transport. I usually put ‘vouchers for an eco-friendly spa’ on my Christmas wish list. But experiences don’t have to cost money – you can also offer your time/help with things.
If you’re choosing for someone who’s interested in the environment, there are some great books around. Or you could even add some of these titles to your own Christmas wish list.
I enjoyed Rain, a graphic novel about the climate crisis. For anyone wanting to take a deeper dive into the issues, I recommend the excellent There Is No Planet B by Mike Berners-Lee.
For the small people in your life, there’s The Perfectly Wonky Carrot, about food waste and body image, Peppa Pig Recycling Fun, or a whole series on the impact of plastic pollution on sea creatures. There’s also The Ones Who Walk Above, a story written to inspire kids to protect wildlife, the beautiful Greta and the Giants, or Greta’s Story. Or see what else you can find.
The UK (along with much of the rest of the world) is facing something of an ecological crisis. Our wildlife is in rapid decline. If you know someone who is a nature lover, perhaps they’d like something that attracts wildlife to the garden, such as butterfly and bug habitats, bird feeders and wildflower gift sets, available online from Not On the High Street, The Woodland Trust, The Eden Project, or Seedball. Perhaps the gold star eco-friendly gift would be this bird-feeder made from recycled wrappers, available from Oxfam.
Is this really such a no-no? There may be some people who would really mind receiving second-hand gifts, so if this sounds like any of your family/friends, perhaps don’t buy anything pre-loved for them. Otherwise, why not? Last year I found a bright yellow raincoat for my 3 year old nephew. He looks adorable in it and doesn’t care that it’s second hand. With some of my friends we have even been swapping the same wrapping paper back and forth for several years.
Recycled and upcycled gifts
Upcycled gifts are unique and reduce the demand for new stuff to be produced. They can be found at craft fairs or online at stores like Etsy. Gifts made from recycled materials can be found at Oxfam (who also do organic and fair trade treats), The Eden Project, Protect the Planet, and many other places. In fact you can find many things available in recycled materials, such as clothes, socks, accessories etc – google it before you buy something brand new. And don’t forget recycled food – Toast do a selection of beers brewed from bread that would otherwise go to waste.
You could opt out of Christmas shopping altogether. Shopping refuseniks say they find this liberating and enjoy Christmas more. This may not be for everyone, but it will go a long way to reducing your environmental footprint this Christmas.
I’ll also be posting Christmas gift ideas on Instagram.
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