Sustainable Gift Giving


With the holidays upon us, I wanted to kick off the season with a conversation on gift giving and its impact on the planet. The holidays are marked with merriment and joy – but it can lead to endless amounts of gift wrap, loads and loads of packaging, and unwanted stuff. In fact, according to Stanford University, Americans create 25% more trash during the Thanksgiving to New Year’s holiday period than any other time of year. That’s 25 million tons of extra garbage heading to landfills. Not only does this have an impact on your curbside trash pick-up, it also has a massive impact on the environment. That’s enough to make anyone say “bah humbug.”

As you start to think about everyone on your list this year, think about how what you are giving affects our planet, our communities, our local economies and what we are leaving behind for future generations. Allow the gifts you give this holiday season help make the world a better place. Be aware that with every dollar you spend, you are voting with your wallet. From gift wrap and packaging to gift ideas, let’s work together to be conscious of the choices we make and the lasting impacts they have on our environment and across the globe. Give not only to the people on your list, give with purpose. So as you head to the mall (or your computer) to buy gifts this holiday season, here some things to think about…


Unwanted gifts add to our landfills. Being thoughtful about giving (and receiving) presents not only reduces the number of items that get tossed, it’s also a way to make someone feels heard / thought-of / understood. One easy way to reduce the number of unwanted gifts (both given and received) is to get organized and make a list. It may sound obvious, but in a conversation I had with a group of friends a few weeks ago, I was surprised by how few had actually started their holiday list for this year (and at the same time felt overwhelmed by all of the stuff). There is nothing worse than spending money on someone (or having someone spend money on you) only to have it end up in the Goodwill pile. By getting organized, you will not only reduce your stress levels this holiday season (and avoid becoming a zombie roaming from store to store), you will also give thoughtful gifts that have a greater chance of being used, kept and loved.


While out shopping for gifts, ask yourself “Is it usable or consumable?”. If it doesn’t meet either of those criteria, it might be worth passing on it. We all have too much stuff lying around, and when giving a usable or consumable item, it ensures that the gift will be used or eaten. And hey, who doesn’t love food?

Consumable Gifts: When you give something that can be consumed (wine, chocolate, spices, olive oil, tea or coffee, dog treats etc.), it means that it will get eaten and not stick around until the end of time. Just make sure your consumable item doesn’t come in plastic if you really want to be earth conscious about it. Plastic doesn’t decompose…it will be around FOREVER (which kind of defeats the purpose of it being consumable). Give a consumable item that is Fair Trade or local and you’ve got a double win!

Usable Gifts: Usable items are also great gifts because – just as the title says – they are usable (think candles, bubble bath, a tote bag, portable mug, a box of notecards etc). Again, it’s important to think about the packaging that these items come in as well (and avoid plastic)…


When it comes to giving, how you present a gift is a huge part of the picture. From wrapping paper and ribbons to tissue and gift bags, there is a lot that can end up in the recycling (or even worse – the trash). Here are some suggestions on how to reduce the amount of wrapping you use this year:

  • Use what you already have.
  • Reuse bags and ribbon that you have received gifts in, brown paper bags, newspaper, your child’s artwork or old maps.
  • Buy little and if you do have to purchase new wrapping, buy eco like Green Field Paper Company or Wrappily. In many towns, wrapping paper cannot be recycled (yikes!). Avoid gift wrap that contains foil, glitter or plastics…it cannot be recycled ANYWHERE.
  • Think outside the box: Use a tea towel, a bandana or piece of cloth to wrap a gift. Learn more about Furoshiki (the Japanese art of fabric gift wrapping) here.
  • Use Washi Tape: Washi Tape is not only pretty, it’s biodegradable and made out of renewable resources. Use it instead of regular Scotch tape (which cannot be recycled). It also looks great on packages as a ribbon alternative.
  • If shipping gifts, use paper shipping tape instead of plastic tape. Also, check out EcoEnclose. They sell bulk shipping products that are made from recycled and sustainable materials.

All in all, it’s about becoming more aware of our waste because even recycling comes with a carbon footprint.


Whether you do your shopping in person or order your gifts online, it’s time to start thinking about the packaging (if you don’t already do so). Does the gift you’re giving come in a lot of unnecessary packaging? If ordering online, how much extra packaging is it going to add? A few things to think about when purchasing gifts:

  • Avoid plastic whenever possible. When deciding upon a gift, if it comes wrapped in layer upon layer of plastic, clamshell cases, hard plastic, inner and outer boxes etc., consider skipping it and finding something that doesn’t have such a large impact on the environment. Plastic never decomposes. It will be on this planet as long as this planet is in existence. There is no gift worth that impact on the environment.
  • If purchasing a gift locally, consider walking, biking or taking public transit to get there.
  • If ordering online, choose the slowest delivery method. Do NOT ask for quick delivery (same-day or next day). With Amazon, you can choose “No Rush Shipping” which allows them to efficiently pack their delivery vehicles to capacity – which means fewer deliveries and lowering their use of fuel. Purchase more than one item at a time so they can be shipped together. Ask for eco-friendly packaging. If ordering from Amazon, you can request Frustration Free Packaging on over 750,000 products which means that your order will arrive in easy-to-open, 100% recyclable, reduced packaging shipment without any “hard plastic ‘clamshell’ cases…(or) plastic-coated wire ties”. It’s the same great products, just packaged differently (see an example of how a Fisher-Price Pirate Ship comes regularly vs. with Frustration Free Packaging here.

Possessions can sometimes lose their luster quickly, but an experience will be a memory someone can keep forever. Consider taking a friend out to dinner, gifting a spa-day, a National Parks Annual Pass, a kayaking experience, yoga classes, a museum membership, a music class or fund a child’s college savings account. The possibilities are endless – just be sure to consider how the experience will impact the planet. Flying, for example, is pretty horrible for one’s carbon footprint. Consider something local instead. However, if you have to gift a trip – think about responsible tourism by booking through companies like Responsible Travel or Musement’s Travel for a Cause.


Shopping locally doesn’t just mean going to your closest mall. It means supporting local businesses. It means finding products that are manufactured in the USA, or better yet, your state or even your town. It means buying goods from local artisans. Buying locally has so many benefits. Not only does it put the money back into your community, it also reduces carbon emissions because products do not need to be flown, shipped across oceans, or driven over borders to reach their final destination – you!


The amount of energy required to produce a new product is staggering. From the raw materials to production, packaging, and transport – it takes a whole lot for your “perfect gift” to be made. By gifting vintage items, it saves on natural resources and all of the energy that is required to produce new things. It also reduces waste by keeping old items that are still gift-worthy out of the landfill.

This year, consider heading to your local flea market, thrift shop or perusing Etsy (they have an extensive vintage section) for your holiday gifts. Last year I got my father-in-law this pepper mill (he has been looking for a mid-century one). The year before I got my mom these vintage “mariachi” wood carved brass bells for her home in Tucson. Both were big hits!


By making presents, you are in control of what goes into your gift from start to finish.

  • Edible Gifts: Who doesn’t love homemade cookies, jam, or bread for the holidays? Buy ingredients from the bulk bins at your grocery store to reduce the packaging they come in. Use local and / or fair-trade ingredients. Package in tins or reusable containers to reduce waste.
  • Pampering Gifts: Make homemade bath salts or body scrub using herbs from your garden. Other fun gifts include lip balm, hand sanitizer, massage oils or candles.
  • The Gift of Time: Share your talents with friends. Offer to teach your brother guitar, your sister-in-law how to bake, your niece how to fly a kite or your grandpa how to use his iPhone. Not only do people appreciate you taking the time to teach them a new skill, they also love spending the time (and making memories) with you. For new families who had a baby this year, offer to bring over dinner, do their laundry, or wash dishes. Other gifts of time can include coupons for babysitting, a car wash, using your photography skills to take a family portrait.
  • Children’s Gifts: Make homemade playdough, sock puppets, knit them a sweater or buy secondhand clothes and create a “dress-up trunk” (that was one of the best gifts my parents ever gave me for Christmas. I got it when I was 4 and used it for YEARS!).

Giving Sustainable Sourced, Fair Trade or Eco-Friendly Products are other ways to give responsibly.

  • Sustainably Sourced: If you aren’t able to give a vintage gift, buy a new gift made from products that were sourced sustainably (i.e. doesn’t hurt the environment). Bamboo, recycled plastic or sustainable fashion brands are all great options when opting to buy sustainably sourced gifts.
  • Fair Trade + Ethical Goods: Fair Trade products have positive impacts on communities across the globe. Buying ethically made products supports small businesses, improves lives, creates opportunities, respects cultures and protects both land and water. So far Fair Trade products come from 45 countries and counting.
  • Eco-Friendly Products: Give a gift that helps someone live a greener life like a bamboo travel cutlery, reusable beeswax wraps, reusable water bottle, reusable produce bagstravel straw set or reusable tote bag. And P.S. many of these items are under $10 which makes them great stocking stuffers!!!

There are a lot of wonderful companies creating sustainable, Fair Trade and eco products. Some of our favorites include The Little MarketEarthHeroAccompanyGreenToys, Earth EasyPatagonia, and The Citizenry.


Donate to a cause that the recipient cares about. Donating is a great zero waste gift and if you donate to an environmental organization, it’s a double win in helping protect the planet.


Talk about all of this with friends, family, or the stranger next to you on the bus. Bring up all of these points at the Thanksgiving table this year. Spread the word. Make people aware. When creating your Christmas list for yourself, keep these things in mind as well. Together we can make this world a better place.

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