HO-HO-hold the garbage

Gift giving made greener

I really love Christmas, the songs and the decorations, the goodies and gift giving, but the thing that makes me Grinchy is the sheer volume of unnecessary stuff that gets passed around in the name of tradition. Tradition is a slippery thing, after all: back in the day, Bubbe’s Hanukkah gifts likely looked a lot different. Now, 56% of people are getting stuff they don’t want, and to make matters worse, half of Canadians say they overspent last year, with 40% of them having no plan for dealing with bills.

So, to recap: we’re drilling oil, mining metals, polluting rivers, releasing carbon, filling landfills, and more, just so people can buy stuff they can’t afford to give to people who don’t really want it. Sure, #notallgifts, but right now I think we can all agree things might be a little out of control.

The real kicker is that physical stuff doesn’t actually make people that happy. Thanks to factors like our comparing brains, hedonic adaptation, ever-changing trends, and trusty planned obsolescence, our shiny new thingamajig is likely to become Kondo-fodder before too long.

In her book Happy Go Money, journalist Melissa Leong draws on scientific studies to recommend three ways we can actually buy happiness: with experiences, time savers, and giving your money away. So let’s keep those principles in mind and refocus on gifts that are low impact for the planet and high impact for the people who receive them. Follow these gift-giving guidelines from me, a pretty good gifter, to maintain sanity, keep your bank account in the black, and have a greener holiday all around.

Consider Their Values.

We often think about what people like, but not as much about what they value. This is where my best gift ideas have come from. Are they all about family time? Saving animals? Travel? Where do they spend their time and energy? Now ask yourself how you can give them a gift that reflects that, e.g., a family photo session or a creative writing class.

Avoid Gift Guides.

Most gift roundups should really be called “Bougie Specialty Nonsense for People Who Already Have Too Much” — everything is nice, but rarely is any of it truly useful or necessary. Also do you really need to get your gift guidance from a generic list created by a harried lifestyle editor drowning in samples? And don’t worry, I too frequently fall down a gift guide rabbit hole, thinking, “Maybe my cat WOULD like this artisanal toy filled with organic catnip,” and then I remember that my cat is an avid butthole licker and likes to play with old tin foil. So probably he’s fine.

Activities Are Tops.

The holidays are supposed to be about spending quality time together, and what better way to do that then planning something extra special? This is how memories are made, and, BONUS, you don’t have to set foot in a mall or wait in those long holiday lines or wrap a thing. Experiences use far fewer resources than any doodad or knickknack and can’t end up in landfill. Some of my best gifts have been activities, whether it’s taking my stepmom on a custom wine tour or hiring a chef to give my parents cooking lessons at home. These gifts can also allow you to support other things you value, like the arts (the theatre, opera, concerts, dance, museums), nature (a parks pass), local restaurants, or a cause (with tickets to a fun fundraising night). It can also be something as simple as sharing a nice meal, or a night of babysitting for a pal so they can do their activity of choice.

Choose Used.

Now, not everybody will appreciate a previously loved item, but many people will (especially if you call it “vintage”). Me, I’ll love it more. And small kids generally don’t know the difference. The most eco choice (and often the cheapest) is the thing that already exists. My friend C does an annual brunch gift swap, and this year instead of buying something new, they’re all giving something they already have but don’t want. Regifting is just waiting for its rebrand.

Make It Edible.

I love gifts that I can eat or drink: they’re not so resource intensive, don’t make a lot of trash, and don’t take up permanent residence in my small apartment. Edible gifts don’t have to be all cookies and booze either; making someone a freezer lasagna or healthy granola can be even more welcome. Here’s my hot idea: recreate some almost universally coveted Everything but the Bagel Spice, Trader Joe’s blessed gift to seasoning. Thank me later.  

Give Good.

Make a donation to a cause that your recipient cares about. This might seem impersonal, but if you choose the cause well, it shows you’re paying attention to them and their values. And nobody worthwhile should begrudge someone getting clean water or a sloth’s habitat being preserved in lieu of receiving yet another tote bag or whatever. With this gift, you’re not only making concrete good and avoiding more stuff being manufactured and disposed of, you’re normalizing, and hopefully inspiring, this kind of giving. Plus, you may earn a sweet tax credit you can sneak in before the end of the year. (For info on reputable non-profits doing great work, check out my giving series.)

Wrap Wisely.

One of my favourite things about Christmas used to be wrapping things up in shiny paper and ribbons. It was even my holiday job as a teen. But eventually I couldn’t stomach the waste, which in Canada amounts to the weight of 100,000 elephants every year. (Yes, JUST the wrapping. And consider: for Americans, with 10x the population, we’d be at ONE MILLION trash elephants a year.) Instead of reaching for those rolls of luxe paper, consider buying or making reusable gift bags, furoshiki wrapping (which can use things like vintage scarves, fabric scraps, etc.), reusable gift boxes, or wrapping in old road maps, repurposed brown paper, or newspaper. There are so many creative gift wrapping ideas that don’t require buying stuff just to throw it away. Lastly, if you do use/receive some paper, check with your municipality to see if it can be recycled. (In Toronto, where I live, it can if it’s not the foil kind.) But keep your ribbons and bows out of the recycling, since they can jam up the machinery.

Do Nothing.

See? Sometimes this eco stuff is easy. It might be a bit late for this year, but have a conversation and see if you can get some people onboard for no gifts. I did this with my sisters this year and have no regrets. Stress-free, eco-conscious, 100% savings.


For the busiest people, TL;DR:

  • Experiences > things

  • The greenest gift is a thing that already exists

  • Thoughtful donations to charity make everyone a winner

  • Avoid covering your carefully chosen gift in a bunch of (really pretty) trash


Now tell me:

What’s the best gift you’ve given that wasn’t a physical item? What handmade goodies do you like to give? If I get a bunch, I’ll share them next week for people who really live life on the edge re: holiday deadlines.

And lastly, a huge thank you to everyone who subscribed and who put out the word about this baby newsletter. The more people who read and act, the bigger the impact, so share on, you fine folk! (Plus, this week’s newsletter is a great way to start a conversation about the way you’d like to give and receive in the future.) I’d also love to hear from you as we go, so hit me up with your wins, your frustrations, and your ideas to make this newsletter and this world a little bit better.

— Jen

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