How to Buy Eco-Friendly Gifts for Christmas
Christmas is the biggest buying period of the year, where we are encouraged to let go of control and go hog-wild, buying, eating, and spending way more than we normally do. This can hurt both your budget and the earth if what we buy is mostly plastic and polyester. Why not cut down on throwaway spending this year by purchasing wisely to reduce waste later? Here are some ideas for going green with your holidays.
"From a commercial point of view, if Christmas did not exist it would be necessary to invent it."— Katherine Whitehorn, Roundabout
Make or Recycle Holiday Décor
In addition to gifts, every holiday or celebration has its own type of décor to enhance the excitement. To green up your décor this year, try these tips:
- Instead of buying new decorations, spruce up your existing collection by exchanging items with a friend.
- Weed out what you have that you don't like, getting rid of items that use excess electricity or take too long to put up. Use candles or LED lights to minimize energy use.
- Make decorations, food, or gifts instead of buying them, and use natural and/or organic ingredients or components when you do.
- Decorate less and celebrate more elsewhere. Rather than driving long distances alone, celebrate closer to home and carpool to parties. If you can't avoid flying, consider purchasing carbon offsets.
Go Green with your gifts too. You can make Christmas decorations to give as gifts, especially hostess gifts. You can recycle plastic bottles or straws by using them to make decor (see video at the end). Or you can knit, crochet, or sew cool gifts that match the colors your recipient loves.
Making things does take time, so if you've already run out of time, here is what to watch for when you go shopping for eco-friendly gifts.
What Are Eco-Friendly Products?
Most people are aware of the benefits of purchasing products with recycled content, but there are many additional green characteristics you can look for. If the list below seems overwhelming, try picking one to focus on this year, then add another one next year:
- Minimize use of plastics (which come from oil and natural gas)—like nylon, acrylic, silicone, synthetic rubber, petrolatum, poly-anything.
- Buy reused or refurbished goods (also applies to do-it-yourself projects).
- Look for Fair Trade labelled products.
- Give priority to goods with recycled content.
- Search out replacements for goods that contribute to global warming.
- Choose gifts with natural or minimal packaging.
- For appliances, choose those with WaterSense or Energy Star labels.
- Look for items with a lifetime or long-lasting warranty, even if they cost more.
- Donate to a great cause, rather than buying a physical product.
Sometimes it's hard to remember to look for these characteristics when you're shopping, so here are actual examples and photos of the types of qualities that make a product "green."
Examples of Eco-Friendly Products
Minimal Use of Plastics
Plastics are derived from fossil fuels (oil and natural gas)––products that contribute the most to the greenhouse gases making our weather patterns wacky. The more plastic used, the less "green" the product is considered to be. This includes clothes made of polyester, which is a plastic derivative.
Many plastic toys have counterparts made of wood, metal, cloth, or bamboo, and this is true of other products as well. With clothes look for 90% natural fiber, such as cotton, wool, silk, hemp, viscose, linen, and so on. In cases where it's difficult to find products made without plastic, compare what you can find and choose the one with less.
Reused or Refurbished Gifts
Shopping for reused or refurbished goods takes time, but it can be lots of fun too. You never know what you might find, whether for yourself or someone else, or what you can do with some of the more unusual finds. Thrift shops, garage sales, flea markets, and Craigslist or eBay online, are all good places to find used stuff.
- I have two friends who shop at used vintage clothing stores and always find attractive clothes. If your gift recipient likes the more avant-guard look, you can buy interesting clothes at shops that sell clothing and other items used in movie productions by actors of both genders.
- Your church or nonprofit group, your local time bank, or your circle of friends, all may have items in their cupboards they haven't used much that someone you love might adore. Check it out.
- Old furniture refreshed with a new finish and additional décor like carving, painted scenes, or decoupage can make a great gift. These can end up looking nicer than the original.
- Barely used electronic equipment, discarded for minor anomalies and repaired by technicians, can often be purchased at a substantial discount.
Fair Trade Products
There is a growing international movement to ensure that producers of foods and crafts from third world countries receive a fair wage for the work they do. In addition, producers must honor the environments in which they work and live. Fair Trade products include foods, beverages, spices, artisanal jewelry, and organic clothing. Look for one of three Fair Trade labels: International Fair Trade, Fair for Life, and Fair Trade USA.
Products with Recycled Content
More and more products are being made with recycled materials––purses from old plastic billboards, photo frames from old keyboards, candle holders from old wine barrels, and many things from recycled paper and cardboard.
Great green gifts for family members and friends who are writers or home business owners are 3-ring binders made of cardboard, a printer accompanied by 100% recycled content paper, or a new portfolio with replacement tablets containing recycled paper. See the links section below for more interesting recycled products.
Eco-Friendly Replacement Products
This green concept means buying a gift that will minimize or eliminate the use of an environmentally harmful product. Examples of such harmful products are gas-driven vehicles, single-use plastics, toxic chemicals, etc. Examples of replacement type gifts are:
Nice-looking leather or cloth backpack, colorful set of fabric shopping bags, a metal cart with wheels, or a two-sided rear-wheel bike rack to eliminate the need for plastic shopping bags.
Good walking shoes, an annual public transportation pass, a bicycle, motorcycle, or electric car (depending on how much money you want to spend) to reduce the need to drive a gas-driven car.
A raised-bed gardening kit or collection of native plants, for those you love who are gardeners, to replace their water-guzzling grass or outdoor tropical plants.
- An indoor window garden kit to grow food locally all year round, reducing the cost of buying produce transported cross-country or internationally.
One year one of my brothers bought me a 3-pod AeroGarden—including basil, parsley, and dill. I set it up, photographed the results, and sent them to him. My basil is now growing outside. The dill never took off, but I enjoyed the parsley for several months. This year he sent me an that includes cilantro, my favorite herb. AeroGarden with 6 pods
Minimal Product Packaging
Some manufacturers secure their products so tightly with hard plastic that one needs an Exacto knife to cut them loose. The same product by a different manufacturer might use hardly any plastic in their packaging at all. If the product quality is similar, get the one with less packaging.
This is another green action that helps to reduce the amount of plastics we use, hence the amount of oil needed to fuel the plastics industry. It reduces what we throw away, thereby reducing pollution. It also sends a message to manufacturers that consumers are paying attention to packaging, especially if you accompany your purchase with an email thanking your manufacturer of choice for their minimal packaging style.
Some people like to buy functional "gifts" to improve their homes at Christmas, instead of (or in addition to) buying individual gifts for the family. If you are thinking of getting one that uses water or electricity, pay attention to their certifications.
WaterSense labelling currently includes devices or fixtures that use water, but not electricity. They must have been certified as at least 20% more water-efficient than other such products on the market––like showerheads, toilets, kitchen, and bathroom sink faucets and accessories.
Energy Star labelling includes devices that use gas or electricity, and which may or may not use water. These devices save energy and often conserve water too. They can include washers and dryers, televisions, air conditioners, furnaces, water heaters, refrigerators, and dishwashers.
Product Lifetime Warranty
Yes, they do still exist. Lifetime or long term warranties are a boon to manufacturers who care about quality. I once had an umbrella with a lifetime warranty that I replaced twice, sending the old one back to the manufacturer each time, so they could check it out. This helped the manufacturer know what needed improvement in their product, so they could make a better one. Long term warrantees also build loyalty in customers.
Research carefully when you see a lifetime warranty offered. Some manufacturers can be tricky. They will manufacture a product with built-in obsolescence—like five years instead of a possible twenty—then offer a "lifetime warranty" for the five-year product.
If you can find a product that offers a real lifetime warranty, it's something to take advantage of. Good gift products I found on the Internet just now with lifetime warranties are garage cabinets/workbenches, travel bags (lifetime, but limited to repairs of functional damage), headphones, and wedding rings. This was just a cursory search, so I'm sure there are many more.
Donations to Eco-Friendly Non-Profits
There comes a time in every family's life when the feeling of dread about credit card expenditures begins to overwhelm the joy of giving, or when the family no longer needs or wants more "stuff." One of the best ways to handle this is by giving to charities or other non-profits in the name of the recipient. In addition to cutting expenditures it helps you fulfill the true purpose of the holiday—uplifting the lives of others and/or making the world a better place.
There are several considerations to take into account when choosing this type of gift:
- Does your recipient normally donate to causes? If so, they might even prefer this kind of gift. If not, you'd better ask them first.
Does your recipient volunteer their time to a cause? A donation to that organization could be perfect.
What kinds of causes does your recipient otherwise support? I am a strong environmentalist, so if you gave a donation in my name to plant a tree in Costa Rica to help grow back their forests, I would love it. But if you gave one to help support drug research, I wouldn't be unhappy. (I dislike how allopathic drugs are used in our society.)
Would they be happier being part of a larger donation that came from the whole family? If so, include everyone in selecting a cause to which the family will donate.
Source List for Eco-Friendly Gifts
If you like to buy online, but are unsure of where to find green environmentally-friendly products, try some of the links below. Green America's directory links to artisans all over the United States that make their own products and use high-quality raw materials. Etsy sells handmade products directly through onsite artisanal stores. The next link is a list of nonprofits, and the final one provides ratings on nonprofits to show which ones use their donations most effectively.
- Green Business Directory
Green America is a well established, ever-growing cooperative that supports the growth of American artisans and American made organic products.
- Etsy.com | Shop for anything from creative people everywhere
Find handmade, vintage, and unique goods that express who you are.
- NonProfit Organizations Search
Search this database of nearly 40,000 U.S. nonprofits to find one in your area that you resonate to. Provides information, details, and maps.
- Charity Navigator
An independent auditor that audits the finances of non-profits for efficiency and transparency, especially in the way they use donor funds. The site has many lists of top rated charities.
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Sustainable Sue