“What’s this?” My dad unwrapped the gift I gave him and he was confused. I was a poor eco-minded college student. I thought giving him used books was a win-win. Except it wasn’t. What I overlooked is that to be truly sustainable gifts have to be wanted.
“What should we do about presents this year?” When you’re an eco-conscious person, you have to come up with a new answer to this question every year. Sure, you can set up your own plastic-free or no-toy or even no-gift practices at home but what about the grandparents? Your friends? The gift exchanges at work?
How can you give and receive sustainable gifts they’ll want while honoring your values? It takes a little more thought than a random one-click buy.
No one wants to be the family Scrooge, bah humbugging all over the celebration. And no one wants to give someone something that they don’t actually want.
Instead, you want to give and receive gifts that are in alignment with your eco-friendly values AND will be wanted and useful. It wouldn’t hurt if you could get gifts for less too.
Imagine you could commit to some guidelines, take the time to buy or make gifts you feel good about, and be sure that your gifts will delight your loved ones.
You can, by following the guidelines here. If you follow these guidelines for sustainable gift giving, you’ll be able to confidently give gifts your people will enjoy
What is a sustainable gift?
Is there such a thing as a sustainable gift? If it’s something tangible, every object has materials, energy and labor that went into it. Even digital gifts have a carbon footprint.
What are your sustainability goals? Are you primarily concerned with low-carbon emissions? Plastic-free? Social justice? Local economy?
A sustainable gift is one that furthers sustainability in one or more ways and will be loved and/or used by the recipient.
Sustainable gift giving guidelines
Even though there are infinite gift possibilities and ever-changing ways to find specific gifts, there are enduring principles for doing it sustainably.
These hints will help you avoid a random panic-purchase the night before the big day.
Start your sustainable gift search early
The earlier you start the more successful you’ll be. Some sustainable strategies take a little more time to research or to ship. Do-it-yourself options take time to make. It takes research to find good second-hand gift options. Start a little early if possible.
Get them what they actually want
Do you know what they like? It takes some thought to strike a balance between surprise, what they’ll actually want, and the sustainable options available.
Ask for wish lists from your family, which might include experiences, things, contributions to particular goals that they’re trying to achieve or donations to causes they love.
Progress over perfection
You could decide that this year you’ll buy at least 50% second hand and next year your wrapping will be zero-waste and plastic-free. It’s more important to make an achievable change you can celebrate than to try to do everything and burn out. We’re in it for the long haul.
Define your sustainable gift priorities
You may have sustainable priorities that are different from your giftee’s priorities. If you care about climate emissions then look for second hand items or for brands that use renewable energy in their processes. If your giftee’s priorities are about a strong economy you might look for gifts from local small businesses. Decide what sustainable priorities you’re trying to support and go from there.
Do some research
Start by researching high-quality options for what you want. Then look for comparison prices in the regular market. Armed with knowledge, you can then find the item from a second-hand or sustainable supplier.
Support small business: Who benefits?
More than ever, small and local businesses need our help. Look to your own hometown shops or to merchants in your giftee’s locale. Support independent craftspeople and artists on Etsy.
Look for women and minority-owned businesses who sell what you want to buy. Some platforms like Etsy let you search by “Black-owned” or other filters that make sure you’re supporting people you want to support.
Make memories, not landfill
A lot of eco-people prefer experience gifts, or gifts of the self, of your expertise, and of your time. Experience gifts are more about making and honoring memories, especially if you are part of the memory. Think tickets to performances, courses, and remembrances of special times.
Consumables: Give the gift that goes away
Consumable gifts are gifts that will be used up; things your giftee won’t need to own forever. Hobby supplies and special personal care things they won’t buy for themselves come under this category.
Secondhand: Tap into the vast reservoir of the “pre-loved”
Finding gifts second-hand is one of the best sustainable ways to get what you want while saving money. The key to buying second hand is to be flexible, find reputable sellers and know your return options in advance.
Get it for free
A complete set of weights, bars and bench for free? Yes, that was my son’s gift for his 14th birthday for the cost of posting a “Looking for” post to Freecycle. You can find free gifts on Freecycle, the free section of Craigslist or local “Buy Nothing” groups. Or, you can re-gift something you already own, especially if it has sentimental value or is of high quality and unique.
Durable sustainable gifts: Buy it for life
Or, you can buy high quality goods that will last a long time. A high quality object that will last can be used for a lifetime and passed forward to a grateful recipient. Find high quality items by reading reviews or checking a site like Buy Me Once, or find high quality classics second hand.
What about Amazon?
A lot of sustainable-minded people are quitting Amazon for a whole host of reasons. At the same time, vast numbers of independent sellers sell their wares on Amazon and you can buy used, refurbished and locally handmade items there.
If you do use Amazon, try picking the most sustainable options for shipping and packaging and look for used or refurbished items and independent sellers.
A sustainable gift example: The gift of art
Here’s how it works in practice. Say someone on your list wants to get into colored pencil drawing. It’s pretty easy to get a really nice gift for less using sustainable options.
Colored pencils: First, make a list of high quality brands using a review article like this one, then look at new prices on an art supply website. New professional quality colored pencils cost $1-3 per pencil. Then go to Ebay or another second hand marketplace and search for “colored pencils” with the condition set to “Used”. Next, check OfferUp, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace and find some more good, cheap options locally.
That’s a very nice sustainable gift, and one you can feel good about. You could give just a few of these items and it would be a lovely gift for the would-be artist.
Sustainable gifts for everyone on your list
Use the same thinking to find sustainable gifts for everyone on your list, no matter who they are or what they like.
Do It Yourself sustainable gifts
Unless you started a year ago, make DIY an add-on to your gifting plan rather than the whole plan. Great DIY options include making zero waste home items, personal care and food gifts. DIY waxed amaryllis bulbs make a great little host gift. Homemade cards and wrapping paper or reusable fabric gift bags are other good DIY options.
Make sure the DIY aspect is something fun that restores you this holiday season, not something that’s going to have you up spitting and cursing into the wee hours of the night.
For the fashionista: Sustainable clothing gifts
Some people like shopping for clothes. I’m not one of them. Buying and selling your closet online has become a way for fashionistas to be fashionable sustainably. It’s a way to get high quality durable brands without shelling out big bucks.
For the fashionistas on your list, consider a gift card from Thredup. At Thredup every item is carefully inspected. You can choose items from the warehouse closest to you for faster delivery and lower shipping costs.
Find athletic and outdoor gear here as well as fashionable finds.
For the reader on your list
There’s a wonderful Christmas Eve tradition in Iceland where everyone gets a book and spends the evening reading. To do it in a sustainable way, buy used, or buy from a publisher that specializes in green manufacturing and subjects.
My favorite sustainable book publisher is Chelsea Green, with topics including gardening, food, permaculture, homesteading and social justice.
You can find used books in great condition at BetterWorld.com. Choose books in “Very Good” condition. To avoid the randomness factor, get some inside info about titles or topics your giftee would want.
For the gardener on your list
I love the Botanical Interests line of seeds for gifts, in no small part because their illustrated seed packets are a joy to use. Maybe your new gardener would love the herbal tea collection to bring some joy this spring.
Sustainable gifts for the baker on your list
We all panicked at the yeast shortages earlier this year, sparking the great sourdough renaissance. Your artisan bread maker may appreciate an assortment of fancy flours in plastic-free containers and a vintage Mason Cash mixing bowl like the ones they use on the Great British Baking show. Or, they may appreciate a renewed KitchenAid stand mixer while you appreciate the more reasonable price point.
For the tech person on your list
Find like-new certified tech at Amazon to fulfill your giftees’ tech wishlist. I recently found renewed photography equipment there for a fraction of the price of new. Refurbished items are guaranteed with the same warranty as new and are certified to be in perfect condition.
Sustainable gifts for the lifelong learner
You can browse the courses at the Great Courses catalog. Our family has enjoyed the Fundamentals of Photography course and Everyday Engineering.
Sustainable personal care gifts
Bath and body products are go-to gifts. You can find good organic and plastic-free makeup, hair and skin care products at Earth Hero. Sustainable crowd favorites include Elate cosmetics in bamboo packaging and fancy bath and body products.
For the would-be zero waster
First, make sure going zero waste is your giftee’s goal and not just a goal you think they should have. You don’t need to buy anything to go zero waste but there are some items that make it more convenient.
It’s alive! Living sustainable gifts
Or, give a mushroom grow kit that will grow edible mushrooms. Oyster mushrooms are some of the easiest mushrooms to grow at home, just by keeping the kit moist and in a warm spot. It never gets old to watch mushrooms fruit like magic.
Gifts of memory
My favorite gift ever was an “I Love You” jar with slips of paper on which my kids wrote things they love about me. Every parent would love that and it doesn’t cost a thing.
If your giftee has piles of film negatives or memorabilia, or stacks of CDs, consider having them digitized and turned into something they can use. That has the added benefit of helping them declutter if they want to.
The sustainable gift that keeps on giving
For the person who really truly does not want a thing
For the person who definitely has everything they want or need, consider a gift that honors their values. A donation to a local food bank in their name would honor them. Or donate to another cause they care about. You can find and review charities using Charity Navigator.
Or, you can symbolically adopt a blue-footed booby in their name through the World Wildlife Fund. If you’re buying for a gardener, consider adopting a seed or a species from the Kew Millennium Seed Bank, where they’re working to save the seeds of rare and useful plants.
The gift of time
Your loved ones want to spend time with you. An easy gift is to give coupons to share your expertise, your time or your work to help them.
A coupon for a lunch date, for home-cooked dinners, for help with something you know they need done, housecleaning, babysitting, really anything that helps them or shares something of yourself will be appreciated. Then, schedule it so it really happens.
The gift of experience
For the culturally-aware try giving a membership to a local museum, science center or tickets to a performance. Like local small businesses, cultural centers need our support.
Lots of performances have moved to virtual or socially-distanced options at lower capacity. Some outdoor cultural centers like botanical gardens and arboretums can still be visited safely. Find museums in your giftee’s location at the “Museum Finder”.
Wrapping and shipping your sustainable gift
Getting the gift is just the start. How can you get the person the gift in a sustainable way? A lot of gift wrapping paper is not recyclable because it’s covered in foil or plastic. If it stays balled up when you scrunch it it should be recyclable. If it bounces back it’s not. If it’s covered in plastic tape and bows it’s a problem for recycling centers.
To avoid all that, use fabric wraps or bags or use recycled and recyclable wrapping paper from Etsy. You can find paper tape, twine and reusable fabric bows there too.
Reuse some of the cardboard boxes we all have laying around. If you’re using Amazon ou can decrease the carbon impact of shipping by starting early so things don’t need to be expedited, or picking a day to combine all your shipments. Etsy’s offsets all of their shipments automatically.
No more “What’s this?” Sustainable gift success every time
With these tips and sustainable gift options there’s no disconnect between your sustainable values and your desire to delight your friends and family. With a bit more thought and planning you can give sustainable gifts that people will love.
Plus, you don’t need to do everything at once. If you pick just one change to make this year, that’s good. It’s more important to make progress than to try to do everything at once and burn out.
Any bit of progress feels really good. Your family will see that sustainable options are just as good or better than gifting the old way, and you’ll enjoy the benefit of cost savings and satisfaction.
Once you learn these skills and find your go-to sources or new DIY traditions, it will be easier next time. You’ll be the person who’s known for your thoughtful gifts that delight and support your loved ones.
Do you have a “best gift ever” story to share or a question about sustainable gifting? Leave it in the comments or send me a question over email. I read and respond to every reader comment.