The holidays are notorious for excess and overconsumption. It’s not just bad news for the planet, though: this excess also creates stress, both emotionally and financially. From food and gifts to wrapping and decor, it’s time to rethink our approach to consumption.
Tough on the planet, tough on us: that’s how the holidays have been for far too long. The US ranks among the highest generators of waste per capita in the world, and that waste increases significantly during the holidays. We don’t appear to be happier for it, either: research shows that Americans feel pressed for time, money, and energy this time of year.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans contribute an additional one million tons of waste per week to our landfills between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day—about 25 percent higher than the rest of the year.
Time to let it gooooo! Together, let’s discover new ways to enjoy the holidays while reducing the stress that many of us feel during this time. Let’s focus on what’s important and, consequently, be kinder on the environment <and> ourselves.
Rethink gift giving
Gifts make up most of the waste of the holiday season—and the stress too! Save your busy trips to the mall.
Meera Jain, an Instagram eco-blogger (@thegreenmum), elementary school teacher, and mum of two girls has a passion for teaching others that green living can be accessible to all on some level. She explains, “I only buy [gifts] as a last resort. My first instinct would be to make something, thrift an item, or offer a skill I already have.”
Buying from a local store or supporting a local brand, artisan, or craftsperson does more than bolster our local economies by putting money back into our communities: it supports the dreams of talented and hardworking small business owners. And that’s a beautiful thing!
Offer an experience
Experience gifts create memories while eschewing waste. Consider ideas such as gift certificates for experiences such as the following:
- restaurants or coffee shops
- a homemade meal
- yoga or meditation
- museums, art galleries, or other attractions
- spas or hair salons
- streaming service for music, movies/TV, or audiobooks
- a family photo shoot
- movie theatres
- bike rentals
“Never underestimate the value of offering someone an experience using a skill you have,” says Jain. “One of the best gifts I have ever received is a night of babysitting and a gift certificate to a vegan restaurant from my sister! A kid-free night out with my husband? Sign me up!”
Many experiences are offered online these days, from yoga classes to general interest courses. Take a look and see what you can discover!
Seek out ethical alternatives
If you’re looking for a material gift, choose something as ethical and eco-friendly as possible. For example, if someone would like a handbag, can you shop at a secondhand or vintage store? If you’re looking for a yoga mat, can you select one that’s made from natural or upcycled materials? If you’re buying chocolate, can you choose organic and fair trade?
What can you make? You may be more skilled than you think! Jain suggests Pinterest and YouTube for inspiration if you’re feeling intimidated. Consider the following ideas:
- a batch of cookies
- DIY lip balm, lotion bars, or sugar scrub
- a framed piece of artwork/photography
- a plant you propagated
- homemade granola
- roasted spiced nuts
- a knitted scarf
- loose leaf tea blends
Sometimes the best gifts are the simplest! Who on your list would prefer cold hard cash? Or perhaps someone really and truly wants nothing, and you can instead donate to a nonprofit organization in their name.
During a recent holiday season, an estimated $4 billion was spent on gift wrap and related products by Americans. No thank you! Here are some other ideas:
- Reuse gift bags and ribbons.
- Consider free, upcycled materials, such as newsprint, magazines, and old maps or calendars.
- Use fabric! Look up the Japanese art of “furoshiki,” or wrapping with cloth. Scour thrift stores for handkerchiefs or vintage scarves; or make the cloth part of the gift: a scarf, tea towel, or baby blanket.
- Research how to wrap without tape. With some strategic folding, tying, or ribbons, you don’t need it!
- Add a flourish with natural materials such as an evergreen branch or holly.
“Always think about how you will dispose of gifts, wrapping, and decorations at the end of their life, and if you can’t find a sustainable way, it’s likely not worth the purchase,” says Jain.
What people cherish most about the holidays is getting together with loved ones, not ornate decorations or lavish centerpieces. When entertaining this year, consider the following strategies:
- Forgo the disposable cutlery and plates. You know the “good” serving ware or cloth napkins that you keep tucked away for a special occasion? Use this excuse to enjoy them.
- Avoid buying new decorations. If you require something you don’t have, check out a thrift store or borrow from nature: use fallen branches, holly, or pinecones for a touch of winter wonderland indoors.
- Eat lower on the food chain. Animal products, in general, have a much higher environmental footprint than plant-based foods. Consider serving a vegan or vegetarian meal; if that’s not possible, simply serve less meat.
- Choose local and seasonal foods when possible.
- Reduce food waste by sticking to a list, preparing a little less than usual, and always composting leftovers. An estimated one-third of all food produced in the world goes to waste.
Be a role model
As Jain explains, “It’s important that, as parents, we model how a life with less is actually more fulfilling. It’s not the material items that make us happy, but rather the memories and who we experience them with that we will remember.
“The psychology behind overconsumption comes from a desire to be happy. We believe that we will feel satisfaction with ourselves if our clothes are fashionable and we have the latest electronics. Let’s work hard to remember and teach our kids that this is not what matters in life.”
Jain encourages open discussion. “My recommendation to parents is to have a discussion as a whole about what the family values are. Kids are so perceptive and caring at heart that they will likely choose the big ideas like love and safety over toys and candy.
“Aside from having candid conversations, modelling the desired behavior is also extremely effective. Ask your kids for a walk in the park as your gift. Show them how baking cookies for your neighbor is more thoughtful than bringing a purchased gift. Kids see a lot more than they hear, so it’s our duty to give them something to watch that is worthwhile.”
What about electronics?
Electronics are typically a top gift, but at a big cost. It’s estimated that in 2020, 57.5 million tons of electronic waste (often called e-waste) were created worldwide. Often, this toxic e-waste is sent to impoverished countries.
Instead, look up organizations near you that refurbish used electronics, and always dispose of your electronics responsibly by sending them to reputable recycling organizations.
“I’d also like to mention that if you have the privilege of buying scads of gifts for your friends and family over the holidays, it always feels good to divert some of those funds to help those who are less fortunate,” Jain reminds us. “I’m sure your loved ones would appreciate that even more this season!”