How to Give Gifts Sustainably This Holiday Season

It’s the most wonderful time of year. Every holiday season people travel far and wide to see loved ones and exchange gifts. It can also be a stressful time of year with pressure to check everyone off your holiday gift list. And sometimes when we can’t find that perfect gift for our favorite cousin, we end up scrambling last minute and picking up something generic so they don’t feel left out.

how to give gifts sustainably woman wrapping a present in brown wrapping paper

It’s a great sentiment to be sure no one feels overlooked, but there’s a dark side to picking up that not-so-perfect item just to include everyone. According to Business Insider, up to $90 billion (yes, billion) of gifts are returned each year.

And while the gift returner probably thinks they’re doing the responsible thing and getting that gift back on the shelf so someone who really wants it can buy it, it can actually cause a major headache and financial burden on retailers. In fact, they often can’t resell the products and end up tossing those returns in the trash even if you haven’t opened them. To be more specific, retailers collectively toss up to five million pounds of returns each year sending them straight to landfills. Once there, they may remain for hundreds or even thousands of years, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

This year, try these tips to be more sustainable as you enjoy the holiday season and give gifts to loved ones.

Make wish lists

Consider talking to your friends and family about creating and sending out wish lists so that you can be sure you’re picking out gifts that your loved ones really want. See if you can get everyone on board and agree that if they don’t make their list, they won’t get gifts. This might also be a good way for people to admit that they really don’t want much without hurting anyone’s feelings. Take it from someone who’s moved a lot – sometimes I really don’t want all those new things cluttering up my small apartment.

Try a secret santa

If wish lists aren’t your thing or you want to maintain the element of surprise that can make gift giving so much fun, talk to your family about doing a secret Santa where everyone gets a gift for one other person. This makes it so that you can put all your energy into picking out the perfect gift for that person without the distraction of all the people you need to shop for. It also ensures that everyone gets exactly one gift, and it cuts down on the total amount of new products you’re creating a demand for.

Buy secondhand gifts

Another option is to go on with gift giving like normal but consider getting your friends and family secondhand gifts as a more sustainable option. Sites like ThredUp make it so you can thrift your gifts without having to hunt for items at a brick and mortar thrift shop. They have high quality clothing, shoes, and accessories and even designer items available. As an added bonus you’ll save money by thrifting this holiday season and may be able to get people nicer items than you’d normally be able to.

Not sure about someone’s style? Consider getting a gift card to a sustainable or secondhand site so they can pick out exactly what they like and you know it’s sustainable.

Gift experiences

Whether you live close to someone or not, gifting an experience is a zero-waste option that builds priceless memories. Take your parents out to dinner at their favorite restaurant, buy your sister tickets to that concert she’s been dying to see, surprise your friend by planning a girls’ trip for after the holiday craziness has died down, or get your dad a gift card to his favorite local coffee shop. If you can be there for the experience that’s even better, but even if you can’t these are gifts that are sure to be appreciated and won’t end up in landfills.

Sustainable wrapping

Gift wrap is another aspect of the holiday season that isn’t always sustainable. You could skip the gift wrap altogether this year, but it’s also really fun and makes everything more festive. Luckily, you don’t have to skip gift wrap to be sustainable, just be thoughtful with your choices. Try using old paper bags, newspapers, or scraps of fabric you have lying around instead of traditional wrapping paper. Finish off the wrapping with a real flower or plant that the gift receiver can keep or compost after the holiday season is over instead of ribbon or plastic bows.

If you do receive gifts in traditional wrapping paper, be sure to read your local recycling laws before assuming it’s all recyclable and tossing it in with your recycling. 

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About Kira Schreiber

Kira grew up in the Chicago suburbs and is passionate about mental health, healthy eating, and sustainability. After spending the first part of her career working for a non profit mental health agency in Southern California, she transitioned to pursue a career in her passion for cooking. Now back in Chicago, Kira spends her days developing healthy recipes for a food tech start up. When not in the kitchen or on her laptop she loves spending time outdoors, hitting up a spin class, or watching home decor DIYs on YouTube.