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8 Sustainable Holiday Gift Ideas

By December 6, 2019

By: Tamy Goware and Cécile Poyet

The holiday season provides us with the best excuse to shop for things that neither we nor our loved ones actually need. Since gift-giving often implies reciprocity, once you receive a gift, it can be challenging to reciprocate. So, what are some sustainable holiday gift options? Here are eight ideas.

Offering the gift of your time to care for loved ones, such as offering a few hours of child care to a friend who just had a baby, can be more sustainable and more meaningful than buying things.

1. Give Your Time

Offer your loved ones the most valuable gift of all: your time and attention. This could be something like a gift certificate for babysitting, running an errand, help planning a vacation, or bringing a friend homemade soup when they’re sick. You can get creative with some art supplies to hand-paint or draw a card, or otherwise create your own “gift certificate” offering your time. One teenager I know created a gift certificate that said: “Dad gets to give me 10 minutes of life advice.”

2. Honor a Loved One Through Donating to a Cause

Has a loved one had a close friend or relative been affected by some disease like ALS? Consider making a donation to a fundraiser in their honor. Another fun way to give back is with a Kiva Card, where your recipient gets to choose an entrepreneur to support with a microloan. When the loan is repaid, they can relend those same funds again and again to make an even bigger impact!

3. Buy Fair Trade and Sustainably Farmed Tea & Coffee

Consumable goods are one of the most sustainable gifts you can offer your friends and family. Since many people drink tea or coffee, that can make a great gift that is likely to be enjoyed! There are dozens of ethical brands and varieties to choose from. To maximize your impact, look for B Corps, worker-owned co-ops, women and minority-owned companies, and/or fair trade products like Numi Tea and Red Bay Coffee, for example.

4. Shop at Your Local Thrift Store

Since fashion produces 10% of all humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions, thoughtful thrifted gifts can be a way to be more sustainable. Everybody might not appreciate a second-hand good, so choose wisely. Some categories of items that can be thrifted include upcycled furniture, antique records, jewelry, and collectibles.

5. Buy Used Books

Every year, thousands of libraries have millions of excess books as they make room for new editions. Some books sit in storage, but many get abandoned in landfills. So, the founders of Better World Books have partnered with librarians all across the U.S. to rescue books from landfills, raise money for literacy charities, and thus have environmental and social impact at the same time! Every time you purchase a book on, they donate a book to someone in need. And, they tend to have really good deals on used books and carbon balanced shipping, too!

Make your own gift box

6. Shop Local and Make Your Own Gift Box

While it’s certainly possible to overnight a package from an online retailer, shipping by plane creates a lot more carbon dioxide emissions than ground transportation or slower forms of moving gifts around. Why not go to local stores in your area and make your own gift box that you mail yourself? Yes, it takes more time, but you can create your own mix of gifts that are unique to your recipient rather than generic.

7. Give Money

Even though people spend a lot of money on buying gift cards each year, 29% of people surveyed said they have received a gift card that they never used. Try to avoid plastic gift cards and give some good old cash, or be tech-savvy and use Venmo or Paypal. Giving money means your gift is sure to be useful, especially if you’re not sure what someone might like (such as teenagers!).

People on a hike together

8. Give Experiences, Not Things

Some ideas of experiences you could give as gifts are:

  • A yoga class
  • A massage gift certificate
  • A painting class
  • An architecture tour (here’s an example from Chicago)
  • A sustainable or “green tour” of a city
  • Walking or a Segway tour
  • Tickets to a concert, performance, or sporting event

Why give experiences? Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich has found that experiences tend to be more enjoyable than material purchases because the joy of buying something starts with anticipation.

Last but not least, when you go back to work in January, consider creating a volunteering event for your colleagues at work. Here are some tips on how to run a great volunteering event. Why? Although many food banks get donations and volunteers around the holidays, nonprofits still need your support for the rest of the year, too. And, with Philanthropy Cloud, employees can engage year-round with over 1.4 million nonprofits. Whether it’s volunteering or donating money, making a personal and meaningful impact in your community has never been easier.

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