The holiday period is a time of great joy for many people, with fond memories stretching back to childhood and even through generations. It is a period steeped in ritual and tradition, and the familiarity of these holidays year on year is a big part of their appeal. Over time however these traditions have developed to become increasingly materialistic and now, in the face of the climate emergency, they warrant reexamination. Even long before Christmas there is Halloween and Black Friday, whose advent and then expansion from the high street to ecommerce has accelerated those consumerist tendencies.
Much of what we enjoy about this time – indulgence in food and drink, gift giving, even travelling to see family, comes at a cost for the environment. As awareness of the scope of the climate emergency grows, this is (or should be) an increasing source of guilt. Meanwhile, the emphasis on family can make it an extremely lonely time for some, and the pressure to spend money can be financially stressful. These issues are all compounded by the covid pandemic, which has disrupted the economy and affected everyone financially. It has also accelerated the decline of the high street in favour of ecommerce, whose supply chain further increases the carbon footprint of the products we consume.
Vast sums are spent during this period, sometimes purely out of a sense of obligation, on gifts that are neither desired, appreciated, nor ever used. Some of them go straight to the back of cupboards by January, the first stage of their inevitable journey to landfill, while their buyers struggle under the financial burden of having paid for them.
LOOKING TOWARDS A SOLUTION
We must adjust our behaviour around gift giving as part of our efforts to save the planet, but it doesn’t have to be a negative experience. By considering what we want to achieve through the practice, and how best to achieve it, we can not only avoid all this waste but also create a more fulfilling experience for all parties.
Gift giving is ultimately a way of showing appreciation to others. A good present is well thought out and brings joy to both the receiver and the giver. The requirement to find presents for many different people at the same time sucks the joy out of the process, turning it into a stressful, time-consuming and expensive chore. We have to spread our resources – whether that be time, money or effort – so thinly that it becomes difficult and we are forced to compromise just to get it done.
By improving the way we go about gift giving we can return to its ultimate purpose while negating its harmful impact. We should consider giving non-material gifts more often, and we can lessen the impact of material gifts by giving higher quality in smaller numbers, and by considering their source.
No matter how much money one has, most of us feel like we never have enough time to do the things that really make us happy. ‘Time is money’, the saying goes, yet it may be more precious than that. If so, why not make a gift of time? This could be by paying for a service to save someone the time of doing something, such as cleaning, or it could be more creative.
Try to find out something that a loved one has been wanting to get around to for a long time and see if you could do it for them. This could bring a lot more joy than any object because, by taking on that task, you give them the time they have been intending to spend on it, and you also relieve all the feelings of frustration or guilt they’ve been feeling around it. It is personal and thoughtful. You could mend someone’s clothing for them – maybe they have a favourite sweater sitting in a draw with moth holes. By fixing it, it will be like a brand new object but one you know they already love. It will have good memories associated with it AND you gave them the gift of time.
Being kind to other people and doing nice things for them creates feelings of happiness in ourselves. The same applies to money – one study gave money to two groups of people, telling them either to spend it on themselves or on someone else. Who reported greater feelings of happiness afterwards? Those who spent on others.
Of course when giving a gift you are normally the one in that position, but you can pass it on by giving someone else the opportunity to have that experience. A gift of a donation on behalf of the recipient is a possibility, but risks sidelining the recipient and feeling more like a donation from the giver, related to the recipient in name only. In the UK it is possible to buy a charity gift card that gives the recipient the choice of where to spend their donation, restoring a sense of their agency to the process. If you live somewhere else it may be worth checking if a similar scheme is available, otherwise you could just ask the person where they want their donation to go.
Scientific research has shown that we derive more enjoyment from spending money on experiences than on objects, and there’s no reason why the same would not be true when spending on others in the form of gifts. The enduring memories created by a great experience will be forever associated with your gift, likely meaning it will be far more appreciated than anything that can be wrapped up in paper. And by spending money on an experience you also support all the people employed in facilitating that experience, rather than fuelling manufacturing.
Better still, you could combine the gift of an experience with the value of contributing to a good cause, as discussed above. The live entertainment industry is one of the worst hit by the covid pandemic and continues to struggle badly. This year you could give out memberships or gift cards to theatres, music venues or cinemas.
OTHER WAYS TO GIVE GIFTS
We don’t necessarily need to give up on giving material gifts altogether though. Sometimes a particular physical object can be just the right gift for someone when we have time to think about it, and the ritual aspect of unwrapping presents is an enjoyable tradition. Of course we should reduce that impact through reusing wrappings as far possible, and recycling them when not. Gift bags have a longer lifetime, though they don’t produce quite the same experience. As for the objects within the wrappings, there are various ways we can source presents with less damage to the environment.
BUY SECOND HAND AND SUPPORT THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY
Consider second hand, vintage or charity shops to look for gifts if you want to browse for ideas. If you have something specific in mind for someone, set up eBay searches and browse local listings websites. It may take a bit more time and effort than buying new, but you will save money. At the same time, you will help develop the circular economy to extend the life cycle of every item to its greatest possible length, making the most use out of its carbon footprint rather than continuing to fuel manufacture. If you’re going down this route though it pays to start a bit earlier, giving you time to identify an item and wait for an option to become available, or to get a head start if you’re browsing.
A more radical proposal is to consider giving away your own items. Gifts are as much, if not more, about sentiment than about usefulness, and something connected to you by memory may be received as a more meaningful gesture. Don’t treat this as a way to clear out your rubbish, the unusual nature of such a gift means you will need to give careful consideration to how your choice of gift fits the recipient, or it risks coming off as the former. Perhaps someone has always admired a possession of yours, expressing admiration without it ever occurring that you might give it to them. Imagine the delight and surprise such a gift could bring. This might seem a strange idea at first, but it has the potential to be very kind and meaningful as you’re not just buying something to give to someone, you actually have to give something up yourself. That said, there may be things you don’t want or need anymore but that someone else would still appreciate.
BUY LOCAL AND SUSTAINABLE
Alternatively, if you don’t want to go second hand, buy from local artisans to reduce the lifetime carbon footprint of the item. If this isn’t possible, then at least research the companies you are considering purchasing from to find as ethical and environmentally friendly a source as possible (The app ‘Good On You’ rates clothing brands on ethics and sustainability, for a start).
GIVE FEWER, HIGHER QUALITY GIFTS
The most important suggestion is to reduce the overall amount of gifts that we give. By doing so, we can increase the budget of time, money or effort we give to each individual gift, while reducing the amount of these resources expended overall. Thus we can reduce the financial strain of the holiday period and make it more enjoyable. We can stop thinking about shopping for gifts as a stressful checklist, and instead focus on our appreciation for the person or people we are giving to. We can transform a chore to a fulfilling experience for ourselves, and focus on bringing joy to the receiver through our gifts.
For those fortunate enough to have many others close to them it may feel impossible to exclude enough of them to make any difference. The answer is to make agreements in advance in family (or other groups with mutual gift giving) to follow the Secret Santa model. Each person is secretly assigned one other person to give to, sometimes with a price cap, and the identity of the giver remains secret. Of course you can modify this however you want. You might want to exclude children from the arrangement, you could decide to put each name in the hat twice rather than once for a few more gifts. You can choose to reveal the identity of the giver, and instead of a price cap you could make a commitment to only buy second hand, or to make rather than buy your gifts.
This suggestion makes most of the previous ones more realistic. Experiences and local, sustainable gifts are prone to be more expensive than the kinds of gifts you can buy on the high street. Buying second hand and making gifts takes time, as of course does giving your own time as a gift. Changing all your gifts following these principles might be difficult, but by focussing on a smaller number they become more possible.
FOCUS ON SPENDING TIME WITH ONE ANOTHER
Another shift we can try to make is from focussing on what we give, to how we give it. If gifts are about showing appreciation for one another, that should be centered in our rituals rather than the objects. In the Sinterklaas tradition in the Netherlands, people are assigned a recipient as with Secret Santa. As well as a gift, they are expected to write a poem about the person. That means giving attention to the person being written about, considering their character and the relationship, and is much more personal than just buying something for them. Going through all of these creates a ceremony, which we can all take influence on in terms of shifting focus from gifts to the process of giving.
Doing nice things for other people, pleasant experiences that create lasting memories, and personal connections all make us happier than material possessions. In addition, expressing gratitude is known to increase feelings of wellbeing. Gift giving is a way of expressing gratitude for our relationship to someone, and gives the chance for the person to express gratitude for the gift in return.
All these things give us great potential to emphasise certain aspects of our gift giving to make it more fulfilling. If we can do that, we might feel less need to keep buying things for everyone. This is something we can focus on at the same time as reducing the volume and cost of gifts we give, to avoid feeling like something is missed compared to previous years, and hopefully to make the experience even more enjoyable in the process.
DON’T GIVE IN TO GUILT. TAKE STEPS TO CHANGE
If you’re feeling guilty about the impact of your holiday celebrations on the environment, changing how you gift is a great place to start addressing that concern. There is a lot more to consider though, such as disposable plastic decorations, and food sourced by air travel then often wasted or overconsumed. By reducing the time and money spent on gifts, perhaps you will be freed up to pay some extra attention to these other areas as well. There is a limit to how much personal responsibility one can take though, particularly at a time when you are bound by tradition to engage in certain practices, especially with others who may not be as concerned as you. It is important to do what we can, but it is pointless to feel guilt for things outside our control.
CARBONCANCEL OFFERS A TOOL TO HELP
That’s where CarbonCancel’s tools come in handy. By calculating and offsetting the remainder of your carbon footprint (once you’ve done everything you can to reduce it) you can make sure to be doing all that you can, and lay any guilt to rest. You could even consider a CarbonCancel membership as a gift to others.
Finally, if adjusting your gift giving practices has left you with spare time or money, consider using that surplus for good. Climate guilt is not the only mental health issue triggered by this period. Social isolation and financial insecurity are rife, and you can help either of these with either spare time or spare money. You can volunteer to call lonely people, help at homeless shelters or food banks, or donate money to the organisations doing those kinds of work.