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The holidays are a time of great internal conflict for me. As a conservationist, I see the holidays as a time of massive waste and over-consumerism. In fact, some estimate that waste increases by 25% over our normal consumption.
But being part of a family business, we also depended on the holidays quite literally to survive. When I was growing up, the holidays would make up to 40% of our overall profits!
And as a fancy scientist, I love shopping and stuff. I do. I’m sorry. I am not a minimalist. The holidays are often the fanciest with an abundance of glitter and sparkles (my favorites, but also bad for the environment).
Navigating between all of these things can therefore be quite difficult. In this post, I’m going to try to help you have a more sustainable holiday season without hurting the families that depend on it and look fabulous.
I think we can still celebrate the holidays, while not increasing our waste to the degree we are today. Ironically, our family store drew in the most business decades ago around the holidays when there was far less consumerism. I’ve seen it change massively in even the last 10 years (here’s a shocking fact – we used to not have any Christmas decorations up before Thanksgiving). Here’s my tips on how we can do this together.
1. Have a Conversation: Opt to Buy Less or Not at All
So this one theoretically might have an impact on small businesses, but it also might not. Hear me out. You don’t have to exchange presents. One of the biggest problems from the holidays is the accumulation of more stuff that we don’t need, want, or like. Yes, you can donate or regift, but it’s best to not buy it in the first place. A third of donations can end up in landfills!
My parents never wanted presents, so I’ve been doing this since forever with them. About ten years ago, my brother and I stopped exchanging gifts. Some years, my husband and I don’t even exchange gifts. Lots of us have too much stuff and when we get presents, we get stuff that we don’t need, want, or may already have.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t buy stuff though, it just means that I buy the things I want. In fact, I may even buy my own present and spend more money buying something quality that I really want (my next tip). This is how my brother and I feel. We are both adults and we buy things for ourselves that we want. Boring? Yes, but we get what we want and we also largely purchase from companies we believe in.
Fewer gifts could mean less spent for the holidays and therefore impact local businesses, but I suspect that most people are buying impersonal gifts on Amazon or gift cards at Starbucks that won’t affect local businesses anyhow. When you start cutting people out off your buying list, you let go of the ones you don’t know as well. Do you really need to exchange presents with your coworkers? Or distant relatives? Just try having a conversation. I usually say, “is it okay if we don’t exchange gifts this year?”
Not buying presents makes your holidays extremely stress free! Buying for fewer people means you can spend more on gifts that count both financially and in the thought behind them.
2. Choose Quality Over Quantity in Gifts
I view my purchases as an investment and I want them to last over time. Throughout the years , companies have intentionally made things more disposable, whether it’s electronics intentionally made to break or fast fashion meant to only last a season, get holes, and start to fall apart.
I learned from our family jewelry business that quality is always better than quantity. When you invest in something quality, it therefore lasts longer, which means less has to be made overall. For jewelry, I’ve bought cheap costume jewelry and have kept it over the years and it always turns and breaks down. I personally would rather have a single quality necklace than a bunch that will go in a landfill (especially if they are made of plastic, which doesn’t break down).
Also gold and gemstones are recycle-able, whereas plastic jewelry is not. Approximately 30% of gold in 2020 came from recycled gold from discarded jewelry and electronic waste like cellphones and laptops.
Nowadays, I am buying better, but fewer things that I really love and wearing/using them longer. This holiday try buy fewer quality presents.
3. Give Experiences Instead of Things
Another way to have a more sustainable holiday is to give experiences over things. When I was in Buffalo visiting my family I stopped by the W Spa to pick up a gift certificate for my sister. This is a great way to support local businesses (and female entrepreneurs too). Some experiences you might consider gifting include:
- Spa days, massages
- Local travel (weekend getaway)
- Theater and museum events
- Exercise classes
- Online courses
- Electronic subscriptions (e.g. newspapers)
- A Rent the Runway subscription
Have any more ideas? Leave them in the comments below.
4. Give Donations
Just because Giving Tuesday is over doesn’t mean you can’t give donations as gifts for the holidays! My mom never wanted anything, so giving to charities for presents has been a long-standing tradition in my family (my sister HAS to give gifts – she loves Christmas, so this is what she would always give).
We loved to “adopt” specific animals either at sanctuaries (we love the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee) or representative animals in the wild. As an adopter, you pay for the animal’s care for part of the year or conservation efforts that will ensure their protection. Some of my favorite organizations to give to are the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund. I worked alongside them both in my Ph.D. research in Gabon and now with Wildlife Insights and have seen them do amazing work for wildlife. WWF will even give you a stuffed animal to represent your wild animal and they have some really obscure animals you are unlikely to see anywhere else.
5. Give New-to-You Presents
Presents don’t need to be new; they only need to be new to you! I transitioned into consignment shopping for myself because I wanted to get higher quality clothes and I thought purchasing designer brands was the best way to go about it. However, I couldn’t afford designer prices. My friend introduced me to the Real Real and I love them so much that I am now an affiliate for them. I’ve received several presents from there since I told my family I love them. Something like bags are easy to buy because you don’t need to know sizes.
I also love ThredUp, which is an even more affordable secondhand site then the Real Real. At ThredUp, you’ll find some designer brands, but more affordable ones that are regularly at the mall like Ann Taylor, Loft, Banana Republic, and the Limited. I needed new skinny jeans, so I looked for my size and the Limited on ThredUp and found a pair right away. I also love Athleta and needed some warmer athletic wear. Again, I searched the brand and knew my size because it’s a company I purchase from somewhat regularly. There are tons of great gift ideas on both ThredUp and the Real Real.
Don’t stop with clothes. I buy almost all of my furniture used and it is super fun to give it a fresh coat of paint to give it personality. Check out my home decorating Pinterest board for inspiration. I love to post colorful dressers.
There are so many things to upcycle! Check out my friend Kristen’s blog for hundreds of upcycling ideas for gifts.
6. Purchase from Companies that Prioritize Sustainability
On my journey to escape fast fashion, I discovered a lot of great companies that still make quality products while reducing their impact on the environment. These companies all work on reducing their waste and have more sustainable practices. Some of my favorites are:
- 4ocean Recycled Bracelets: Each bracelet purchased means 1 lb of plastic is removed from the ocean
- Tonlé zero waste fashion: Use leftover fabrics to create new fashions.
- Armour Vert sustainable fashion: Use sustainable fabrics
- Beautycounter sustainable skincare and makeup: Sustainable packaging and sourcing, bans ingredients that can impact you and wildlife (e.g. endocrine disrupters), B corporation
- Athleta sportswear: Many garments are made with recycled and sustainable fabrics, B corporation
- Patagonia outerwear: They use sustainable materials and you can send items back for repair. You can also shop used items! B corporation
- Prana sports and outerwear: Sustainable, organic, and recycled fabrics. B corporation.
Shopping and Wrapping Gifts:
7. Use the Slowest Shipping Option
Getting faster shipping options may be convenient, but it has a greater toll on the environment. Getting the slowest option is best. Make sure you allow yourself time for your items to arrive (no last minute shopping). You will also be less stressed out!
8. Bundle Your Orders in Fewer Places
To reduce shipping overall and therefore all of the carbon emissions from transporting your items, try to order only from a few places and get all of your items at once when you buy. I do this all of the time for myself. When I am ordering, I will buy things I know I need in the future. It’s also super convenient because when you run out of something it’s already in the house.
You can also do this yourself while shopping. Rather than going from store to store, see if you can consolidate your items to one place of shopping.
9. Don’t Wrap Presents
This may not work for everyone, but if you are an adult giving to another adult, do you really need to wrap the present? If you want an element of surprise, can you put it in a box or a bag (even if it’s ugly)?
Wrapping presents is a big waste of paper and plastic (plastic from the bows or other accessories). A lot of it is not recyclable, for instance if it is shiny or has glitter. A lot of it actually does have plastic on it! Although glitter is so beautiful, it’s awful for the environment. It’s basically tiny pieces of plastic. This one is painful for me, because I love glitter, but I care about the environment more.
10. Wrap Creatively
If you have to wrap, think of creative options for wrapping like newspapers (although most people don’t get them anymore). There are a lot of free magazines and local papers that you could pick up and use! I order items from Vitacost and they always provide brown packing paper in the boxes. You could use paper like this and it would make a present look like it was wrapped in the 1900s. How fun is that? See how creative you can get with your wrapping! If you have other ideas, post them below.
11. Reuse Wrapping Paper
If you have to use wrapping paper (my sister insists), when you open presents, open them carefully at the edges and save the paper for next year. You can do this fairly well with larger gifts. However, if they are small, there’s not much to work with for future gifts. Small gifts work really well in pretty bags, which can be used easily from year to year. Definitely save the bows – those are super easy to reuse for years and years and years.
When people think of having a sustainable holiday, they automatically think of presents, but there is a lot of waste is in the production, consumption of, or excessive purchasing of food. A lot of this food doesn’t even make it into our bellies! What you eat can also impact the climate and wildlife a lot too.
12. Eat Regular Amounts of Food
People go crazy food-wise over the holidays. On Thanksgiving especially, you are expected to stuff yourself to the point of discomfort. It doesn’t have to be this way! Food production, especially meat, contributes greatly to climate change.
You can definitely indulge and enjoy cookies and pie, but we don’t need to make ourselves sick. This holiday season, think about how much food you are serving and how much will be wasted. Can you prevent that? Come January when everyone starts their fad diets, you will be happy you ate as if you normally did.
13. Add More Plants, Less Meat to Holiday Meals
Your holiday meals do not need to revolve around meat! I was a vegetarian growing up and we had amazing and beautiful meat-free meals every holiday. It’s super easy now with all of the great meat alternatives (I LOVE Beyond Meat!). You can make a lot of meat dishes, but just replace the meat with an alternative.
You don’t have to go meat-free though to have a more sustainable holiday season. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good. Reducing your meat consumption will still help as red meat is especially bad for climate change. If you do eat meat, purchase your meat from a local farmer with pastures. The meat you get will be better for you, has less of an impact on climate change, the animal is treated much more humanely, you will be supporting local businesses.
14. Use Real Plates and Silverware
Single use plastics are a huge problem for wildlife, especially marine animals as most of it eventually ends up in the ocean. Instead of buying disposable stuff, use real plates and silverware. At office work parties, ask people to bring their own plates, silverware, and cups to the party. We do this at the museum I work at and it works out fine! It also is easier for the party planner.
15. Use Compostable Plates and Silverware (and Actually Put it in the Compost)
If you have to buy disposable stuff, avoid plastic, and make sure it is compostable. Then, put it in the compost! Stuff doesn’t break down in landfills; it needs oxygen to break down. Compost Now is a great option for people who are lazy (like me) or that live in apartments.
Those are my tips for a more sustainable holiday season. A lot of these tips also make the holidays a lot less stressful, so it’s a win-win. What are some of your favorite tips that I missed?
Stephanie Schuttler is a wildlife biologist with 17 years of experience in mammal ecology and conservation, education, and outreach. Read her inspirational story, “My Unexpected Journey Into Science” to find out how she went from the daughter of a jeweler to a Ph.D. in wildlife biology. Feel free to contact Stephanie here.
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