Words by Rose Mary Petrass
The holiday season is usually synonymous with excess consumption. For most, getting into the Christmas spirit means putting up a tree or decorations, shopping for presents for your brother / aunt / neighbour / significant other, and eating huge amounts of food with loved ones.
However, this season is not traditionally a time of sustainability. The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) has calculated that the ‘silly season’ produces on average a staggering 2.8 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, and uses roughly 100,000 megalitres of water. And that’s just in Australia alone.
In order to reduce this statistic going forward, here are our tips for a more sustainable gifting experience.
Enjoy a staycation
Although we all love a good trip, the silly season is often the most costly season to travel – both in terms of dollars and carbon. There are plenty of ways to enjoy that vacation vibe without getting on a plane. Load up the backpacks for a hiking trip, take advantage of Australia’s train system, book a hotel in your city, or simply stay at home and put your feet up.
Many of us have family spread out across the country – or the globe – so move the festivities online via Zoom or FaceTime. Not only does this cut down on greenhouse gas emissions from travel (by air, road or sea), it also saves you money by reducing the amount of people you need to buy gifts for!
If you do have to travel over the holidays, you can estimate the CO2 impact of your travel here.
Choose a gift with purpose and meaning
According to Planet Ark, most Australian homes contain an average of $4200 worth of unused goods. Challenge yourself to avoid buying too much unnecessary stuff that will only be used once and then thrown away. Instead, choose just one or two gifts with value, a long term purpose, or a personal meaning. It could make reference to an inside joke or memory you share, something useful that you know they need, or something like a potted plant which will (hopefully) last a lifetime and continue to grow.
Shop small and shop local
It is always better to support a small local business than a major retailer, not just because you’re directly helping someone’s business; but their practices are likely more sustainable (think handmade wares or hand packed orders).
Have a look online or at your local markets to find some small businesses to support during these difficult times, particularly those that are run by women or people of colour.
Put thought into your gift and take the time to research the small businesses around you, to ensure that you’re making the most ethical and environmentally friendly choice for your gifts. Not only will this do a great thing for our planet by avoiding excessive packaging and the huge carbon cost of overseas shipping, it will also help your community and boost your local economy. By choosing a unique gift that has been made with love and care, you can skip out on mass produced products that are harmful on our planet.
Always better than a physical present is the gift of an experience. Whether it’s a concert, trip to the zoo, or even just a DIY picnic outdoors, gifting an experience gives the everlasting gift of memories, which is far more important than ‘stuff’.
Look for unique experiences in your area – it could be a local restaurant voucher, a workshop (such as a clay workshop or painting class), or, you could gift what a friend gave me: a bungee jump experience!
DIY, or opt for second-hand
Doing it yourself helps both the environment and your wallet. If you have a special skill or have recently learned a new one, why not make some gifts yourself? Whether you love to paint, bake, or sew, get creative and give something personal and made with love.
You could also have a look around your local charity shop and purchase a pre-loved gift for your loved one. Hint: pre-owned gifts don’t need to be tacky! You can find good quality jewellery, toys, games, and homewares at charity shops.
There’s contested opinions surrounding re-gifting presents, but you can also donate your unwanted gifts after Christmas to the less fortunate.
Alternative card options
1.5 billion Christmas cards are thrown away by UK households each year. To reduce this, you can use an e-card, or create a personalised card or gift tag yourself, using a digital platform like Canva or good old-fashioned pen and paper.
Alternatively, organisations such as Oxfam Australia offer charity donation cards, which give a donation to people in need. You can also do what I did this year — gift a biodegradable plantable card containing seeds. The recipient can simply stick it in soil, water it, and watch their garden grow! There are even companies which offer native Australian plant seeds to plant in your garden and contribute to the native ecosystem.
Switch to eco-friendly wrapping
Given how much wrapping ends up in the bin after each Christmas (over 150,000km to be exact), it makes sense to swap out your traditional red and green for something a bit more eco-friendly. Not to mention tiny pieces of sticky tape, ribbons, and glitter — which cannot be recycled, and pollute the waterways and soil in the form of microplastics.
Where you can, try to reuse wrapping paper and ribbon, or choose a more environmentally friendly option. You can use scarves, old magazines, or try your hand at Furoshiki — the traditional Japanese method of using cloth fabric as gift wrapping.
Organise meals ahead of time to reduce food waste
Given it’s right before the new year, people often use the holiday season as a time to gorge on food, and whilst there’s absolutely nothing wrong with indulging, there is something to be said about buying food in excess, and letting it go to waste.
According to OzHarvest, one-third of the food we make goes to waste! Christmas dinners alone have been calculated to produce the same carbon footprint as if a single car drove around the world 6000 times!
To avoid the over-buying that leads to food wastage, don’t leave your food shopping to the last minute. Organise ahead of time to avoid overspending or purchasing items with plastic packaging. Shop local from markets, and try to keep it plant-based where possible, to cut carbon emissions in half.
If you do inevitably end up with leftovers, don’t bin them all! Freeze what’s unspoiled, and if you are still left with far too much, you donate some items to your community or your local food rescue charity, and compost anything else.
Whether it’s the quickly-approaching festive season, or some other occasion that calls for gifting in the near future, we’re here to help you spread cheer, sustainably.
First published January 6 2021, updated December 13 2021