How to Approach Gift Giving Sustainably (20 Ideas + Tips)

December 1, 2021

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The holiday season means great food, quality time with friends and family, and thoughtful gestures. But, it’s also one of the most wasteful times of the year. Americans throw away 25% more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

One aspect of that waste is holiday gift giving, between unwanted gifts and all the wrapping paper. There are ways to give gifts more mindfully though, from our approach to the items themselves to wrapping.

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Here’s the YouTube video version if you’d rather watch or listen!

Giving Gifts that People Actually Want

Each holiday season, there’s a popular 1993 study by economist Joel Waldfogel that makes the rounds. The paper, published in The American Economic Review, is called “The Deadweight Loss of Christmas.” 

Waldfogel estimates that 10-33% of holiday spending is wasted because the gift receiver doesn’t value the present at the same amount the gift giver paid. For example, if I pay $100 for a gift, but you only value it at $70, that’s $30 of “deadweight loss”. With Americans spending 167 billion on holiday gifts in 2020, this could mean 17-55 billion in deadweight loss.

Now, the study is somewhat controversial, since it focused on Yale students and is not representative of the broader population. It also approaches gift giving from a really theoretical perspective, and doesn’t take into account the sentimental value of presents. 

But whether you agree with the study or not, I’m sure we’ve all been given bad gifts. I’m sure most of us can think of a gift we didn’t value at the same amount the giver paid.

So, how can we avoid situations like this? A great blog article by Will Patrick points out that there’s often a misalignment between gift giver and receiver priorities:

The Gift Giver prioritizes surprise, desirability, materiality, social responsibility. They are often thinking more about the moment of gift exchange rather than the long term.

The Gift Receiver prioritizes usefulness, versatility, quality, need/desire. They’re usually thinking about how the gift will fit into their life long-term.

So, to avoid “bad” gifts, we can try to align with the gift receiver’s priorities as much as possible. Some ways to do that are to:

1. Ask for a list.

The most useful presents I’ve gotten are ones that I’ve asked for. While this does take away the element of surprise (to an extent), it shows that you care about the gift receiver’s desires. You can also let them know that you want to see what they’re interested in, and that you might get something else related to the list. It is possible to actually add value when gift giving, if you can find something the receiver loves that they didn’t originally think about.

Please also respect people’s wishes for no gift. There’s a lot of pressure to give something, but this pressure is what often leads to the worst presents, especially if it’s a more distant relationship.   

2. Think about the best gifts you’ve gotten and what made them good.

Are they your favorites because you still use them years later? Because they remind you of special memories? Because they fit into your life in a way you didn’t predict?

Also think about the worst gifts you’ve gotten and why you didn’t like them. Was it because they were based on trends rather than your personal interests? Because the gift giving was more of a formality than a meaningful exchange? Because it was generic?

Of course, everyone is different, but I’m sure most people can resonate with at least some of these feelings. Take these experiences and try to think from the perspective of someone receiving a gift. 

3. When in doubt, give money or gift cards.

Sometimes, you just don’t know someone well enough to get a great, non-generic gift. You could always try to ask their friends (if it’s a Secret Santa, for example), or you could play the safe route and give cash or gift cards. Most people wouldn’t complain about getting either, as long as the gift cards offer some flexibility. I would personally recommend an EarthHero gift card, as it’s basically an Amazon for sustainable products and is a more ethical platform.

Sustainable Gift Ideas

Even if you approach gifting mindfully and know the person really well, it can still be hard to come up with gift ideas. To get the ball rolling, here are some sustainable gift ideas for all budgets and types of people.

Experience Gifts

Experience gifts are a great way to spend time with the people you love, and since you’re not gifting a physical object, there’s usually less waste. Just make sure that the recipient would enjoy the experience, as it is still possible to give a bad experience gift. 

What’s great about these is that you can DIY many of them.

  • Paintbar night
  • Remote getaway
  • Arcade day
  • Escape room
  • Concert tickets
  • National Park Pass
  • Ice skating/skiing
  • Murder mystery dinner
  • Picnic
  • Photoshoot
  • Subscriptions to streaming services or platforms

See many more ideas in my experience gift guide.

Eco-friendly Gift Ideas

If you want to gift physical objects instead, here are some options: 

Mushroom grow kit (~$20-30)

You can find these on Etsy (here’s a golden oyster kit). Back to the Roots is also a popular brand that works well. 

Day 6 of the Back to the Roots oyster mushroom kit

Handmade jewelry ($10+)

With handmade jewelry, you get to support independent artisans and give a unique gift. My favorite earrings are from SnowdropAccessories on Etsy. The creator has beautiful wire earrings in gold and silver. My favorites are the body-shaped ones and vulva-shaped ones.

A pair of heart-shaped gold wire earrings with a peach-shaped pearl at the top of the heart and two wavy wires down the middle to create a vulva shape

Grouphug solar panel ($150)

This is a portable window solar panel that stores enough energy to charge your phone, smartwatch, speakers, and more.

PaperShoot camera ($120)

If you love the look of film photos, but don’t want the hassle of developing them, the PaperShoot camera creates that film camera feel through digital photos. While you could apply filters to your phone photos, this camera allows you to be a little more disconnected.

Pela compostable phone case ($50+)

Pela is a Canadian company that offers home compostable phone cases. They’ll also take back your old case and recycle it!

Pela yellow honeybee case with a cardboard envelope to send in your old phone case to be recycled

Zero waste swaps ($10+)

These are a classic option, and there are many to choose from. Here are some as a starting point:

2 Degrees East analog watch ($130)

2 Degrees East is a conscious watch brand made from conflict-free metals. The owners Sally and Ron trace most of their supply chain and visit many suppliers personally to ensure fair wages and safe conditions.

Genusee glasses or sunglasses ($99 – use code IMPERFECTIDEALIST10 for 10% off)

Genusee creates prescription glasses or sunglasses from recycled plastic bottles. They’re made in Flint, Michigan, which experienced a water crisis from 2014-2019, and the bottles are a result of that crisis. They will buy back your used Genusee glasses to be recycled, and they also give 1% back to the local community.

Thrifted clothing or pieces from sustainable brands

If you know your friend’s sense of style or their wishlist, an article of clothing can make for a pretty special gift. 

If you don’t have the time to go searching yourself, there are people who will do curated style bundles, like Jade from LavenderHazeLA in my post on the ethics of thrifting

Jade creates thrifted clothing bundles based around certain style icons and aesthetics (like cottagecore or Carrie Bradshaw). She’s a lovely person and has had hundreds of happy customers, as evidenced by her Depop.

If you’re looking to buy something new, you can also check out my ethical brand directory.

Where to Find Eco-Friendly Gifts

Thrift stores and antique malls

You can find so many unique items secondhand, from clothing to housewares to decor. If there aren’t thrift stores near you, I recommend eBay, Poshmark, and Mercari as some online platforms.

Etsy

Etsy is an online platform for independent creators around the world, and they even offset carbon emissions from all shipments.

You do have to be careful, however, as the platform isn’t well-regulated. It’s become overrun with drop shippers who sell mass-produced items directly from the supplier. These are usually easy to identify though, as there are often duplicate items in other stores. Learn more about how to identify drop shipping.

Local small businesses

I love discovering these on Instagram and TikTok. See if you have any bulk or zero waste stores near you. Also check for boutiques and specialty stores. 

Shopping small businesses is a great way to make a “conventional” gift more mindful. For example, if I wanted to gift someone a running watch, I would try to get it from a local running store if I couldn’t find it secondhand.

EarthHero

As I mentioned, EarthHero is a sustainable brand marketplace. If you’re not sure what to get, or which brands are truly sustainable, browsing a platform like EarthHero makes the search easier.

Wrapping Gifts Sustainably

A stack of gifts wrapped in brown paper and tied up with twine, with evergreen twigs as decoration
Photo by Element5 on Pexels

About 2.3 million pounds of wrapping paper end up in landfills each year. Most wrapping paper is recyclable, but some isn’t because it contains plastic. To see if yours is, do the scrunch test. If it scrunches up and stays that way, it should be recyclable. If it opens back up, it’s not. 

Here are some other components of gift wrapping that are often recycled, but shouldn’t be:

  • Plastic tape: should be trashed. There is recyclable paper tape though. 
  • Tissue paper: it’s usually already recycled and is too weak to be recycled again. You can reuse it or compost it instead (only compost if it doesn’t have any glitter).
  • Plastic bows: you can reuse them instead.

While you should first use the wrapping materials you already have, here are some low-waste alternatives to traditional wrapping.

Instead of wrapping paper, use:

  • Paper grocery bag
  • Old maps
  • Newspaper/magazines (the comic section looks really good)
  • Thrifted cloth, silk scarf, old t-shirt, or dishcloth. The art of wrapping with cloth is a Japanese tradition known as furoshiki. It looks beautiful!

Instead of plastic bows or tape, use:

  • Twine
  • Paper tape
  • Natural decorations like twigs of evergreen or pine cones

 


 

What are your tips for giving meaningful and sustainable gifts? Feel free to also share the best gift you’ve ever gotten!

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2 Comments

  • Nina | Lemons and Luggage December 2, 2021 at 12:35 pm

    I stopped wrapping gifts back in my teens and now only get them wrapped if it’s something the shop will do, but your ideas for wrapping them are really lovely.

    • Lily December 3, 2021 at 6:43 pm

      Ooh yes, it is really nice when the shop does it for you! I only know basic wrapping techniques, so I’m very impressed by how cleanly some folks can wrap gifts haha.

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