Feature Stories


Ana Toepel, Green Impact, December 2019


Holiday Gifts That Keep on Giving

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

Investopedia reports that almost every year since 2008 American consumers have spent more than the previous year on holiday gifts, with a total in holiday spending predicted to be $1 trillion this year. At the same time, Americans create a huge amount of trash during the holidays, discarding $11 billion in packing materials and producing one million extra tons of garbage each week. 

As landfills overflow with discarded items, plastic pollution damages our oceans, habitat destruction threatens thousands of species, and the climate crisis rises to emergency status, it might be time to rethink our consumer habits and our tendency to accumulate and dispose of massive amounts of stuff. Remember the documentary Story of Stuff released in 2007? Its messages may be more relevant than ever, and even more so during the holiday season.

This year you can be part of the solution. You can demonstrate your care and concern for our planet while you spread holiday cheer to your loved ones with the thoughtful gifts you give. There are many types of sustainable gifts to choose from— both physical and nonphysical—and choosing one means that rather than being tossed in a landfill when its use expires, it will continue to provide benefits into the future. Here are four types of gifts to consider:

#1- Gifts that are built to last

If you choose to give a physical gift, select one that is recycled, second-hand, minimally packaged, practical, sustainably sourced, non-toxic, and durable/built to last. 

According to Deloitte’s 2019 holiday spending survey, clothing is the retail item that will be purchased the most this holiday season. This could be problematic for our planet, since, according to an article in The New York Times, the new trend is fashions that are constructed so they typically last no more than ten wearings. We are discarding more clothes than ever; nearly three-fifths of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being produced. Additionally, the chemicals used in making, dyeing, and treating many fabrics qualify as hazardous waste—and apparel and footwear produce more than 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Clothing can still be a sustainable gift choice, though—it is practical, and there are several greener options. Since there is so much already out there (clothing production doubled between 2000 and 2014), you could save resources and shop at a consignment or second-hand store. If you want to buy new, choose durable classic clothing that will last for years to come. There are several criteria you can use when choosing clothing, including versatility, feeling good to the touch/comfort, not being able to see your hand through it (thickness), and passing the ‘tug test’ (being stitched together well). The article cited above provides a complete list of questions to consider when making these purchases. The Good Trade and thredUP offer numerous sustainable clothing alternatives. 

As far as other physical gifts, check out the lists of recycled, upcycled, and zero waste gift ideas from Green America and My Green Closet. For the little ones on your list, Green Matters and Green Toys have several suggestions for toys that are made from recycled or sustainable materials and also safer for kids. UCSF community members can get discounts at sustainable local merchants with a free mobile app offered by Chinook Book and USCF’s Office of Sustainability. 

#2- Gifts that make a difference

A great alternative to a physical gift is a gift that supports a cause near and dear to your loved one’s heart. Whether they are concerned about an environmental issue, they are an animal lover, or they like to help out others in need, you can make a donation to an organization in their name. Your donation will make a difference in the world, and the person receiving your gift will feel good, too—it’s a win-win! There are too many options to name here, but some gift possibilities are farm animals and training to fight hunger with Heifer International, the gift of sight through the Seva Foundation, and a World Wildlife Fund symbolic animal adoption that helps protect wild animals and their habitats. 

If there’s a traveler in your life, consider carbon offsets as a gift this season. Your gift will make a difference for the planet by enabling the fossil fuels used in your recipient’s flights (or other means of travel) to be offset with a financial contribution to projects that capture carbon or help reduce future greenhouse gas emissions. Terrapass and Cool Effect are two options for purchasing offset gifts. If you want to offset a particular flight, like a flight home for the holidays or flight for a holiday vacation, My Climate has a tool for calculating the amount of carbon offset needed. 

#3- Gifts that create experiences

Do you abide by the rule of thumb “buy less, live more”? You might want to consider gifts of experiences this holiday season. Some of the most sustainable gifts are those you can’t wrap up—and giving someone an experience ensures that your gift will continue to be meaningful or useful into the future. An experience gift might be anything that your loved one enjoys doing: a concert, a dinner out, a trip to the mountains, or even something simple like a bike ride together. It could be something you create yourself, too, like a cooking a favorite meal or an afternoon spent doing art projects. 

You can also gift someone with an experience by sharing your time and skills with them; this kind of gift uses little or no resources yet can make a difference in someone’s life by enriching it or making it easier. It might be offering to babysit for a busy friend, showing someone how to grow their own vegetables, helping a neighbor organize their garage, teaching an elderly relative computer skills, or giving someone a guitar lesson—the possibilities are endless.

Handmade coupons or hand-written invitations are fun ways of presenting these types of gifts. You can find coupon book ideas at Holidappy.com or gift certificate templates at The Spruce Crafts.

Lastly, a great gift for a fellow UCSF employee is a FastPay gift card, which they can use to receive discounts at various cafeterias, coffee shops, and eateries at UCSF. These gift cards replace paper certificates formerly known as Bear Hugs, which served as a way to recognize coworkers for a job well done.

#4 Gifts that are made by hand

Maybe you like to cook, you are crafty, or you are skilled at particular DIY home projects. You might consider putting your hobby to work this holiday season to make handmade gifts—and people will really appreciate them because they’re made by you! Better yet, reuse or upcycle things you already have around the house and make something practical that your recipients can use like edible treats, bath products, or kitchen accessories.

Here are a few websites with great ideas to get you started:

Sustainable Cooks
Botanical Paperworks
Inhabit
HGTV Design

Read more: Six Tips for Sustainable Holiday Parties