Many of us grew up watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and got the message about not giving in to crass commercialism and mass consumerism. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or other holiday this winter, there’s a whole manufacturing system put in place that uses excessive amounts of energy and resources to churn out holiday gifts. Giving tchotchkes that will never be used is the antithesis of sustainability, but no one wants to be a humbug.
Thoughtful, non-tangible gifts emphasize experiences and services over physical goods, and your recipients will be delighted to receive them. See below for some ideas.
Consumers who want to go the more tangible gift route may enjoy shopping for items sourced ethically. Check out the Better World Shopper database for ideas and ratings. Another website for greener gifts is GreenAmerica.org. These environmental businesses have earned a Green America's Green Business Certification, and a portion of the proceeds helps fund their programs.
Experiential gifts for the senses
For the sense of taste:
A gift certificate to a local restaurant such as Tutu's in Lafayette (formerly Chow's) that serves and sells organic food.
A subscription to a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for drop-off boxes of organic produce.
45+ Easy DIY Food Gifts for the foodies on your list.
A gift certificate to Harvest House Health Food Store in Concord.
Super practical gifts such as fabric bowl covers, reusable sheets of beeswax-coated cotton, glass food storage collections, and stainless steel water bottles.
Consumables like wine, chocolates, or fresh herbs for planting are always appreciated and provide a lovely sensory experience. Check out this article about Bay Area wineries trying to create a circular economy through wine bottle returns.
A collection of seasonal produce from your local farmers' market for your favorite chef.
For the sense of scent:
Tickets or membership to a botanical garden. They’ll love strolling by incredible cacti and succulents at the Ruth Bancroft Garden and Nursery in Walnut Creek.
Gift certificates to local nurseries for gardening aficionados.
Fresh potted herbs for tabletop or planting for instant aromatherapy
For the sense of sight or sound:
The East Bay Area is full of art, natural history, and science museums and local entertainment.
Your art lover will enjoy tickets to the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek for ongoing exhibitions of local artists.
Your thespian friend will appreciate tickets to a ballet or theater performance at the Dean Lesher Theater.
The DVC Theater in Pleasant Hill presents excellent student theater productions.
For your sustainable sweetie, gift tickets to SCOCO’s own Sustainable Living Workshops, including the upcoming “Party for the Planet” benefit concert featuring the Jim Ocean Band.
Fans of wildlife and natural history will appreciate tickets or a membership to The Lindsay Wildlife Experience.
For fans of astronomy and science, give a spiritual and awe-inspiring gift with tickets for a visit that includes a planetarium show at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland.
Shop for vintage gifts from local antique and consignment stores.
Shop craft fairs for items made by independent artisans. On December 10, Rodgers Ranch Heritage Center, an historic farmhouse and urban farm in Pleasant Hill, hosts their annual Holiday Boutique with jewelry, cosmetics, health products, cookies, and more.
Gift certificates to movie theatres and concerts provide great experiences and never cause clutter!
Greener Gift Wrapping
Consumers who want to go the more tangible gift route may enjoy shopping for items sourced ethically. Check out the Better World Shopper database for ideas and ratings. GreenAmerica.org is a website where you can purchase gifts from environmental organizations and a poriton of the proceeds help fund their programs. Of course it would be more environmental to skip the packaging that goes with presenting gifts, but that may not feel celebratory enough. Many of us are already reusing tote gift bags over and over again so we don’t have to buy rolls of giftwrap every year, but they eventually do fall apart.
Here are some nice gift-wrapping alternatives that have a colorful and festive look:
Asian newspapers have an especially beautiful graphic quality and can be recycled into gift wrap.
The comic section of papers is great for kids (or kids at heart).
Your kid’s original artwork is charming (especially if it’s not display worthy or you aren’t ready to recycle it just yet).
Old (and clean) pillowcases, t-shirts, and scarves make great textile wraps for oddly shaped/larger items.
New washcloths, tea towels, and handkerchiefs are also nice for asymmetrical items and can become part of your gift.
Clear, empty baby food jars can be reused for small items like jewelry. Decorate lids with natural twine and a few pressed leaves or pinecones.
Colorful cigar boxes make unique pre-decorated gift boxes.
For images and more unique ideas on giftwrapping, including diagrams on “furoshiki” (the Japanese art of fabric gift wrapping) visit The Art Of Simple.
The Christmas tree question: real or artificial?
Is it more environmental to invest in an artificial tree or buy a fresh cut Christmas tree every year? In her SCOCO article on this very topic a few years ago, Kerry Rivers pointed out that Christmas trees are not cut from wild forests but rather grown by farmers as crops intended to be cut down. The most common variety in California is less water intensive than fruit trees, absorbs carbon dioxide, and releases oxygen. A downside is that farmers may have used pesticides. Artificial trees can be used over and over again but are usually made from plastics, usually PVC, a toxic variety that affects health, pollutes water, air and soil, and is nearly impossible to recycle.
The bottom line is complicated, but The American Christmas Tree Association reviewed manufacturing, transportation, and disposal impacts of artificial trees and compared it to the planting, fertilizing, watering, transportation, and disposal of similar sized real trees. The study concluded that if an artificial Christmas tree is reused for at least five years, it is more environmental and leaves less of a carbon footprint. (Just be sure to buy one made in the USA rather than overseas.)
If you go with a real tree and want to be as green as possible, don’t let it land up in landfill. Compost it or recycle it into mulch when you’re done. SCOCO’s own Tyler Snortum-Phelps cuts the limbs off his Christmas trees and uses them in his chicken coop beneath the roosting perches. Whatever you do, don’t get your real tree flocked (where fake snow is sprayed on). The chemicals make it impossible to compost. Another option is buying a “living tree” that comes potted in soil that you can re-plant it outdoors later.
It’s not a slam-dunk decision, but you can “branch out” your understanding of the great debate over real vs. fake Christmas trees HERE.
Going green doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice special decorations at holiday time. Go with reusable items that you can bring out year after year. Repress the urge to buy more new stuff every season. Be resourceful: there are plenty of pinecones, acorns, and evergreens readily available in this part of the country. Placing a strand of LED lights (rechargeable battery powered) amongst the greens creates a sparkly and magical display with very little effort.
Dress up living plants, wreaths, and succulents with ribbons and candles and then “undress” them and display for the rest of the season. A bowl of pinecones or boughs of green mixed with ornaments make elegant centerpieces.
A reminder about candles
It’s better to choose alternatives to paraffin candles, which come from petroleum oil, and go with more sustainable soy or coconut oil candles. Check out THIS "enlightening" article on the differences among soy, coconut, paraffin, beeswax, and palm wax candles.
For more reading about the holidays, check out these SCOCO articles from previous issues: