How to Make the Holidays More Sustainable

How to Make the Holidays More Sustainable - Hello Brownlow

The holidays can be the least minimalist, least sustainable time of year. Everything from the amount of gifts we buy (the US spent an estimated $886.7 billion last year) and the debt we incur (31% of Americans still haven’t paid their holiday balance from 2021), to the 25 million tons of garbage the US produces during the holiday season and the $16 billon in unwanted gifts that are sent straight to landfill – it’s pretty easy to see where we can make improvement for ourselves and for the environment!

This year, we’ve aimed to make the holidays more sustainable. While we aren’t the perfect zero wasters (or anywhere near zero waste), any step we take to reduce our waste is a step in the right direction. Maybe you want to take all of these sustainable holiday tips on this year – good for you! Maybe the idea of changing your spending habits is just too hard – I feel that too. Remember a small progress is still progress!

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How to realistically make the holidays more sustainable

Consume less.

Didn’t expect that much tough love up front, did ya?

It’s true though: a world in which we consume less we waste less and put less stress on our planet. When we get in the habit of consuming less, we might even find that we can turn our attention away from shopping and put the spotlight on inward thoughts, feelings, and relationships.

Wouldn’t it be amazing to actually experience the holidays rather than only feel stressed about how buy everything that everyone could possibly ever want?

Experiences over physical items

I immensely enjoy experience gifts! I would much rather have a say, an annual pass to the zoo for our family, than a bunch of stuff that we may or may not use.

Experience gifts could include:

  • Annual passes to a local attraction
  • Hotel or airline gift cards
  • Gift certificates to a favorite restuarant
  • A coupon for a night of babysitting while mom and dad have date night
  • Movie tickets

I love the idea that an experience gift (which is basically just a voucher for something for someone to go and do) will not only give them the initial excitement of opening the gift but also joy when they do the activity! They get to collect memories with their loved ones rather than physical stuff that will end up in the donate pile.

Think about all the people in your life that you might opt to give a cutesy little Christmasy thing from the Target Dollar Spot – don’t! Those individuals (likely teachers and neighbors) would rather have a gift certificate to their favorite restaurant or coffee spot or even a movie theater gift card! If you want to have an even more sustainable holiday, you can order the gift cards online and email it to them – no plastic no paper.

Ditch the wrapping paper – use furoshiki!

Unwrapping presents is arguably more fun than the actual gift themselves (especially for little kids)! The un-fun part? Realizing that your wrapping paper is covered in glitter, can’t be recycled, and takes up two trash bags – yikes!

To make the holidays more sustainable, try wrapping presents with furoshiki!

Furoshiki is an ancient Japanese method of wrapping gifts. It is usually a beautiful cloth artfully knotted around the present. The intent is to use these furoshiki over and over again.

Wrappr has some of the cutest prints designed by artists that can be used for any holiday! Their website also shows how to wrap all sizes and shapes of boxes. Their motto is “gift art, not waste” and I couldn’t agree more! Just look at how gorgeous these are!

Image courtesy of Wrappr

Consumable items

Gifts that disappear are great for just about anyone on your list. And yes, they’re sustainable! Oh, no magic involved here… we’re talking about consumable gifts!

Is there a cherished family cookie recipe? Do you make amazing sourdough loaves? Is your party mix to die for? Does your neighbor love tea? Does grandpa enjoy freshly ground coffee? Doesn’t just about everyone love snacks???

In the event that you answered “yes” to one of those questions, consumable gifts could be your ticket to make the holidays more sustainable.

This year, our neighbors, friends, and family are all receiving the same gift in varying quantities – cookies and dessert bread homemade by me. (Sorry for the spoilers Mom.) Gifts made with love are the best kinds of gifts.

Even store bought treats with a cute note attached are wonderful gifts! You don’t have to be Martha Stewart to give delicious, consumable gifts.

And at the end of the holiday season, these gifts disappear! There’s no clutter left to be seen and nothing (hopefully) ended up in the landfill.

Shop secondhand

Thrifting is fantastic in the weeks leading up to and directly after Christmas. People all over the US are decluttering their homes in preparation (or in response to) an overflowing holiday season. Go scoop up some deals AND do it sustainably!

Let’s myth bust real quick: No, thrifting clothes, toys, and more is not dirty. Why? Because you should wash everything when you get home. And no, good friends and family will not think less of you because you gave a secondhand gift.

Secondhand gifts are not only going to save you money, but they’re a more sustainable way to give physical items! There are now loads of places to find great secondhand items – from local thrift stores and consignment sales to online sites like eBay, Mercari, and Poshmark. I personally like shopping in person more than online when it comes to secondhand items. I can more thoroughly inspect the item for flaws and the items are likely more reasonably prices.

Want more on thrifting and secondhand shopping? >>>

Shop local

When you shop local, you’re keeping dollars in your local community and in the hands of small business owners. When your small business owners and creators do well, often times is a sign that your town is doing well. Our town has a thriving, but small, Main Street economy. It wouldn’t be possible if the people that live here completely ignored them and went to shop at Target instead.

You can shop locally for fresh baked goods and snacks, jams and jellies, handmade goods like scarves, gnomes, lip balms, and soaps. When things are made locally and sold locally, the carbon footprint of that items is probably pretty low and in turn, is a way to make the holidays more sustainable.

Look for craft fairs over the weekends and look down your town’s “main street” to see what local businesses can help you tick off items from your holiday gift list.

Do we even care about the gifts themselves?

One year my husband and I tried to “out Christmas” each other. We order an enormous amount of gifts online, wrapped them, and stuck them under the tree. When Christmas morning came, it was exciting to see them all – we were able to buy all these things for each because we loved each other and we had decent jobs. That’s what we should do, right?

If you asked me what I got as a gift that year, I can only remember two things: a popcorn air popper (decluttered – popcorn is easy to make in a Stasher bag!) and an immersion blender that we still have and exclusively use for refried beans (it’s very important). Do I care that my husband thought of me at Christmas time – yes! But do I care about the gifts? Not really! Last year I appreciated him fixing my favorite (only) watch more than anything else I received!

If you take pause to remember all of your favorite gifts or gifts you still use and love, how many can you count? No looking at pictures to jog your memory!

To gift or not to gift…

Sure there are some gifts that are extremely practical or sentimental that you’ll actually use and remember (like my iPod from 2005ish – I still use it!). But most of the time, giving someone a gift because we feel obligated in some way – whether it be because you’ve always exchanged gifts, you feel pressured to because everyone else is, or because their family – isn’t even necessary. Sometimes, showing up and showing that you care is far more important than any gift you’ll ever give.

And just remember – no one wants to play “white elephant”. 🙂


So what’s your favorite way to make the holidays more sustainable?

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4 Comments

  1. Each year our church has and Advent Alternative Gift Fair. I make a donation to a local or global non-profit in honor of someone and receive a gift card that describes the organization and tells the receiver that a gift was made in their honor. I have done this for my siblings, and adult nieces and nephews for the last 19 years. A popular organization is Heifer. This year all my cards are for World Central Kitchen – Chefs for Ukraine.

  2. We grow our own vegetable garden each spring and summer so we can ear our own food. Plus, we can the excess and give out pickles, jams, tomato sauces to our neighbors as Christmas gifts. They look forward to them. My husband and I have started asking for small items each year, typically something that can be found at a local thrift store. For this year, I have asked for a writing gratitude journal that can be purchased for a few dollars at a local used book store.

    I try to reuse wrapping paper and gift bags from year to year. We have a few bags that the family passes around each year.

    Clara D

  3. $16B in unwanted gifts going straight to landfill is such a shocker. That alone should be enough to make people rethink their approach to gift giving. You might as well throw your money directly in the trash!

    I’m a huge fan of consumables and experience gifts. Something else we’ve done is a recycled gift exchange where you gift something from your home. It usually provides some good laughs and you often get something you need.

  4. We grow our own veggie garden each summer then can our excess produce, they make excellent gifts for neighbors and family. We receive many compliemnts throughout the year.
    My kids love gifts I find at estate sales.

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