A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the company thredUP. The story has been corrected.
“Historically, our culture has really strong associations between things and status,” said Alex Truelove, zero waste program director at the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group. But, he added, the holiday season can be a perfect time to reexamine that paradigm.
“It’s become stressful, it’s become lots of expectations,” said Aja Barber, author of “Consumed: The Need for Collective Change; Colonialism, Climate Change & Consumerism.” “People are beginning to be like, ‘I don’t actually enjoy all of this as much as I told myself I do.’”
Breaking the gift-giving mold can reduce waste and help the planet. Here are some approaches you can take.
Rethink your gift-giving strategy
One surefire method to curb holiday rubbish and minimize the environmental impact of gifting is to consume less in the first place.
“Gift-giving is highly inefficient. We often give gifts people don’t want,” said Jiaying Zhao, a psychologist focusing on sustainability at the University of British Columbia. “Economists have gone as far to say give them cash instead.”
While that may be on the extreme end, there are more incremental steps that are taking root. Gift exchanges such as Secret Santa, for example, involve giving to only one person rather than every member of a family or group.
“There was a small growth in 2020 as people were cautious with coming together in groups because of covid,” said Martin Looij, the North America marketing manager for DrawNames.com, a website that facilitates gift exchanges. “But this year we’ve seen both a bigger increase in people organizing Secret Santa gift exchanges and average group size.”
But, Barber said, it is important to not let meaningful gift exchanges devolve into swaps in which people end up with items they don’t like, want or need.
An option she recommends is pooling resources for specific gifts. When her mother wanted a particular handbag, for example, Barber and her family members all pitched in to purchase it, rather than each of them getting something that may have been less desired. “My mom was so surprised Christmas morning,” said Barber, pointing to the company Patchwork as one tool that can help folks organize their shared gift-giving.
From experiences to memberships, mix up what you give
Another way to dodge consumables is to give experiences instead. That could mean concert tickets, sports events or a cooking class. Barber said she has taken her niece on a spa day and her nephew to a trampoline park, pointing out that time can be a valuable gift to people.
“Telling a friend that I’m going to come over to babysit one evening is a really amazing gift,” Barber said. And, she added, “I’m big on digital subscription gifting. I’m big on memberships, as well.”
Truelove, with USPIRG, said he once received a membership to a local tool library. It allowed him to woodwork without having to purchase expensive equipment or figure out how to store a table saw in his apartment. Gift certificates have also seen an uptick popularity — between October 2020 and September 2021, Airbnb said it sold over half a million gift cards.
Of course, even alternative options can come with sustainability costs that require consideration. “Experiential gift-giving is gaining momentum for sure,” Zhao said. “But if I’m sending my parents on a vacation, that has carbon emissions associated with it.”
Secondhand gifts are increasingly accessible, and popular
Gift-buying is not going away, at least anytime soon. But, experts say, people are increasingly purchasing “pre-loved” goods.
“The secondhand space, across all segments and all categories, has been growing rapidly,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of retail at GlobalData, an analytics firm. According to the company, the resale market is expected to nearly double between 2015 and 2022, to an almost $179 billion industry. The apparel and electronics sectors are leading the way.
“People are more concerned about environmental issues and sustainability,” he said. A report from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation found that in 2015, textile production resulted in 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. That’s more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.
“A lot of the mainstream retailers have jumped onto the secondhand bandwagon,” Saunders said. Levi’s and Patagonia, for instance, are among the companies that now have direct portals for selling used clothing.
And from eBay and Craigslist to thredUP or and Poshmark, the Internet has given rise to a whole host of ways for buyers and sellers to engage in the secondhand market. “I’ve been surprised about how easy it is to find some of the stuff I’m looking for used,” Truelove said.
Even if a gift is secondhand, Barber said, the key is making sure that the receiver would appreciate the item. “’Can you please not buy me a sweater that I don’t like?’ is an uncomfortable conversation,” she acknowledged, but a critical one to reduce waste.
Buy less, give more
Maybe that’s a relative’s defunct watch, or a friend’s beloved jacket in need of a sewing machine. Apple recently announced that it will launch a self-service repair program in early 2022. Whatever the broken item, fixing it could spare the need to buy new.
But no matter the route to reducing the impact of gift-giving, Truelove emphasized there could end up being multifold returns. “It’s not only better for the planet,” he said, “it’s better for our pocketbooks and in some cases makes for more meaningful and personal gifts.”