Holiday shopping with the planet in mind: ‘It’s about thinking outside the box,’ say experts

Holiday gifts (Getty Images / Designed by Liliana Penagos)
Holiday season produces an extra one million tons of trash each week in the U.S. Here’s how to stop being part of the problem. (Getty Images / Designed by Liliana Penagos)

In Unearthed, Yahoo Life discusses some of the most pressing issues facing our planet — and reveals what you can do to help make a real difference.

’Tis the season of gift-giving — and a lot of consumer waste.

Americans, already known for being wasteful, churn out even more trash — nearly 30 extra pounds per week per person who celebrates a winter holiday — in the holiday stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to a 2021 survey. That represents a 43% rise above the average amount of trash produced throughout the year — or, in other stark terms, according to a holiday-waste study out of Stanford University, a total of nearly one million extra tons per week.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest offenders of all are not the gifts themselves, but their festive bags and shiny wrappings. In fact, recycling database Earth911 estimates that wrapping paper alone contributes to 2.3 million extra pounds of landfill every year.

"The planet’s resources cannot keep up with our consumption habits," Salvador Ávila, executive director of the U.S.-based Plastic Oceans International (Mexico branch), a global non-profit working to end plastic pollution, tells Yahoo Life. "We have disconnected from the world and forgotten that we are a part of the balance, that we depend on that balance and that we cannot escape it no matter how hard we shut our eyes. We have to change our habits."

"The issue is such a huge problem," adds Kris Bordessa, an environmental activist and author of Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living. "It’s bigger than a single household. Small changes — say, switching from standard holiday cards to those made from recycled materials — lead to bigger changes [in our carbon footprint] down the line."

Luckily, sustainable holiday shopping is slowly catching on: Shopify found in a recent survey that 40% of consumers are actually willing to pay more for “eco-conscious products,” while 43% are more willing to buy from brands who employ sustainability practices such as carbon-neutral shipping (even though that’s kind of a myth, but more on that later) over those that do not.

So, how can everyone foster a bit of change with their gift giving this holiday season? Below are some approaches to consider.

Sustainable gift-wrapping methods

Coming up with creatively sustainable or reusable ways of wrapping gifts is key in making a difference in waste production during the holidays — or anytime you give gifts, for that matter.

"I use newspaper. It can be cute, especially the cartoon section," says Franziska Trautmann, a climate activist and co-founder/CEO of the New Orleans grassroots organization Glass Half Full, which aims to reduce waste. "I also save all the gift bags that I receive, as well as the tissue paper. I'll reuse them for a birthday or something, and then just regift it to someone later."

Christmas present gift wrapped in newspaper
Newspaper paired with an a sprig of holly is a perfect way to make gift wrapping sustainable. (Photo: Getty Images)

"Avoid using excessive quantities of tape and remember to remove all tape before recycling or composting paper," advises Ávila. "If using holiday paper, then make sure to find one preferably from recycled paper and avoid any foil or one with glitter, plastic or metallic features, as that makes them nearly impossible to recycle or compost."

"In our family, we actually have cloth bags that I made years ago," Liesl Clark, co-founder of Buy Nothing, an online community that brings together second-hand shoppers, tells Yahoo Life. "They just have a little cinch tie at the top. And it's so easy. You pop your gift in there and put it underneath the Christmas tree. All these beautiful, multicolored holiday bags are under the tree — and there's no waste. After the whole day is done, you don't have a room filled with all the wrappings and trappings of the holidays. Then, we just fold them up and reuse them the next year."

If cloth bags aren't your aesthetic, Clark says wrapping gifts in any kind of fabric (instead of wrapping paper that you'll just throw away) is a great option. Bordessa agrees, noting that her family opts to wrap gifts in reusable bags made from "fun fabrics" or upcycled (reused) brown paper.

For a personal touch, parents can consider using kids' old artwork in lieu of traditional wrapping paper. “Who wants to throw away your kid's artwork?” Clark says. “But also, who wants to hold on to it for years?"

Secondhand gifts

Roughly 78% of Americans say they are likely to buy pre-owned gifts this holiday season, according to a new survey by OfferUp, the largest mobile marketplace in the U.S. for local buyers and sellers. GlobalData, an analytics firm, also reports that, in general, the resale market size stands at $182.4 billion — and is expected grow 16% by 2026.

“That whole stigma of secondhand is waning or really vaporizing,” Jill Standish, senior managing director for global retail consulting at Accenture, whose 2019 research yielded similar findings, told the New York Times.

To shop secondhand, start scouring through the variety of online groups, such as Buy Nothing and Freecycle, that have made it easier for people to do trades — an especially good approach when it comes to the littlest people on your list.

"Kids don't care if toys are new or not. They're new to them," Clark says. "You can put [the item] in a pretty box with some ribbon around it, and also reuse those items, too. For adults, it might be a little more complicated, but what's interesting is that we're finding it's pretty much the same."

When it comes to clothes, buying like-new secondhand items — at local thrift shops, bigger outposts like Goodwill or Buffalo Exchange, or through online sources such as ThredUp or Karma Trade — is a more sustainable choice than going to fast-fashion retailers, given that, if the recipient doesn’t like what you’ve chosen, the returns are very likely to be dumped into landfills (not to mention the massive carbon footprint of producing fashion, one of the most polluting industries in the world).

According to Optoro, a returns technology company, 2021 saw a surge in returns that equalled a massive carbon footprint: 27 million metric tons of emitted carbon (the equivalent of 5.9 million cars driven for one year) and a startling 9.6 billion pounds of landfill waste, up from 5.8 billion pounds in 2020, according to Optoro’s latest year-end impact report.

"Cheap labor from unethical producers, faster transport means and cheap materials (mainly plastic) have made it easy to mainline importance of quantity over quality," Ávila notes on the impacts of fast fashion. Notable savings days — like Black Friday and Cyber Monday — also create a "looming need" to buy gifts on a tight timeline. "This pressure drives people into overconsumption of everything," he says.

Give experiences — or homemade gifts

Another way to dodge consumption is to focus on experiences over things — which could mean giving anything from sports or concert tickets to restaurant gift cards, memberships, spa days or arts or cooking lessons.

"It's about thinking outside the box," says Trautmann. "This year, I'm definitely going to be giving experiences. Without giving too much away, I'm giving someone a vacation, and that's going to be their gift instead of an actual item. I'm hoping to do that for everyone special in my life."

Concert tickets make a rockin’ holiday gift. (Photo: Getty Images)
Concert tickets make a rockin’ — and waste-free — holiday gift. (Photo: Getty Images)

This also allow you to avoid all that packing and shipping, which "increases the carbon footprint of the item’s travel — plus the increase of packaging waste," says Ávila, who adds that, by the way, "if you do have items delivered, try using the same packaging as gift boxes."

But best of all, giving experiences helps to create "memories, rather than excess,” Bordessa notes. “Tickets to an event, a series of lessons, or entry to an escape room are all fun options," she says.

She adds that, if you’re at all crafty, making a gift to give is another perfect way to avoid being wasteful. ”Homemade gifts are another favorite, especially consumable gifts — a bottle of homemade liqueur for the adults, a cookie mix in a jar for the kids,” she says. “And don’t forget the knowledge you have that could be shared! Sewing lessons with grandma, woodworking with grandpa, or gardening with auntie all offer a chance for togetherness as well as an opportunity to pass on some skills."

If you must send gifts, should you opt for carbon-neutral shipping?

It sounds good — but according to a recent New York Times report on the topic, the more-expensive “carbon-neutral shipping” option doesn’t really mean much at all. “By giving money to support such projects, the company you’re purchasing from promises to indirectly counteract some amount of greenhouse gasses produced by shipping your purchase. But the whole thing is very complicated and opaque,” the story explains, making the term “a misnomer.”

Instead, just stick to buying less — and, while you’re at it, flying less, driving less and aiming to go vegan (including over the meat-heavy holidays), all of which have the biggest known positive impacts on a person’s carbon footprint.

"Every effort helps," says Bordessa. "If individuals or families are making an effort to change long-ingrained habits, they are doing this out of an awareness that there’s a problem, and one that needs to be tackled straight on."

And the more we practice such habits, says Trautmann, the more influence we’ll actually get to have, noting, ”As individuals, I think we often feel powerless [by the numbers], but you really do have the power of what you're choosing to buy, what you're choosing to participate in and how you're showing up at the holidays."

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