2018 Holiday Gift Guide
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21 Planet-Friendly Ideas for the Holidays

Tracy L. Barnett
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Champagne

CHEERS! Yvonne and Mark Jacob’s holiday gifts are always consumable, like champagne decorated with recycled bows.  (Photo: lawellphoto.com)

As I was researching this story about being mindful of creating more joy and less waste during the holiday season, I had some lovely conversations with three women who have been working to reduce their carbon footprint for a long time. Yvonne Jacobs, Susie Hairston and Katy Katz left me with enough ideas to write a book – and some poignant thoughts, as well. 

“Christmas is supposedly about our children,” said Susie. “The big deal is that you’re doing it for your kids. Well, what better thing can you do for your kids than protect the planet they’re going to be living on long after you’re gone?”

Like Susie, I’m not a “saint of sustainability,” and I’m working to get better at this every year. Meanwhile, here are some tips shared by these women and other sources I ran across. Enjoy, and have a happy, meaningful holiday.

  1. Homemade coupon books: Think about what your loved one needs, and what you might like to help with. Yvonne Jacobs gives her son coupon books with offers to iron his shirts. Isabelle Soparkar Hairston gave her parents coupon books with special offers ranging from fuss-free hair combing to taking out the trash. Coupon books can be as creative and funny or as simple as you want them to be – the important thing is that they are made with love.
  2. Tickets: A special theater performance, an upcoming game of a favorite soccer or basketball team, the opera, a rock concert – this is one where you might want to check first to make sure the person will appreciate that gift and be available.
  3. Gift certificates to a favorite restaurant or café. 
  4. Homemade meal kits: Give your son or brother the makings of a meal that he likes. This saves him time and gives him the flavors of Mom’s kitchen on a busy work night. 
  5. Donations to charity: For people who already have plenty of stuff, make a donation on their behalf. If your sister likes birds, like Yvonne’s, support the Audubon Society in her name. If your brother-in-law served in the military, make a donation in his name that helps veterans in need. 
  6. Give a Kiva Card: This nonprofit offers micro-loans for mini-enterprises aimed at alleviating poverty. For as little as $25, you can give your loved one the satisfaction of making a difference in someone’s life – and when the loan is paid back, you can choose to reinvest in another person’s project. 
  7. A special recipe: For her friends, Yvonne makes seasoned, buttered, roasted pecans, or crescent butter cookies in powdered sugar. 
  8. The gift of your time: “One of the best gifts I ever gave my mother-in-law was that I told her I was going to go up to Dallas for three or four days and help her with cooking and straightening up and finding things that were lost,” said Yvonne. “She just loved it—it was the best thing ever.” 
  9. For couples: Buy something together for your home that you really need but might not otherwise get. This year, Yvonne and Mark got some solar panels on their house – and that was their Christmas gift.
  10. Support local artists: Is there an artisan sale in your area where local potters, jewelers, woodworkers and other craftspeople offer their wares? You can support the livelihoods of others while sharing a special family heirloom – most of which are made of biodegradable materials.
  11. Buy Fair Trade-certified items:This way you can be sure the artisan who made the gift was paid a living wage. Susie Hairston and husband Charles Soparkar had a tradition of getting each other a Christmas ornament each year from a special place; a favorite source of gifts is Ten Thousand Villages, a nonprofit fair trade organization that markets handcrafted products made by disadvantaged artisans from more than 35 countries.
  12. Be sure it’s recyclable, including the packaging: If it’s a No. 3, 6 or 7 plastic – check the number stamped into the plastic item, and if it doesn’t have one, it’s probably not recyclable, and its manufacturing process may produce even more than the usual problems. “If it’s a 6 (polystyrene), I won’t buy it,” says Susie.
  13. Send e-cards rather than paper ones: I know, it’s not the same. But it’s different, and in some ways, better. Here are some options – spoiler alert, my favorite is care2, where each card you send earns you a “butterfly credit” that you can “spend” on a worthy cause of our choice.
  14. If you must fly, consider carbon offsets: This is an area that is fraught with danger, however, as these credits have been abused by unethical companies that take the money and end up destroying the environment and indigenous communities to boot. I know it’s true, because it happened to my friends. So what’s an ethical consumer to do? Here are some tips from Ethical Consumer
  15. Give the gift of song: Susie used to organize her family and friends to go door-to-door caroling. At first, she says, people would look at them as if they were strange – but then they started looking forward to it. Now that she has to travel to be with her ailing mother-in-law, they miss the annual infusion of holiday cheer.
  16. Use gift bags that can be used again and again: Nothing wrong with wrapping paper, either, but there’s no need to rip it up and throw it away; it’s the single-use items that add up, so let’s see if we can keep things going. 
  17. Decorate a living tree: It can either be a potted evergreen that you can then plant when the season is over, or a tree in your yard that you can string with popcorn, cranberries and other edible treats for the birds and other wildlife. When I was little, my mother would save orange peel halves and use them as cups to fill with birdseed and peanut butter, then perforate them with string on three sides to make an edible ornament. 
  18. The gift of your time, Part 2: Being Jewish, Katy and David Katz celebrate Hanukkah at home with son Avi, and then on Christmas Day, they go to the local soup kitchen to volunteer. This year, Avi will be 7, and for the first time, he’ll go with them. “We want him to see really what the day is really about — and it’s about celebrating others,” Katy said.
  19. Shop at thrift stores: A great source for jewelry, crafts, even fancy things like crystal and china. When you shop at a charity-based store, you are doing twice the good: supporting both a charity and the environment. Yvonne’s favorite resale stores: The Guild Shop, Charity Guild and Blue Bird Circle.
  20. The gift of learning: Lessons for piano, singing, sailing, knitting, snowboarding, cooking. 
  21. Focus Christmas as a day for the family to be together to do things you enjoy together, rather than a day to give presents. For Susie’s family, it’s the elaborate hours-long treasure hunts that they do. Some families may like to play board or card games or sing songs together, or go outside and play soccer. The day is about being together and enjoying each other’s company instead of things. “This was important for us, maybe in a way that it is not for others,” recalls Susie. “My husband pretty much works 24 hours a day, including the weekends. So we don't get a lot of time with him. When Isabella was little, he was even on call on Christmas Day for many years. And I remember him getting called in every year and Isabella bursting into tears. The best gift he ever gave us was when he told the hospital that it wasn't worth it to him, a specialist in private practice to have privileges there if it meant that every single year he had to spend the one day he had off away from his family. They took him off Christmas call, and he still kept his privileges, and we got to have him home on Christmas all day every year after that.”

To Yvonne, shifting the way we think about the holidays is a moral imperative. “If we want to keep the human race continuing and keep things going on this planet, we have to start thinking this way,” she says. She harkens back to the era of her grandparents: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

Consumption hasn’t always been like this, she said. “Even in the 1960s, we only produced 2.6 pounds of trash per person per day. In 2014, it was 4.4; in 2016, it was 6.8 pounds per person per day in the state of Texas.”

It’s not about sacrificing, she says, because a gift can be so much more than a thing. “Your choices matter,” she said. “A thoughtful gift that encompasses a lot of different parameters makes more of a statement.”

Read Going Green: More joy, less waste from Tracy L. Barnett for more on this topic.

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