11 Ways to Make Your Holiday Economically and Environmentally Friendly

Our American vision of the holidays is like a Norman Rockwell painting -- cheery-faced family members surrounding a table covered with a feast of the richest foods imaginable, and a tree in the background covered with tinsel and lights and surrounded by brightly wrapped boxes in every size and shape imaginable. The turkey is always plump and moist, the gifts are always better than last year's, and families become closer, having shared such abundance and joy.

Sadly, that's nowhere near the reality for most of us. An average American family spends $400-$600 on gifts; this doesn't even count the turkey with all the trimmings (which can easily run over $100 to feed a family of four people). The waste created from holiday shopping is tremendous, with plastic clamshell display cases, hundreds of thousands of disposable batteries, discarded food, and balled-up wrapping paper and ribbons ending up in our landfills. And we're not even counting the emotional cost of the holidays. There's the stress of finding the "perfect gift," compounded by dragging our families into chaotic shopping malls where they're tortured by badly recorded carols. There's also the challenge of managing expectations, especially if you have children who have been under fire from advertisers, peer conversations, and store displays featuring glitzy advertising for poorly made (and soon forgotten) toys they hope to find under the tree this year.

Perhaps it's time for us to wake up to a different reality of the holidays -- one that is more sustainable and is closer to our core values than the holidays we've all been taught were ideal. Economically responsible holidays can still be ecologically sound -- and here are some ideas for making your holidays EcoSquared friendly!

  1. Buying locally made (or locally grown) gifts not only supports your local economy and keeps smaller businesses going, it also reduces your gift-giving carbon footprint by avoiding items that have been shipped thousands of miles to get to your door.
  2. Have a localvore holiday feast! Hit up your farmers' markets, organic stores, co-ops, and your own garden for all the fixings for your holiday dinner. This is a perfect time for pumpkins, nuts, beans, grains and root vegetable dishes; and if you don't have a turkey, don't worry.
  3. Declare this year a "Reused" holiday. Visit thrift and consignment shops for your gifts, especially for things that are outgrown quickly (like toys and children's clothing). In one thrift outing last year, I was able to get brand-new (with tags) home décor items for friends, a pair of Fluevog boots, four outfits, and three CDs for under $25. This will please your thrift-minded friends -- many people love to brag about how much money they "saved" by buying used! You can also re-gift items that were given to you in the past, or revitalize and give something that you no longer use, especially if it's not easily affordable or recyclable.
  4. Give donations rather than gifts, especially for family and friends who don't need the basics. Just remember to make the donations in their name, and to choose a charity they would want to support -- especially if there is a cause that is near and dear to their hearts. Don't know what charity to donate to? Send them a card that includes a certificate for a donation to their favorite charity, and ask them to send you the charity's information so that you can arrange it.
  5. Have a "community service" holiday. Pick a local cause your whole family can get involved with for one day -- a shelter or food bank they can work at, an adult living center where you all can volunteer time, or even a neighbor who's been under the weather and needs her yard prepped for the coldest part of the year. Coming together to offer service to your community can bring a family together in ways nothing else can, and it can remind us that putting the focus on giving of ourselves, rather than on getting more "stuff," is healthier for all of us (and the planet).
  6. Use a live tree that can be planted in the yard, or get a tree that can be recycled. Many tree growers offer trees prepped to be planted; just make sure you have the space and understand how to best transplant the tree after you've taken it home. Also, many jurisdictions offer pickup of trees after the holidays, or give you a chance to bring in the tree for chipping (and take home some of the chips to use as mulch in your yard). Even better, pick a live tree already in your yard and decorate it for the whole neighborhood to enjoy, and skip the cost of a tree altogether.
  7. Don't buy gift wrap. Many gifts don't need to be wrapped -- a bottle of wine from a local vineyard is beautiful all by itself. You can also make your own gift wrap out of used and outdated paper maps, hand-painted or hand-stamped butcher's paper (you can get the kids to make this for the family's gifts), or even fabric scraps or bandannas. You can also use part of the gift as the wrapping paper -- a kitchen towel with a loaf of bread inside, or a washcloth that bundles hand-made soaps, are both attractive and useful.
  8. Make all your holiday gifts -- even if you don't have any craft skills, a gift that is created by hand can make a heartfelt addition to the recipient's holiday. Food is always a wonderful gift, especially for people who are hard to shop for! Other sure winners are photo albums or scrapbooks (especially for those with extended families and faraway friends), compost/gardening tools for urban and suburban gardeners, and certificates to use your skills to help with repairs or upgrades around the house.
  9. Skip "all the trimmings" -- you don't need 18 side dishes for a table of four! The average holiday dinner chimes in at well over 3,000 calories, so making a reasonably healthy meal with a few added treats is better for our bodies, our wallets, and the planet.
  10. Purchase memberships for co-ops or CSAs. The gift of a CSA share can be incredibly useful for larger households and might even turn them on to the benefits of a locally grown food source. For smaller households, a co-op membership or partial CSA share can ensure they have access to high quality, locally and/or organically grown foods without overfilling their pantries (and potentially creating more food waste).
  11. Share some of your time. Possibly the most valuable gift we can give is the gift of our time, and it's the one gift that everyone appreciates. Babysitting, pet care, house cleaning, or even just helping to plant a garden or repaint a kitchen can be amazing gifts to a overworked, under-funded, busy person.

Regardless of how you spend the holidays, remember that the ideal holiday is nothing other than having the opportunity to show your family, friends and greater community the love, respect and joy you wish them every day throughout the year. So choose your actions to match your intention that we all live in ways that are accessible to all people and create a healthier planet in the years to come.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card


Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.