Better Gifts for a Smaller Footprint

presents

The holidays present a whole different set of circumstances compared to daily life, so they also come with a whole different set of sustainability challenges. Top among these after  travel and food (see my previous post) is gift-giving. Recycled wrapping paper or reusable gift bags are great, but be sure the gift in that wrapping takes sustainability into account too.

Here are some tips for carbon-smart gifting:

Start early!
Early planning alone can save both carbon and money. By giving ourselves time to work out good options in advanc, we can avoid unwanted or wasteful gifts as well as rush shipping and other flailing around. In this instance (and many others, as it turns out), organizing and planning make for more affordable, more sustainable presents.

Make sure your gift will be used
In measuring the emissions of a gift in proportion to how much happiness it brings, the biggest loser is a gift that isn’t used at all. We’ve all gotten (and given) them: whether a seemingly genius idea that didn’t pan out or a gift bought at the last minute in desparation, a present that isn’t used damages the climate without helping anyone. Even a returnable present often feels bad to the recipient while creating more travel and/or shipping, which has its own footprint.

Some ways to ensure a gift isn’t a duplicate or a misfire include discussing it with someone else close to the recipient, erring on the side of conservative gift-choosing (for instance, with gift certificates), or even involving the recipient in the gift choice. I know it’s traditional (and fun) for gifts to be surprises, but both as a gift giver and a gift getter, personally I’d be much happier about a gift that’s a hit but not a surprise than a gift that’s unexpected but a flop.

The driving gotcha
Think twice about gifts that involve much driving, whether it’s you getting the gift or the recipient using it. On top of the gift itself, the extra driving creates a bigger negative impact on carbon footprint that’s easy to miss or discount. Since travel is the number one source of emissions for individuals and households, it’s entirely possible to give a gift that has a much bigger impact in terms of driving than is embodied in the gift itself.

Of course, not all driving raises a gift’s impact. For example, if you pick up a gift while driving but are combining that errand with others, the extra driving attributable to that particular gift is lessened or eliminated. Similarly, if the gift-getter is already going to do the driving your gift would entail (for instance, you buy a ski pass for someone you know already plans to go skiing), driving again stops being an issue.

Types of presents
Some categories of gifts, such as electronics, tend to have a much worse impact than others. Even some seemingly-harmless gifts, like clothing and shoes, can come with a heavy climate toll. Here are some ways to approach more sustainable gift choices:

  • Favor gifts that will be used more. An item that is seldom used, even if it’s enjoyed when it is used, is contributing much less for its cost in carbon than something that’s used regularly.
  • Favor gifts of necessities over luxuries. A gift that solves a problem is not only welcome, but also does a much better job of justifying its climate impact.
  • Steer clear of upgraded replacements. For instance, a slightly newer, slightly better smart phone as a gift wastes much of the carbon cost of manufacturing the phone that’s already in use.
  • Prize quality. With so many things so easily replaceable these days, we tend to think of quality as an indulgence. In fact, a durable, high-quality item will often pay for itself much better over time than a cheap item that will wear out and need to be replaced.

Used = more delight for the recipient, less trouble for the climate
My son is interested in animation, and for his recent birthday we bought him a high-quality graphics tablet, the kind of device animators connect to computers and draw on to create their art. There’s no way we could have afforded it if we’d tried to get him a brand-new one, and the climate impact of electronic devices in general is often terrible. Buy buying him a used unit from a reputable seller, we not only got him a much bigger gift than we otherwise could have–one he’ll have a real use for–but we also avoided buying something that had to be manufactured just for him.

Buying used goods doesn’t usually make for a zero carbon footprint, even if we disregard shipping. It’s always possible that if we hadn’t bought that graphics tablet, someone else would have who instead decided to buy a brand-new one. At the same time, it’s also possible that by buying that graphics tablet, we contributed enough to the demand for used items like that that somebody somewhere took one out of the closet and dusted it off for resale rather than letting it sit unused. On average, the impact of buying a used item will be significantly less than that of buying a new item, just not zero.

It’s true that some people may be put off by getting or giving used gifts. We certainly tend to prize the new and shiny in our culture. However, I think we can consider this more reason to give used gifts, not less. If we want to reduce waste and therefore climate change damage in our culture, we need to get used to fixing things, reusing things, and sharing things rather than insisting that everything we have be the latest, private to us, and previously untouched by human hands. Buying used has its limitations, but by encouraging reuse, we help to change both our own and the gift recipient’s ways of approaching consumer goods … for the better.

Photo by Liz Brooks